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July 24, 2009

So, here it is, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist; this year’s Cannes furore, the Daily Mail’s apocalypse-harbinger du jour. Are we safe? Are the barbarians at the gate? How do I feel? Is my mind and imagination, as Christopher Hart suggests (without bothering to see the movie), poisoned? No, not really. Quite the opposite, in fact, as my mind is simply thundering along, working overtime, trying to make sense of what I’ve just seen*. Ultimately, I fear I’m going to be paraphrasing Stephen King, but probably not in the way you might expect. Back to that in a bit.

OK, so. Antichrist limns the rather slight tale of a couple whose son is killed in a tragic accident, and who then disappear to a cabin in the woods to work through guilt, grief, despair and all that, but who actually end up destroying each other. That isn’t to do the film a disservice, as it really is the bare bones of the story, and just a device to hang all the other stuff on. The meat (oh, I wish I hadn’t used that word) relates to the spiralling nature of the couple’s relationship and their ever-deteriorating respective states of mind. He (Willem Dafoe), we discover early on, is a Cognitive Behaviour therapist, and she (Charlotte Gainsbourg) a writer, who has been trying to put together a thesis on gynocide. These two weighty issues provide much of the dynamism for the close encounters and soul-shredding battles that the pair regularly engage in. And that’s before you even get to Satan hammering down the door and speaking to the characters through the mouths of the forest creatures.

Along the way, we find ourselves heavily beset by some, at times beautiful, at times repugnant, and at one point quite funny, symbolism. Symbolism is very important within the universe of the film, and it is thrown at us with a very straight face, so that we don’t really know; is this shit serious, or what? Certainly, the millstone that Gainsbourg attaches to Dafoe’s leg by drilling through him and fastening it with a steel bolt so that he can barely drag himself around, said a lot to me about von Trier’s perceived reputation as a misogynist and just how far he’s prepared to say, “I know what you’re thinking, you know”. Grimly joking or not, von Trier means for us to work hard to gain any sense from the welter of information rained down upon us. Does he really expect us to believe that women are the spark of all evil in the world, as Gainsbourg’s character seems to imply? Is this actually a response to his years of counselling for depression as he has recently stated? How did he get the erect-penis-ejaculating-blood image past the censors? Is Gainsbourg snipping off her clitoris with a pair of scissors an anti-male or anti-feminist statement? And will you laugh at the talking fox, as the audience at Cannes did, or, like me, will you be too horrified to do anything?

Von Trier seems to be saying that even in Eden (the name for the couple’s cabin retreat) we are hopelessly in thrall to Grief, Pain and Despair, and ultimately will always be capable of performing evil upon one another. The final scene, gloriously defined in wonderful black and white, with thousands of faceless individuals heading to Eden indicates that what the film actually reckons is we’re all going to Hell in a handcart and no amount of therapy or talking will save us from the fact that we’re just not capable of dealing with Life.

Or maybe not. As a two-fingered salute to the orthodox and well-meaning, Antichrist has a lot of balls. That’s a pun, right there, in-joke fans. The first frame of the movie is a great chalkboard image upon which is scrawled, Lars von Trier. We stare at it for what feels like a second or two too long, and then, with an orchestral shriek the frame changes, and it shouts, Antichrist. Geddit? I imagine von Trier doesn’t have ‘director’ or ‘film maker’ on his passport, but ‘joker’, or possibly, ‘enfant terrible‘. So despairing, so laden with imagery and just so damn Arty, Antichrist may just be nothing more than a great fat beautiful smirk directed at just about anyone that wants to get their knickers in a twist debating it.

Anyway, where was I with Stephen King? Oh yes, actually, I fear I’ve mis-assigned a quote to him while writing this – although in a way that’s fitting, since he misjudged the remake of von Trier’s Riget and gave us Kingdom Hospital – so I don’t mind so much. In fact, it was the NYT’s Book review I was incorrectly recalling, who were quoted above or beneath King on the jacket of my charity-shopped copy of Silence of the Lambs, when they said it was ‘an engine designed for one purpose – to make the pulses pound, the heart palpitate, the fear glands secrete.’  Well, Antichrist is something along those lines, an engine designed for one purpose, but this time it’s to poke people into making a reaction. And that, he’s done.

One thing’s for certain though, you shouldn’t really join in if you haven’t actually watched the thing.

*I’ve seen it, Christopher, and I know that you haven’t, and neither do you intend to, because you say so (“You do not need to see Lars von Trier’s Antichrist…to know how revolting it is. I haven’t seen it myself, nor shall I”). Fair enough, you’re a blinkered philistine, and proud of it. That’s cool, and if you feel happy shouting about it, there is no better screamingly hysterical piece of shite within which to do that than the Daily Mail. But, I’m not sure how you’re able to then say, “horrors the likes of which I have never witnessed unfold in graphic detail” because, well, you haven’t witnessed them, have you? Oh, look, maybe you’re having a wee joke, all clued-in that von Trier will be expecting this sort of response…and hoping to have some fun of your own…but fuck it…you write for the Mail; what are the chances you’d have a sense of humour?
3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2009 3:47 pm

    Interestingly, the Daily Mail’s film critic Chris Tookey, while hating the film, does round on Christopher Hart for his piece in the same paper (without naming him of course):

    Antichrist turns out to be not the picture that I have seen vilified in the Press, sometimes by writers who lack any context of recent cinema with which to compare it, and in at least one case by someone who hadn’t even taken the elementary step of seeing it.

    Anyway, based on what you say rather than what either Chris says, I shall not be going to see Antichrist. Bloody hell, there’s a long enough list of films I’ll never get to see that I might enjoy.

  2. July 27, 2009 7:47 pm

    A wee bit surprised by The Tookster, but how could he have rubbed shoulders with his crit colleagues had he not said that…?

  3. August 2, 2009 7:27 pm

    When I left the cinema last week I was certain I liked the film but unsure as to why I liked it. I have a history of liking von Trier films (would recommend the documentary, The Five Obstructions) so wondered if I was cutting him some slack he doesn’t really deserve. In the end, no, I did like it. In my head I played the Adam, Eve, and Eden thing over and over, trying to find parallels with the film. In the end, though, there weren’t parallels, so much as opposites: the peaceful garden of tradition reflected as a chaotic place (“Chaos reigns!”) and, rather than being cast out, they fall in to it. That’s surface level guesswork, though, because it would be hard to know what’s going through the director’s mind, and his liberal use of symbolism lays out the opportunity for interpretation rather than explicit statement. It’s one I’ll no doubt buy on DVD so that I can watch it again, perhaps with others’ readings into it to wit, to try and form a better impression.

    The opening sequence is beautiful. Best thing von Trier has done. When the fox got it’s starring role, however, I was wanting to laugh and looking round the cinema – packed, no less – wondered why no one else was laughing, and guessing they were asking the same thing.

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