Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Review - Antichrist

You have to hand it to Lars von Trier, the man knows how to make waves, and with his new film Antichrist, the director has whipped up a tsunami. The film's debut in Cannes achieved instant infamy, the screening being marked by walkouts, fainting, booing, catcalls and even the odd smattering of applause. No other film in competition met with such a divisive reaction, and at the press conference that followed, von Trier incurred the critics' wrath even further by announcing himself as "The best director in the world." It's hard to know whether the director was being serious or tongue-in-cheek in making such a grand proclamation, and it begs the question: how seriously should we take Antichrist? Is it, as the director has claimed, the most important film of his career, or is this incorrigible provocateur just fucking with us one more time?

Either way, von Trier wants to provoke a reaction, and the press have given him exactly what he wants, although most of the articles slamming Antichrist are the sort of idiotic caterwauling it's blessedly easy to ignore. However, despite the best efforts of self-appointed moral guardians everywhere, the film is not that easy to dismiss, and to do so would involve overlooking the extraordinary skill with which it has been made, and denying the fact that it has got under my skin, and inside my head, in a way very few films have managed in recent years. Some reviewers have suggested von Trier, who wrote the film while in the midst of depression, has lost his mind, and doesn't know what he's doing, but such a glib conclusion is ridiculous. I get the feeling von Trier knows exactly what he's doing with Antichrist, and it's up to the rest of us to figure it out.

The first suggestion that this may all be some kind of self-regarding joke occurs right at the start, when the opening credits simply read Lars von Trier and then Antichrist, as if the director is saying, "That's me!" The film then segues into a sequence shot in the ostentatiously beautiful style of a perfume commercial, with a man (Willem Dafoe) and a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) having ecstatic, explicit sex in the shower and then the bedroom. As they make love, their young son crawls out of his crib and, mesmerised as we are by the snowflakes outside the open window, falls to his death. It is a stunning sequence, filmed in glossy black-and-white, with the slow-motion images scored to a moving Handel aria, and this is only the beginning of the film's visual wonders. With Antichrist, Anthony Dod Mantle has produced some of the most breathtakingly beautiful cinematography imaginable. From one scene to the next, he fills the frame with endlessly rich and atmospheric images; images which have haunted me ever since I saw the film.

Most of those images come later in the picture, after the two lead characters have decided to deal with their grief by leaving the city for their cabin in the woods, a small idyll they call Eden. The female lead, known only as She, is devastated by their loss, breaking down at the funeral and spending time in a psychiatric ward to recover. Her controlling, rational husband worries that she is being prescribed too much medication, and as a therapist, he believes that the only way to overcome her pain is to deal with it head-on, confronting her fears. The film becomes a battleground between his rational approach and her increasingly irrational misery, and after they have arrived at Eden, the scales of power begin to tip in her favour. From the moment they set foot in the woods, Dafoe starts seeing suggestions of death and pain everywhere, and nature itself becomes a significant character in the film, growing increasingly hostile as acorns rain down relentlessly on the cabin roof, and leeches attach themselves to Dafoe's hand as he sleeps. When Gainsbourg walks on the grass she screams that the ground is burning, and as she moves through the forest the greenery behind her seems to distort in an insidiously unsettling way. "Nature is Satan's church," she mysteriously announces, and in this setting, von Trier and Mantle create an almost unbearable atmosphere of slowly enveloping dread.

And then there's the violence, although there's not quite as much of it as you might think. From the attention that has been paid to Antichrist's most notoriously bloody scenes, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the film is one long orgy of genital slicing. This is far from the case. Those scenes are simply the grand guignol climax to a film in which sexuality and violence are intrinsically linked – as they are in most horror films – and as difficult as they are to watch, they are no more obscene in context than any of the violence perpetrated in any standard entry in this genre. In any case, what has really stayed with me from Antichrist, far more than any act of physical violence, is the film's lacerating emotional violence. The performances from Dafoe and Gainsbourg are faultless, and while it's unfair that Dafoe's understated work in this film seems destined to be overlooked, it's impossible not be dazzled by the sheer courage and raw, almost feral nature of Gainsbourg's performance. She seems to complete inhabit her grieving character and the way she expresses her agony, and her increasingly unbridled sexual hysteria, is stunningly authentic.

Von Trier takes his cues from this character; the film grows more perverse and irrational as she does, which makes it hard to pin down exactly what he's trying to get at with the film, and many of the ideas that he throws into Antichrist's thematically dense mix admittedly seem to be half-formed and poorly conceived. I'm not sure about the link he seems to be making between female sexuality and the inherent darkness of nature, or whether he sees violence inflicted upon Dafoe as punishment for his arrogance, or how some of his more outré visual ideas fit together as part of the overall piece. But I suppose that's the nature of a film written in a fevered state by a man in the grip of clinical depression; it is as if von Trier has thrown all of his obsessions and ideas at this project in an effort to expunge himself of them, and has shaped them into a horror movie worthy of the name. All I can say in response is that Antichrist gripped me, disturbed me and moved me in the kind of visceral manner I haven't experienced since Gaspar Noé's Irréversible; it is an experience both horrifying and exhilarating. The best director in the world? Perhaps not, but Lars von Trier is unquestionably one of contemporary cinema's most daring, versatile and fascinating artists, and whatever his true motivation behind Antichrist, it is a staggering work of art.