Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Antichrist: Dragging me to Hell

I don’t get Lars von Trier…let’s just get that fact out of the way from the onset. I’ve never liked his amateur style and musings on big ideas. His Dogma rules of filmmaking are a joke, a list of restrictions that act as a cop-out for his stale style. However, I must admit that von Trier’s newest film looks great, something that I never thought I would find myself saying. Another bit of good news: von Trier, it seems, has learned how to make a movie less than two hours. The bad news: it doesn’t make Antichrist any less excruciating, maddening, inane, and downright silly than his 150+ minute shit sandwiches like Dancer in the Dark or Dogville. This is one of the silliest movies of the year.

Now that I’ve alienated all of my readers who liked this movie let me give a brief plot synopsis and then be done with this movie because I’d like to move on to talking about a more positive film-going experience. The film is about two characters, He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who have a night of good ‘ol fashioned sex. The only problem is that their child has climbed out of his crib and onto the window ledge…then he falls to his death. All of this is done with an élan not found in von Trier’s films: the film opens in black and white and looks gorgeous (a first for von Trier), the opening scene nicely uses a bit of opera music as He and She have sex, and their child’s death is juxtaposed by the beautiful snow fall outside. As the aria hits its crescendo, She climaxes and a look of concern crosses her face. This opening was the last moment of the film where I actually was interested in what was going on.

You see, I get tired of von Trier’s “playfulness” in his films. He bludgeons the viewer over the head with his symbolism and it’s annoying as hell. Here, in the opening moments when the child is climbing out of the window, we see three statues that say: pain, grief, and despair. The child knocks them off the table on his way out the window, and I immediately knew von Trier was going to use those words as his annoying title cards. And sure enough he did.

Back to the story: He thinks he can help She, and She doesn’t want his help because she thinks she’s responsible for their child’s death because she is a woman. Get it? You see, She has been studying witchcraft and the idea that women are inherently evil…He thinks his psychobabble can save her and suggests they take a journey to a cabin in the woods where he can dig deeper into her grief…which leads to despair…which leads to a whole lot of crazy, inane stuff that happens in the third act.

Watching a von Trier film is about one of the worst experiences I can think of because there’s never enough on the screen to keep me interested in plodding stories that aesthetically contain nothing visceral. However, in Antichrist he does film an art house horror film that looks pretty damn good. The set design, especially when He and She go to a cabin in the woods (and yes it is called Eden…oh, von Trier, do you really think that’s clever?) is impressive, too. What’s not impressive is the way von Trier drags his actors through so much shit (and to no one’s surprise he places extra emphasis on this with his female character) without anything to show for it. The “themes” or “allegories” are immediately dismissed because they’re presented in such an impossibly ridiculous and outlandish way (seriously, there’s a talking fox in this movie). He doesn’t give his actors much to do…Dafoe spends the first half of the film uttering psychobabble and being one of the most unlikable characters I’ve seen in a long time, Gainsbourg walks around naked a lot, and the two go back and forth between fighting and having sex so many times that I just wanted the whole ordeal to be over at the 30 minute mark.

I guess the film could have worked as a dark comedy/horror film like The Shining (which I think might be what von Trier’s going for with the cabin in the woods and all the madness that follows He and She going to the cabin), or as an exploitation movie (but really does showing us intercourse – penis-in-vagina and all – and slapping women during sex seem daringly "shocking" anymore?); but when it’s all said and done it just seems old hat for von Trier. Nothing shocked me because it’s von Trier…does he not understand that we’re all onto his game, and that it’s a horrible, downright sullen and nihilistic game that no one is interested in? If his point was to test the audience’s endurance, to see how far his acolytes would go in praising his work – even if it is vile and excruciating to get through – then congratulations, Lars, you’ve made your masterpiece.

I don’t care if that’s what von Trier was going for, film shouldn’t be an endurance test. If he wanted to make a straight horror film filled with surreal moments, then maybe I would have bought that third chapter; but dear Christ nothing that happens before that suggests that von Trier is joking, here. There may be deeper themes at work, but I was too disinterested to go explicating for them; as usual von Trier’s misanthropy get in the way of trying to sift through the themes of his films, and finding out just what the hell it is he is trying to saying.

