Friday, October 23, 2009

ANTICHRIST: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Director: Lars von Trier
Runtime: 104 min.
Verdict: An alright film that has gained notoriety for something we shall find again this Halloween. In Saw VI. And no, Trier is not the biggest filmmaker on the planet. He is far from it.
Genre: Horror, Drama

        I never do this. It is against my principles. It is beneath me. But I shall. For I’m greatly disappointed. And disgusted. Not because of the goriness of Mr. Trier’s infamous graphic images, which frankly are ludicrously funny. In a dismissive sort of way. They seem to be appended with obvious calculations to perpetuate pseudo-intellectual mumbo-jumbo, to what could have been a deeply spiritual film. The final forty minutes betray what I dislike most about the filmmaker. His rather perverse sense of showmanship. And although the entire film itself is tending towards an imagery that leaves little room for life to breathe, they still evoke a sense of emotion that is absolutely non-existent in the film’s second half, and which is quite frankly Saw material. No more, and no less. Okay, maybe less on a gory level. But not more on any artistic level.
        So I shall. Describe to you everything that happens in the final forty minutes, so that, my dear reader, you’re in full knowledge what loony sadism you’re signing up for. Sadism that is pandered as symbol embellished imagery. So here it is –

              He (Mr. Dafoe) retreats into a cabin, slowly realizing the extent of the depth of She’s (Ms. Gainsbourg) beliefs, beliefs I would leave to discover. She fears he would leave her, and attacks him from behind. She slams what seems like a heavy slab (or a block of wood) into his groin, and renders him momentarily unconscious. Yet, surprisingly, he manages an erection. She masturbates him until he squirts blood, after which she drills a hole through his left leg. She pulls out a grindstone, and by using a spanner bolts it through his leg. So that he is anchored to base. She then throws the spanner somewhere below the house. Sometime later, he wakes up, throws out screams of pain (which, by the way, don’t feel even remotely convincing) and drags his way onto the nearby woods, and into a foxhole. He hides. By the grace of almighty he has a match in handy in his pocket. He lights. She is screaming for him outside, searching. He digs. Finds a crow. Buried. It caws. Loudly. She hears. He beats it a thousand times with a stone. It still caws. She finds him, and tries to pull him out, and fails, and ends up covering the foxhole with a boulder. She then starts digging. Night falls. She digs him out. They drag to their little house. There she waits for the Three Beggars (The Fox, The Deer and The Crow) and then lies beside him, reminisces the tragedy in a melancholic flashback, and cuts off her clitoris. This severance supposedly designed to be the crescendo. While she lay in pain, he manages to unbolt the grindstone, and then he strangles her.
        Now, this is the unnecessary and flaunty part of Antichrist, which in no way benefits the film. At least not from where I see it, and how I perceive it. For the first hour or so, Antichrist witnesses a near brilliant display of formalism, at least tending to if not reaching, Tarkovskian heights of metaphysical portrayal. There are manifestations all around, yet Mr. Trier, as he has done in all his films, plays safe. He doesn’t put himself on the line, something which Tarkovsky and the early Martin Scorsese would always do. When one puts himself on the line, art is born. When filmmakers like Mr. Trier indulge in pseudo-academic hollow-talk, pretension is born. Mr. Trier dedicates his film to Andrei Tarkovsky, and when that piece of knowledge appeared on screen at the beginning of the end credits, I would be lying if I do not say I was furious. I still am. Apparently Mr. Trier also had The Mirror as essential viewing for the two actors. In hindsight, it is mildly insulting. Mr. Trier might have gained command over the technical usage of capturing the life in nature, but he sure as hell doesn’t have the least bit of idea to what ends he use it to. He deals in symbols, his images built around a specific ideology, which he intends to hammer into us not via emotion or experience, but through a design which overexplains itself. That is why they do not have much room to evoke any response from us, and they end up being informative. Tarkovsky, on the other hand, always dismissed the usage of symbols, and more importantly believed in the purity of an image, and the emotion it evokes. Not it’s meaning. An image is nothing if it has only a meaning, for we all have our own experiences and our own cultures, and we bring to image different personalities. Mr. Trier does capture the menace of nature, quite brilliantly, but only for shallow ends professing mock ideas.
        I say brilliantly. And I speak of the very first shot, captured in slow motion, and black and white. I believe, aesthetically, it is the perfect choice, to capture that moment of carnal temptation, which He and She are indulging in fulfilling, whilst their little child, Nick, manages to walk out of the crib with his soft toy, fascinated by the snow outside. He climbs a table, and in his attempt to grab a snow flake, falls off the window. Him first, and several moments later, the soft toy. Yet, I do not feel anything. I do not feel any emotion. Let us, for sake of references, invoke Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman from Notorious and their most charmingly erotic kissing scene. Now, Hitchcock’s film worked, because – (a) He gave his actors room for breathing space, wherein their act was not the focus, but the people were, and (b) shot in black and white, and lit flatteringly, it was just about the most romantic cinema can ever hope to get. But Mr. Trier focuses on the acts, rather than on the people, for his people are no more than puppets for him. And we as audiences start churning out ridiculous jokes or hollow ironies, all of them ham-fisted. I’m not sure that is how Tarkovsky’s vision of cinema was supposed to be. As little Nick is falling off the window, the carnal pleasures reaches its crescendo. He falls to the ground, and She reaches her climax. That is horrible hammering of ideas for you, none subtle, and none too insightful. And what was I thinking the whole time. That the sequence might be wrong on physics, because you know, as Galileo proved from Pisa, things fall together to the ground. And yeah, the toy isn’t soft enough to enjoy a free float in the air. The problem is – why was the film letting me have these thoughts while such an obviously tragic scene was unfolding. And make no mistake – there is no truth in those images, all edited with great calculation, and a smug degree of cynicism. It is, as if, Mr. Trier is so drunk in his illusions of greatness, that he believes he is nailing all the various poetic facets of life – irony, fate – and he is making sure you don’t miss that. As an audience, it is uninteresting, because these facets always seem to be quite obvious.
        Now, the movie is structured into three chapters – Pain, Grief and Despair – and an epilogue, though it is not so much as structured as segregated into these three slots, the segregation between two slots inserted during the course of a scene, and often during the same shot. It is during Grief that Antichrist comes into its own, where the preceding film has had some kind of a psychological and emotional impact on us, and as the couple experience therapy during long nights, or they walk through the woods, we feel a menace creeping around them. And here I seem to disagree with everybody’s reading of the He character, for the way I see it, he represents everything that is good around us. Or everything in us that God deems agreeable. In many ways He represents a Nietzschian notion, where he is able to overcome his intense pain. Cue: He is distraught as they walk behind the coffin, and She faints. It is an interesting moment, because this is where He assumes the responsibility and rises over the confines of his own emotions, for the sake of himself and his wife. Roger Ebert, in his blog entry here, seems to have interpreted the tone of his character quite differently when he states –

