TIFF 09 Review: ANTICHRIST

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Danish provocatuer Lars Von Trier makes his long awaited return to the traditional horror film with the delightful head-scratcher Antichrist. Obliterating all expectations for fans of the seminal TV series Riget (The Kingdom) or anyone expecting a commercial horror film, instead we get a two character chamber-piece featuring handsome and unusual cinematography. Cinematic technique ranges from harshly lit and desaturated colours to extreme slow-motion, this is a far cry from the more naturalistic Dogme95 movies, or Brechtian sound-stage chicanery in Dogville and Manderlay. Like all works written or directed by the prolific auteur, they are high on artifice, yet still effective emotionally (viscerally) in spite of their obvious construction. This is the Lars Von Trier magic: Buttons are pushed, the audience is aware that buttons are being pushed, but we watch precisely to have our buttons pushed. Even something simple as having the actors sight-lines scrambled in quiet conversation is unsettling to anyone who watches a lot of movies; a ‘rule’ that is surprisingly not violated too often even by the so-called MTV-style filmmakers. There is a subtle (conscious or unconscious) effect of disorientation by having actors face the ‘wrong way’ within a conversation or quiet moment.

Like Bjork’s journey in Dancer in the Dark, whereupon humiliation and defeat are piled on top of one another to see if the audience can be broken on the long hard road to the inevitable, the grieving parents in Antichrist have their own dismal and Sisyphean path. Taking his wife to the source of her unspoken anxieties after the death of their child, a small wilderness cabin called “Eden” in an attempt to heal her of grief without pharmaceuticals offers the simplest of narrative. But the devil is in the details. Often naked, having sex or emotionally distraught (or all three simultaneously) this is a fearless performance from Charlotte Gainsbourg. Like many a woman in a Von Trier picture, she undergoes extreme amounts of suffering (often of the oblique, perverse variety) as the story unfolds. Some of Willem Dafoe‘s (seen a lot in the TIFF catalogue this year) best work to date is on display in an equally complex role that engenders (GASP!) even some subtlety.

Antichrist is broken into several chapters with a prologue and epilogue. Each portion has its share of surprising imagery, but nothing is more purely cinematic than the prologue wherein Von Trier manages, somehow to tell a very clear and concise story while shooting in a slow-motion aesthetic often used for a single high-impact shot (an explosion in The Hurt Locker or car crash in Sean Ellis’ The Broken). The tragedy that unfolds in the opening minutes is captured with Spielbergian clarity and Kubrickian detachment that prolongs the audience reaction to events that should grab any just about anyone on a fundamental level. From there, the couple retreat to their cabin in the woods to deal with her (note only two characters in the film are called “He” and “She”) physical paralysis and (unspoken, but obvious) his emotional paralysis. He is a therapist and delves into his craft to help her find some kind of sure footing. But Nature has other plans. The natural world around the cabin, the property ironically named Eden, which seems to be alive with narrative symbols: Grotesque animal births, falling bombs in the form of acorns rattling on the cabins tin roof, and Lynchian shots (and sounds) of implacable trees and murky waters. Playing on the other nature, Human Nature, sees her guilt (and perhaps his calm, even warm, hubris) threaten to overwhelm everything. To say that things get ugly, or that the relationship is doomed by the opening tragedy, is the understatement of the year. She uses sex to stave off her guilt, he attempts to refrain from sex altogether (albeit often unsuccessful) the pent up female sexual energy of this film could power a small city for a year or three, and perhaps to male viewers, aggressive female sexuality is as horrific as anything else on display in the film. The film is not bereft of ideas though. One such question asks what is worse, the casual brutality of mother nature, or the existential dread and violence caused by fear in human nature? That question is pretty much answered (in a number of ways) by the end of the film. I will not give things away here.

There may have been some burning of the midnight oil with Un Chien Andalou on in the background during the conception of this film. Von Trier has an ability to craft a dramatic and shocking image that pushes past Luis Buñuel’s surrealism and into realms of cringe worthy horror. There are many lasting images in Antichrist, and the scenes which stitch them together carry a palpable dread all their own with either a wooshing wind, a crying infant or low rumbling wail on the soundtrack. Like Gaspar Noe’s anti-riot technique inspired sonic-assault which opens Irreversible, there is almost a scientific way these primal sounds affect an audience member for maximum physical and mental effect. Yet there is always a healthy dollop of the recongnizable real amongst the symbolism or allegory. Makers of the usual torture-porn multiplex fare being released stateside should take note how much more effect ghastly gore has on the viewer when it is in service of on-some-level relatable situation instead of gameplay-gimmicks. Antichrist is a ‘real’ horror film because the effect on the viewer is actually quite horrific, rather than the ‘look down on it’ entertainment in the usual associated with many of the popular entries in the genre. Unlikely to be at a ‘theater near you’ either, the explicit sexuality of the most unerotic variety that punctuates the creeping sense of evil in Eden and the already infamous genital mutilation pretty much ensure that the audience is a very limited one.