I’ll end with a quote from Tim’s review that can be found on his blog Antagony & Ecstasy:

The whole thing just doesn't add up to more than an elaborate punking, and I think what bothers me is that I don't understand who it is that's being punked. The director's detractors? His fans? Charlotte Gainsbourg? I can say with certainty that the movie's philosophy is nearly as facile as its exploitation, which leaves us with something too thin-blooded to be taken seriously on any level, yet at the same time something far too aggressively nasty in every way to laugh at. It's a film to be endured, though what benefit comes to the viewer for having endured it, I cannot even begin to imagine.

All I can say to that is something that seems appropriate because I was praying throughout for this film to end…Amen, Tim…amen.


  1. I'd rather be watching the original Antichrist (L'ANTICRISTO, d. Alberto de Martino, 1974) than this one. As piss-poor remakes go, it's down there with CASINO ROYALE.

  2. I'm gratified that you and I are on the same wavelength about this film. Visually arresting? Yes. But extremely immature.

    The most interesting reading of the film I've yet seen is Roger Ebert's. Ebert posits that the film takes place in an anti-universe (because Antichrist cannot coexist with Christ... the same way antimatter cannot coexist with matter [alright, it's a little hokey]), where Nature was created by Satan. Therefore reason (represented by Dafoe's He) is the enemy. And that makes She the heroine in the film.

    Except upon closer scrutiny, it all falls apart. Wouldn't that mean that Nature, as the antithesis of Reason, would be good? And doesn't that contradict the film's assertion that Nature (as it exists in the film) is inherently evil?

    Interesting reading by Ebert, but frankly, I didn't see it on the screen, so I call BULLSHIT!

  3. Dr. Walpurgis:

    I was unaware that this was a remake. Thanks for the info.

  4. Tony:

    We certainly are on the same page. I remember your review and thought about it while I was constructing mine. I think Ebert's thoughts are interesting, but like you, I just don't see it. It's so hard for me to get to that place with von Trier because I feel like he is being repugnant on purpose -- keeping me at arm’s length is what he wants because he knows that if people are to really look deeply at his films they'll find the flimsiest of ideas.

    You're right...these alternate takes are interesting to read, but like you, I call bullshit.

    Ugh, I honestly felt like I needed a shower after watching this movie.

  5. Kevin, as always I respect your opinion immensely, and I furthermore know you have never been a Von Trier fan. Your position here is definitely with the negative side of the sharply divided concensus, but unlike Tony Dayoub and yourself I do not find the film either immature or symbolically heavy-handed. (Tony, the Ebert review your refer to is probably the most favorable review the film has received) I saw this film at the most down moment of my life, but I tried to set that fact apart, and it's true I am a huge Von Trier fan with both DOGVILLE and DANCER IN THE DARK placing #1 in their respective years, and BREAKING THE WAVGES and MANDERLAY making my top ten of their own years. The epilogue with the Handel composition was sublimely beautiful, and Von Trier's thematic presentation is nothing short of brilliant. I can see why you and others would be repulsed and revolted by the film, and as I said earlier I understand it. You are rarely someone who I would say is unfair and dismissive. I will pen my own defense of the film over the weekend, but believe me I know for many Von Trier may have crossed the line here. Your review is frank and uncompromnising, not to mention typically perceptive from where you are coming from, so I can't ask for more than that.

  6. "Watching a von Trier film is about one of the worst experiences I can think of because there’s never enough on the screen to keep me interested in plodding stories that aesthetically contain nothing visceral."

    Kevin, this admission pretty much states your position in regards to the filmmaker, but it's fair enough. I love Von trier, but much of this is taste. i have never been so pompous as to pose that not liking him is not getting him. But I will admit few filmmakers have been this extreme in showcasing human depravity to make their point.