              I suspect many of the reviews will focus on the physical violence She inflicts upon He in the next act of the film. It is important to note that the earlier psychological violence He inflicts is equally brutal. He talks and talks, boring away at her defenses, tearing at her psyche, exposing her. Listen to Dafoe's voice in the trailer linked below. It could be used for Satan's temptation of Christ in the desert.

        I disagree, but I wouldn’t want to argue, for this is tonal interpretations we’re talking about. He, from my vantage point, isn’t cold, and his therapy for sure isn’t anti-septic. There is genuine warmth in those scenes, and one feels some kind of true love in there, where he is trying to clear the muddle of her thoughts, is trying to truly help her, and is not falling to petty or adolescent or liberal temptations and trying to band-aid her trauma. He is going about the true way, and the hard way, and that requires a pain and a sacrifice of much greater proportions. I think most people might be mistaking sincerity for arrogance. That is why I believe, He is a representation of God, or in biblical terms, The Christ. I think the drill through his leg, indicating some kind of crucifixion, might be a symbol Mr. Trier is hammering on us. But then, I have never been good with symbols, you see.
        And they don’t matter much either, in my view of cinema. It is the themes that do, and in many ways, Antichrist is a reflection on the same themes that film noir so gloriously drill down and package in so fascinatingly layered films. Chinatown, for one. Memento, for another. It is important to note that Mr. Trier’s film is a product of a severe depression, and he wants to draw our gaze upon the idea that humanity, by its very nature, is evil. If not in reality, at least cinematically. I kinda like that, for this where I believe the film at least earns the catholic prefix of its title. It is anti to every film of hope and goodness that has been made – from Schindler’s List to you name them. I might be making Antichrist sound as some kind of great film, and it is not. It is a minor film, very minor, and I re-iterate – just about on the same level as those Saw movies, for it goes about proving its themes in just about the same artificial way, and its inferences sound just as hollow, as those celebration-of-human-spirit movies. What it does portray – that we all have evil amongst us, and we’re capable of actions way beyond what we intend to acknowledge – is although a true thought, falls terribly flat because of Mr. Trier’s ambitions of grandeur – not to make a true work of art, as much as make a work of art. His courage is all so calculated. Antichrist, in many ways, is Mulholland Dr. stripped off its more contradictory and personal human emotions, and twisted into revealing some false monotonic spiritual ones. And when I say contradictory, I mean that in the best possible way, for we humans are no more than a bunch of contradictions. Look no further than Martin Scorsese, and Taxi Driver, to discover an honest film, from a filmmaker who is ready to put himself on the line and is not scared to expose himself and confess. That is a true film, a real film, about the Christ and the Antichrist, in all of us, and how one affects the other. It is simple you see. You have a depression or not, I don’t care. As long as you are making some kind of commentary on humanity, don’t try to make a great film. Make a true film. Greatness will then take care of itself.
        Ah yes, one last thing. Even during these scenes during the woods, where He is walking around, and we feel the menace around, Mr. Trier isn’t seem to be convinced that his film is working on its own, and commits the cardinal sin of hammering the supposedly haunting score, and we’re pulled right out of the illusion. That is a filmmaking failure right there.


Note: Jim Emerson, at Scanners, seems to have captured the precise problems I’ve with Mr. Trier as a filmmaker. His piece on Antichrist is the best criticism I’ve read on the film thus far. It is here –
http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2009/10/viff_antichrist_a_pew_in_satan.html

1 comment:

Just Another Film Buff said...

Interesting.I thought the film worked for exactly the same reasons you find it flat (although I'm not completely assured about the film's worth).

You say Trier's images are designed to evoke. I thought they couldn't. The opening sequence is so virile despite its slo-mo. It just couldn't have evoked anything so early on in the movie. And I think Trier knows this and still retained it for some purpose, which I'm not sure what.

And I also felt that Antichrist was rising beyond the under-the-skin symbolism of most movies. It thrusts everything on your face (He, She, Eden etc.), as you say, and tells us to deal with it, without making the movie didactic. Making no cheeky statements, no allusions, and only direct confrontation I thought it tried to take us beyond simple symbol interpretation or character empathy to an unbridled vision of the world.

Trier's movie is directly from his bleak vision. A man coming out of depression couldn't have possibly wanted to make a simple, solid genre movie of all things. Its take-it-or-leave-it attitude just can't be labelled an attempt at recognition.

Tarkovsky wanted to become one with nature, with its unshakable peace. Trier fears its impossibility.

P.S: I love Emerson's spectacular review too. Had to read it multiple times to get his idea.