One of my favorite moviegoing experiences occurred when I lived in San Jose, CA, and decided one weeknight to see Lars von Trier’s Zentropa (1991). The Danish filmmaker and provocateur was pretty much unknown to me, but I was absorbed by the clever gamesmanship and look-at-me stylization of the production. Not everyone was. “This is the worst film I’ve ever seen!” cat-called one viewer, to general laughter. “No it isn’t, it’s brilliant!” countered another, to which I added my two cents. This went back and forth for several amusing, agreeable minutes, and afterwards everyone met in the lobby to talk it over.
Since then I’ve pretty much been on the other side of the fence, finding von Trier trying. I did enjoy the supernatural satire of his two-season Kingdom TV show, which Stephen King did not improve upon for US viewers. But the Oscar-nominated Breaking the Waves (1996) made me seasick, and don’t get me started on his alleged musical Dancer in the Dark, with the ever-glamorous Catherine Deneuve in a kerchief as an oppressed factory worker, and Bjork so terrorized on-set she ate a sweater between takes (Cannes ate it up, and von Trier and Bjotk split an Oscar nom for best song, the aptly titled “I’ve Seen it All”). The Brechtian Dogville (2003) was another exception, marred by closing credits that suddenly underlined everything that had been fascinatingly submerged in its seamy portrait of an America he has never visited (intensely phobic, he doesn’t get out much)—the awful sequel, Manderlay (2005), was essentially that condemnatory coda extended by 135 minutes. So I didn’t know what to think when, after an intense period of depression, von Trier announced his return with a horror movie, Antichrist, which expands its run this Halloween weekend (and is also available on IFC on Demand).
Antichrist puts the “porn” in “torture porn.” It’s explicit, ridiculous, and infuriating. And also beautiful. One of the best films of the year—and maybe one of the worst, the dividing point is very fine—I emerged from it with my head cleared. Whatever else was on my mind has been temporarily erased. A chunk of the audience hooted it down, and I knew where they were coming from. Von Trier is a world-class mindfucker who does nothing in half-measures, which is a gift and a curse all at once.
The film begins with thrashing sex, complete with hardcore insert shots (which are, as it happens, vital to the story). Stunningly shot in slowed-down black-and-white by Anthony Dod Mantle (this year’s Academy Award winner for Slumdog Millionaire), the sequence is set to high-church Handel music, and is as artfully paced and composed as one of Brian De Palma’s filmic arias. (The movie credits a “horror movie researcher,” one of several researchers on the project—the credit made my audience giggle, but he did his job well, with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion also checklisted in a borrow-from-the-best way.) The bathroom coupling of stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg includes a toothbrush being knocked to the floor in slo-mo, the sort of thing that perfectionist De Palma would have reshot, but von Trier lets ride, no matter that it’s silly. Anyway it’s not the point. As they grapple, their son hops out of his crib in his room, walks to the window, and plunges to his death.
Thereafter Dod Mantle’s cinematography switches to a pallid color, the hues of grief and regret. The nameless husband and wife try to cope, but flounder. He, a therapist, tries to get her to face her deepest fears; she resists. But to continue their unorthodox therapy she agrees to accompany him to their cabin in the forest of “Eden,” where the previous summer she was developing a thesis on gynocide (the mass killing of women, as in witch hunts). Though set outside Seattle, the film was shot in Germany, in a fairy-tale forest, and there are dream-like sequences as voluptuous as any ever devised.
Yes, Eden: the movie is awash in the symbols the therapist discredits. Nature itself seems to be in revolt, as the trees crash about, acorns rain down, and the animals act—unusually. In the scene that came to define the movie when it was shown to an uproarious crowd at the Cannes Film Festival, a fox that is chewing on its own innards turns to Dafoe and hisses, “Chaos reigns.”
Ever the self-promoter, Von Trier seems to enjoy that the scene has become creepy camp—whatever gets paying customers. But I find that attitude annoying—if you’re going to put a talking fox in your movie, and it’s not a stop-motion figure that’s speaking with George Clooney’s voice, you should defend it unto death artistically. But perhaps its presence is a tactic, to disarm us for the next, upsetting developments, which Dafoe and particularly Gainsbourg, a usually wan actress-singer whose marble-mouthed performances (as in 21 Grams and I’m Not There) I’ve never really cottoned to, bravely enact.
Von Trier is tough on women, what with the crazy plights he cooks up for them, but he empathizes with them and the performers tend to come through for him. Gainsbourg won the best actress award at Cannes, as much as anything for sheer willingness to do shocking things on camera, which helped her co-star win a spot on New York magazine’s “Ten Most Brutalized Wangs in Movie History” list; what she does to herself is equally unspeakable. The return to (groan) Eden struck the Catholic in me, however, as a mystic attempt to reverse the effects of original sin, all wrapped up in a female-centric vision that recalls the witchy mythology of Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy. Unmoved by this, or von Trier’s ham-fisted use of subliminal imagery, stilted dialogue, and other irritants—the movie is bigger on overarching themes than scares, which annoys some genre buffs—you might just react as if bad chili had been consumed. But I hung in there, and found Antichrist difficult to dismiss, or ignore. The exasperating Lars von Trier, put-on artist, faker, and flaky visionary, had me again, the bastard.