    As far as Ms. Gainsbourg, her Cannes Festival winning turn was gutsy and downright brilliant. Even opponents of the filmseem to have acknowledged this.

  7. Sam, I look forward to your, no doubt, insightful defense of the film. Just to clarify, I actually tend to favor von Trier (Dogville is one of my favorites of the decade), but I think he just went for easy shocks here, instead of taking on one of his, usually self-imposed, artistic challenges. I still find a lot to recommend in this film. I don't despise it. But if I had to put it in easier terms to quantify, I'd give it a 2 out of 5.

  8. I enjoyed Dancer in the Dark, thought it was a fantastic film and a great achievement, that whole thing with putting a gazillion cameras all over the place was awesome. And Bjorks performance blew me away.

    I enjoy films that are symbolic in nature, love figuring out what a director is trying to say with the images. Its a kind of movie I enjoy watching because its as if the movie was talking, but without words, its just the visuals that do it. Kind of like watching a film by Andrei Tarkovsky.

    I havent seen Antichrist, but Im looking forward to it. I know its gonna be one of these ultra artsy fartsy movies. Ive heard both praises and hateful reviews for it, so I guess its one of those films that polarizes the audience, youll either really love it, or youll really hate it.

  9. I disagree. I think the MSM has done more to perpetuate the myth that this film is polarizing than any film writers I truly respect.

    I think that most of these writers find the film just "kinda good" or "kinda bad." In many ways, that mediocrity is much more of an indictment of von Trier, than polarization would be.

  10. Fair enough Tony and thanks very much for the kinds words of expectation for my weekend review of the film that is forthcoming. However, I do believe that the critical concensus has proven that the film has polarized critics, even those like yourself who have found much to praise in Von Trier's prior work. What it all comes down to is how willing one is to allow this startling and ultra-disturbing material stand as some kind of artistic statement. i was revulsed like never before in my cinematic life, but I was nonetheless stunned and convinced that thematically this was a work of art in the best sense. In fact at this point, I'd rank it maybe #2 of 2009 behind only Jane Campion's BRIGHT STAR. But I aim to see it a second time.

    Glad to read what The Film Connoisseur says there.

  11. Sam:

    I was hoping you would stop and leave your thoughts. I thought about your take on the film and your love for von Trier as I was writing this, so I'm glad you chimed in. I think it is a matter of taste, and no matter how hard I try I just cannot get into von Trier...but at least I'm giving his films a shot right?

    I stated this in the TOERIFC a few months back when we discussed Dancer in the Dark: you may not like von Trier (which I certainly don't), but it's damn hard to ignore him. Some of his stuff to me just seems so extreme that soils his own intent...again, had Antichrist been a straight horror movie, or a dark comedy I may have been along for the ride, but the usual von Trier misanthropy kept me from investing anything emotional into the film.

    There's no doubt that the opening of the film is the finest thing von Trier has ever filmed. It's also the most heavy handed and MELOdramatic...I mean it's more over-the-top in the melodrama department than all of Dancer in the Dark...but it kind of works, and the black and white is beautiful (as is the opera piece that accompanies it).

    So, I know we'll just have to disagree on this one, Sam. Hehe. I look forward to reading your defense, of course.

  12. Tony and Sam:

    Yes...I am pretty damn harsh (maybe brutal is a more appropriate word) on this movie, but that's only because von Trier was pretty damn harsh with me. I didn't feel like his big grandiose themes were being backed up by what I was seeing on screen, so I let him have it in the review. I'm with Tony, though, I think there is a least something to recommend in this film (the opening), but using Tony's scale of stating this more easily I would give the film a 1.5 out 5.

  13. Film Connoisseur:

    In Tim Brayton's review that I link to he actually rails against von Trier for putting him into even more of a bad mood by dedicating the film to Tarkovsky...stating:

    [Tarkovsky] could have outdone von Trier's freshman-level religious symbolism blindfolded with both of his hands cut off.

