Thursday, March 4, 2010

Antichrist (2009)

Like Transformers 2, which might have single-handedly garnered print film criticism a stay of execution, last year’s Antichrist is one of those movies where the critical uproar surrounding it seemed to overshadow the picture itself. The film, which tells the story of a nameless couple (played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) retreating to their mountain cabin in order to get over the death of their son in some decidedly unhealthy ways, became notorious before it was even released. It’s Cannes premier alone, which was preceded by its director Lars Von Trier bestowing the mantle of “The Greatest Filmmaker in the World” on himself, was met with a substantial (for Cannes, anyway) amount of jeers and catcalls from the audience. Critics were polarized. Some called it a bold and challenging artistic statement, while others derided it as meaninglessly violent, misogynistic, and grotesque. Suffice to say, I had to see this thing. And thanks to Netflix watch instantly (these days you can get your Depravity On Demand), now I have.

I can’t really say what I expected going in. I’d avoided a lot of the conversation about the film, and besides some whispers about some particularly grisly activities that occur near the end, I knew very little about what Antichrist was actually about. So I was surprised to find that early on the film delivers some of the most strikingly beautiful (and yes, often gratuitous) imagery I’ve seen in some time. For a guy who once railed against the tricks of the cinematic trade when he formed the Dogme 95 movement, Von Trier certainly does possess a deft, sure-handed control of them. He mixes in just about every kind of stylistic tool at his disposal, from slow motion to jump cuts, handheld camera, and even subliminal images. But instead of coming off as muddled art house flash, all of this stylistic noise actually sort of works, and for a while the film is as gripping and atmospheric as the best of David Lynch’s work. The genre here is as much horror as anything else, and Von Trier manages to make the woods outside the couple’s cabin look deep and sumptuous like something out of a fairy tale at the same time that they’re creepy and unsettling. That they’re also filled with deformed deer, dead birds, and a mutilated fox that speaks aloud to Dafoe that “chaos reigns” only adds to the overwhelming feeling of dread and surreality that starts to form.

And then the last 20 minutes happen. Nearly all of the critical discourse on this movie has focused on the ending, so I’ll try to keep it as brief and mercifully vague as possible. But let's just say the movie, which to this point has been teetering on it quite skillfully, goes over the edge completely. The violence that happens is shocking—fucked up is probably a better way to describe it—but the real problem is that it’s also meaningless and uninteresting. Truth be told, half of what goes down is no more extreme than your average b-level horror film. But up to this point Von Trier’s made a movie that was so hauntingly vague, mysterious, and even beautiful that seeing such aggressive imagery manages to drain the film of any artistic credibility.

Suddenly, all of the preceding scenes, with their hyperactive camera and dreamlike editing, start to mutate into something hollow and almost laughably pretentious. And the story, which was pretty half-assed to begin with, suddenly seems the worst kind of art film trash. Von Trier’s smart enough—and big-headed enough—that it’s difficult to believe that it wasn’t all somehow intentional, but this doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t work. He’s giving his audience answers to questions they didn’t ask, and in doing so he sabotages his own movie. For a great deal of its running time, Antichrist has flirted with territory that’s vaguely reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky. Von Trier certainly thinks so, and he even includes a dedication to the great Russian filmmaker in the end credits. But after the legendary blow-up his movie has in its final act, even this seems all too reminiscent of something an affected film school student would do.

Disappointing as it is, Antichrist is an important film for a variety of reasons. For one, it’s proof that even in today’s culture (whatever that means) movies still have the ability to shock and provoke controversy—even if for pretty base reasons. More importantly, though, this film is as good of an argument for the auteur theory as any in recent memory. It’s impossible to talk about it—either textually or as a cultural artifact—without discussing Von Trier and his more than questionable intentions. He’s stated that he conceived the film in the wake of the worst depression of his life, and you can’t help but attempt to delve into the guy’s mind and psychoanalyze him when talking about his movie. Whatever he is—and angry film critics have called him a lot of things—there’s no denying he’s an important artist. I guess we can only hope that next time he’ll use his powers in the service of more substantial material.

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