There is not a lot of plot in Antichrist. It occasionally rears its head with an abandoned thesis of man’s inhumanity to women – from the Spanish inquisition to puritan witch-burnings – or the local flora and fauna assaulting the isolated cabin; plotwise this is a thought proving and quite upscale (and decidedly less fun) version of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. The loose story is quite gripping on the simplest of storytelling principles: What in the crazy-holy-hell is going to happen next? Couple that with all of the provocative imagery and grim musings on human nature and we have a whopper of a cinematic depth-charge to be dropped on even suspecting or willing audiences. God help those who go into this movie blind. Yea though I walk through the valley of the Shadow of … you get the idea.

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Peter
Guest

Glad you liked it Kurt. It was one of my favorite films at Cannes. Too many critics are writing the film off as pretentious.

Jonathan
Admin

I read a hilarious review of this by some Christian website. I can't find it now though, but I will keep looking. The footage I have seen is just plain nutty, but like many, I'm interested to see Charlotte Gainsbourg's performance. Yeah, performance.

Marina
Guest

I was traumatized by the mutilation scene. Genuinely shaken for the first time in years. This is easily the most effective horror film I've seen in a while. From the "atmospheric" sounds to the visuals everything works to disorient. And the slow distortion of images and scenery only add to the assault on the senses and as the film progresses, there's a feeling that maybe you're just seeing things. This thing is a mindfuck on both a mental and emotional level.

Not sure I could recommend it to anyone but it's one that will stick with me for a while.

Henrik
Guest

"Not sure I could recommend it to anyone but it's one that will stick with me for a while"

This is pretty much the universal reaction. Nobody had a good time, and nobody thinks other people should watch it, but wouldn't be without the experience.

I think people are forgetting about all the boring parts during the first hour when thinking of the movie.

Henrik
Guest

Von Trier Q&A, highly recommended: http://scsmi09.mef.ku.dk/

Marina Antunes
Admin

"I think people are forgetting about all the boring parts" what boring parts?

Henrik
Guest

To be fair when I saw it it wasn't finished, or edited together completely, nor cleaned up (I was part of one of the screenings Trier mentions), but I found the first hour after the opening excruciatingly boring. Maybe they have tightened it up afterwards, I guess it's not fair for me to judge the finished film.

spidey_zombie
Guest

I enjoyed your review and thought the movie was very good, from the opening scene which to me was spell binding. The way it took the act of sex and almost showed the creation of life in with death.

I had heard about the horrifuc scenes but unlike many thought they were not that horrific and fit with the story in many ways. A woman struggling with guilt and grief does not want to loose what she feels is one of her last ties to her life and her guilt causes her to punish the part of her that maybe she feels caused the guilt.

I love Lars von Triers work and he seems to be fearless in his movie making and sometimes that does not work but often it does. Saw "City of Life and Death" after Antichrist and it horrific on a whole nother scale.

Great Review

spidey_zombie

Andrew James
Admin

So I watched this beast again last night. It wasn't quite as effective as it was the first time. The shocking quality has waned a little bit. But the visuals are still gorgeous and Gainsbourg still destroys most of the other female acting competition on the year.

Despite not quite as good on a second viewing, still sitting comfortably in my top ten of the year… and I didn't find any of it to be "boring."

rot
Guest

Finally caught AntiChrist and while it probably won't make my top ten of the year, only because of the quality of films I've caught, it is still really fucking good. I was surprised at how conventionally the horror elements were structured, spooky music, slow head turn towards the scary thing and then show it, for some reason I was expecting something chaotic in structure that pummeled the audience by not even giving them this kind of breathing room. In the end, I didn't find it all that scary a film, but it does tap something on a primal level (I have had recurring nightmares along the lines of what Dafoe does with the crow).

Unless I just forgot it, I don't remember anyone at least on the Cinecast mentioning how much this is Von Trier's Tarkovsky experiment. He dedicates the film to him, but long before I was getting the vibe, particularly the slo-motion on arrival to the cabin feels like something out of The Mirror. I am not a big Tarkovsky fan but all the aspects of him I do like are beautifully captured in AntiChrist. And beautiful is the word, which again seems a weird descriptor for a film that Cannes' audiences were saying was a monstrous film that abuses the viewer, and I think even Kurt oversells this element, while there are a few wince inducing moments in the film (telegraphed so you can hide your eyes), the majority of the film is stunningly beautiful to watch. Also I was surprised how much time was given to let these characters breathe and exist in the story, they are not ciphers like in his America trilogy, the story really is about grief and despair foremost.

Jonathan
Admin

There was only one moment that I cringed. The scissors.

The acting here is top notch and they carry the scenes, it's beautiful to look at, it had some interesting things to say about nature and our nature, but it didn't really connect with me as much as I think it did with others here.

rot
Guest

Rewatched and love it even more. Probably my favorite Von Trier… Cannot wait for Melancholia, which is rumored to make it to Cannes… can you fathom the mindfuck of seeing Tree of Life alongside Melancholia? Also P.T. Anderson and Cronenberg likely to grace the Cote D'Azur, my God there is a lot to look forward to in 2011.

Henrik
Guest

Melancholia will be at Cannes, and in competition. That's how it works with Trier :).

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