    I'm not a huge Tarkovsky fan...but I have to agree with Tim on this one. But that does seem like what von Trier was going for here. More maybe something even extreme and surreal like Salo, another film I've never quite understood (except for its cult status as being an arty exploitation movie).

    I look forward to your thoughts on the movie. Thanks for stopping by.

  14. Sam:

    Sorry, I forgot one last thing:

    The performances here are good...you're right that Gainsbourg gives it her all, but for me that's always been the norm with a von Trier film; whether it be Emily Watson, Bjork, Nicole Kidman...it doesn't seem to matter what film he's making, von Trier is always (in my opinion) getting bailed out by his actresses. I've always stood by the opinion that Breaking the Waves is better than it has any right to be because of Emily Watson's performance.

    I think that may be the only von Trier I've tolerated, and I think it's one of those rare films (like Million Dollar Baby to name a recent one) that succeeds in spite of the stories failures. I rarely rank movies in a top ten based just on performances, but I would with Breaking the Waves (and I did last year with Frozen River). I can say what I want about von Trier, but he can elicit great performances from his female actors...which just seems odd to me because he's always putting them through so much shit.

  15. Keven, finally something we disagree on. I've stated elsewhere that I think this is the film of the year thus far, and that Von Trier may be--if push came to shove--my favorite director working today. I adore his work.

    So you don't like some of his more Dogme-95ish stuff. I wonder what your take is on his 'straighter' stuff (at least cinema-wise). 'The Element of Crime' and (specifically) 'Europa/Zentropa' I'm not sure how ANY film fan can not like that one. I actually count 'Europa/Zentropa' to be in my 20 or so favorite films of all time, I think it's that mesmerizing. 'Dogville' is also a pretty monumental achievement.

    To each his own. I will say 'Antichrist' to me shares most in common with Polanski's 'Repulsion'.

  16. Jamie:

    To each his own, indeed! Hehe. I know a lot of people who I admire deeply love von Trier's work...he's just never done it for me. Something isn't clicking for me when I sit down to watch one of his movies. However, I'm always willing to give him a shot (although whether my preconceived dislike of him trickles into my "fresh" viewing experience of one of his films is up for debate), and I often find myself looking forward, in a kind of perverse way, to whatever he brings to the table...because I know it's sure to be "out there".

    I haven't seen von Trier's earlier work...I started at Breaking the Waves and have moved chronologically through his films from there. Based on Sam's love of the man and your recommendation for Europa/Zentropa (which I've always heard are quite good...I just haven't gotten around to watching them) I will have to check out his earlier work.

    I think we can all think of a director or two that just doesn't seem compatible with us, and for me it's von Trier. Do you have a link to your review? I'd love to post it on here along with Sam's and then contrasts that with some links from people who didn't like the movie.

    That goes for others (if you're still reading this thread)...send me your links to your Antichrist reviews and I will set up some links showcasing the varying opinions on this film.

    Thanks, as always, for commenting, Jaime. Always great to have you around here.

  17. Wait, so Trier dedicated Antichrist to Tarkovsky? I wasnt aware of that, but I guess it shows, they are both on the same level I guess.

    Or at least Trier wants to be on the same level of Tarkovsky.

    Watching a Tarkovsky film is a task, its very difficult to get through them on one sitting alone...Im not the biggest fan either, but I do enjoy trying to figure what his trying to say, however difficult it may be to watch his films.

    My main gripe with Tarkovsky is pacing.

  18. That's my main gripe, too. I've just never been able to get into one of his movies...although I can see why he's somewhat of a sacred cow.

  19. I have not seen Antichrist yet though I must admit it's very much piqued my interest. I've still not gotten over Dancer in the Dark though, a film whose director inexplicably pitted himself against his own story, crafting a tortured, affecting portrait of a kind but naive woman and then stomping on her as if she were the most evil creature who ever lived. I very much enjoyed Breaking the Waves, but Dancer turned me off Von Trier just as quickly as I became a fan.

    I still intend to see this, though.

  20. Jake:

    Come back and let me know what you thought of the film. I'm with ya all the way on Dancer in the Dark.