Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Big Hate

I'm not entirely sure why I allowed myself to be talked into watching Lars Von Trier's incendiary horror movie, Antichrist (2009), or, indeed to be lulled into fascination by its languid opening act. It's not as if I didn't know that when he's not pushing the borders of film form, the director is perfectly capable of a jewel-like precociousness. He was doing this sort of thing as long ago as Europa, a film as different from the Dogme aesthetic as I can possibly imagine. This one is, too; it's as lovingly crafted as a portrait miniature. Film craft can only go so far, though, and when you're presented with a film so drenched in the worldview of its author, you really need to react to the worldview. Frankly, what's in Von Trier's mind disgusts me. Again, it's not as if I didn't already know this.

This is largely a symbolic movie. The two lead characters are played with commitment and raw nakedness (not just their nudity) by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe; they're named only "She" and "He." We know that "He" is a therapist. We know that "She" is writing her dissertation. In the film's prologue, our two leads are making love while their infant son, unattended, tumbles out a window to his death. She is consumed with grief, but instead of letting go of this grief, she allows her grief to be used as an instrument for our characters to tear each other to pieces. Literally.

The bulk of the film takes place at "Eden," the couple's cabin in the woods, and this becomes a highbrow variation on the spam in a cabin horror movie. The natural world is terrifying to "She," and seems to endlessly place a finger on the raw nerve of her pain. "Nature is Satan's church," She says. Lo and behold, nature's monstrosity is on full display here: a dead bird falling to the earth, crawling with insects, a deer with a half-birthed fawn dangling from its uterus, a fox that speaks the words "Chaos reigns." Later, "He" roleplays nature, and says that what he wants is to "hurt you as much as I can." Then the movie literalizes this.

The third movement of the film is titled "Despair (Gynocide)," which should be a warning to the curious. Von Trier has a wholly justified reputation for misogyny, and it's almost as if he's answering those accusations in this film. If this is so, his response is curious. "Women do not control their own bodies," Gainsbourg's character says, "Nature does." If nature is evil, ipso facto, so are women. That's not a repudiation of the director's accusers, now is it? Von Trier is far too intractable a personality for that. No, it's an embrace. Women, in this film's worldview are crazy or evil or both. But never let it be said that the director doesn't give equal time when it suits him. Dafoe's character is hardly sympathetic, and the genital mutilations go both ways here. Seriously, when a movie is reduced to showing a woman cutting off her own labia to shock the audience, it has seriously jumped the rails.

Yet for all its horror, for all its artiness, this is a conventional movie, from the familiar "couple working through the death of a child" set-up to the torture-soaked final act. This doesn't have the shock of the new, no matter how the other elements of the film may shock an audience. Takashi Miike already did this sort of thing better and more painfully ten years ago. When Charlotte Gainsbourg laments near the end of the film that, "None of it is any use," she might be talking about more than she knows...

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