DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: TIFF 2009: Antichrist

Thursday, 10 September 2009

TIFF 2009: Antichrist

Antichrist (2009) Dir. Lars von Trier
Starring: Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg


Guest Review By Greg Klymkiw

“Antichrist” is a movie that burns its reflection of pain into your memory like a branding iron – plunging itself into your head and searing your brain matter, creating that sickeningly sweet stench that only burning flesh gives off and remaining in your nostrils for (no doubt) a lifetime. The pain and by extension – the Passion – also stays with you. A first viewing renders you drained, immobile, and numb and yet, paradoxically there are feelings of profound excitement – that you have witnessed an expression of emotion in ways that only cinema, of all the art forms, is capable of delivering. You are also breathless, and in spite, or maybe even because of the horror you’ve witnessed, you’re almost giddy with the desire to recall every beat, every image and every soul sickening moment of the experience. It’s a movie that demands to be seen more than once – it is a movie to be cherished, savored and devoured as ravenously and gluttonously as possible. There’s simply no two ways about it – “Antichrist” is a great movie! It will be loved! It will be hated! It will be debated! And it will never be forgotten – neither by those who see it, nor by the sands of time! It’s a picture designed to live forever and will, no doubt, be Lars von Trier’s masterpiece.

Now, I will be the first to admit that my feelings about von Trier are very mixed. He is clearly a serious filmmaker who demands the sort of regard one lavishes upon great artists, yet in spite of this, I have often felt that his art, though dazzling, is rooted in a spurious bad-boy posturing wherein his motives seem no more serious than any hack that machine tools a product for the widest consumption possible. Then again, I am reminded of the fact that all films and certainly most great films ARE exploitation – they exploit subject matter, human emotion and the audience – the best doing so with great panache. And in this regard, von Trier is a master. The difference, of course, is that rather than working within genre and/or dramatic convention, his is the work of the high-toned, the intelligentsia (if you will) and that his genre is that of the “art house film” and as such, he has developed his voice and craft to a sufficient degree that he has earned the right to be called “master” even though I and many others detest much of his work.

With “Antichrist” von Trier has made a horror film – pure, though not so simple. Alternately fueled by his clear love and respect for Strindberg’s great play “Miss Julie” and the work of filmmaker Carl Dreyer, von Trier ventures into the sort of daring territory we not only expect from him, but frankly, must demand of our greatest artists. As a horror film, however, it might not immediately be in the territory we expect, but certainly as it proceeds on its unrelenting journey, we know all to well that we are ensconced in the genre – not in a traditional manner, but certainly in its use of expressionistic elements.

At the end of the day, “Antichrist” creates exactly what we have come to expect from the genre of horror and it is infused with a creepy quality that not only keeps us on the edge of our collective seats, but inspires the sort of revulsion that dares to make us feel resolutely unclean for having participated in his powerful, foul descent into human suffering. Goose flesh of the most unpleasant kind overtakes us as we watch the picture and when it ramps up to scenes of PHYSICAL torture and violence (the first two-thirds of the picture deal in psychological aspects of the above mentioned), one’s revulsion takes on dimensions that are almost indescribable.

The movie is broken into four parts, or “chapters” as von Trier labels them, which are bracketed by a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue introduces us to the characters of a man (Willem Dafoe) and a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as they make love – the only sound accompanying their passionate coupling being a haunting aria by Handel. As they reach a pitch of orgasm, we follow their infant child as he wanders about the house and eventually perishes in a horrendous, tragic accident. The four chapters that follow are entitled “Grief”, “Pain” “Despair” and “The Three Beggars” as we experience the couple’s suffering and the man’s attempts to help his wife (he’s a psychiatrist) deal with her pain and in so doing, to assist himself with his own feelings of despair.

Most of this is set against the backdrop of a remote cabin in the wilderness where much of the creepy qualities emanate from the natural world itself. This extended therapy session builds to one of the most sickening extensions of inner pain imaginable – where the internal becomes very external. It’s Strindbergian as all get-out, but von Trier doesn’t merely place a razor in “Miss Julie’s” hand, he takes us into the full-blown horror of the actions, which in Strindberg’s play are only implied. The epilogue, which follows the orgy of horror, contains some of the most stunning images I have ever seen in a picture – images that are as heart-achingly beautiful as they are grotesque. And while von Trier is definitely in Strindberg territory, he does not separate naturalism from expressionism, but is quite happy to make use of both and, when necessary, blend these elements.

As to the charges of misogyny leveled against the film, I can only hurl out the invective, “Bullshit!” While von Trier does not fully attain a level of spirituality that infuses the work of Carl Dreyer, he is nevertheless playing in a similar sandbox in terms of exploring the subjugation and exploitation of women at the hands of patriarchy and/or organized religion. The relentless analysis forced upon Gainsbourg’s character by Willem Dafoe’s character takes on the creepy hysteria and austerity that Dreyer himself explored in “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, “Day of Wrath” and “Gertrud”. That said, however, von Trier allows a turning of the tables that Dreyer could never have brought himself to actually do, though in fairness, I have some belief that if Dreyer were making films today, he might well have dared to cross into the same territory von Trier does in “Antichrist” – territory that is as horrific as it is uniquely and profoundly moving.

I reiterate – “Antichrist” is a great picture!

“Antichrist” is playing at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and will be theatrically released in Canada by E1 Films.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

There were a number of calls for 'Antichrist' to be banned in European cinemas, including a smattering of UK critics from consrvative/liberal newspapers.
And yet Sandra Bullock rom-com's get a free pass....