— by JASON EAKEN —
“Nature is Satan’s Church” — tagline from the film.
It is a firmly held belief of mine that I would rather see a well-made movie I disagree with than a poorly made film that plays it safe. In some cosmic or telepathic way, Lars von Trier has become aware of this and has made a film that challenges anyone and everyone who holds a similar belief. It is “Antichrist,” and was made in the full spirit of its title.
The film stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as He and She, a couple whose child dies in the film’s wordless, tragic opening sequence. The film traces the couple as they cope with their loss. At first it manifests itself as grief, but grief is simply the film’s back-door into the characters. He is a therapist and arrogantly decides to treat She himself. They retreat to their cabin in the woods, called Eden, which She and the child spent some time alone the previous summer.
You may be confused. That first paragraph seems to describe a traumatic experience more than a movie while the second describes a normal-ish psychological drama about grief and loss. That ruse mirrors the film as well. After announcing itself boldly, the film downshifts for about twenty-five minutes to establish its world and its characters’ essential natures.
That’s what the film is about — human nature; specifically the different and combative natures of men and women, with He and She as representatives for their sexes. Both characters are ultimately manipulative. He manipulates her psychologically. She manipulates him emotionally. The two cross paths by manipulating each other both physically and sexually; and you would not be remiss to exchange the word “manipulates” for “abuses,” insofar as the manipulation is a form of abuse and abuse can be used to manipulate. The film views all of these statements as universal truths about men and women; truths which are become fully exposed when one or both suffers some kind of loss — in this instance, the death of the child.
That manipulation is displayed in scenes of intense and explicit brutality. The film is simply unrated, and the material is at times pornographic. One of the opening shots of the movie is a close-up of actual sexual penetration. There is graphic sexual violence inflicted on the genitals of both characters. If these brief descriptions seem overly disgusting or repulsive to you, don’t see the movie, it’s as simple as that. There are images that are burned into my mind and will not be erased quickly or quietly.
Does that mean it is a bad film or an effective one? The violence and torture are certainly shocking, but the film has presented itself as being about much more than simply shocking us. It has declared universal — and Biblical — implications from the actions of its characters. What disappointed me was how disconnected the film was from its characters. Yes, I was shocked and appalled at all the obvious moments, but those moments aren’t insanely difficult to manufacture. The film didn’t unsettle my spirit, if that makes any sense. For how ostensibly intimate the movie and its violence and its pain are, it didn’t stimulate deep emotions within me, and it should have. I should have been equally unsettled spiritually, if not moreso.
I have come to a strange middle-ground regarding the importance of an artist’s intentions. I believe that it is both vital and irrelevant to know their thought process; “what they were going for” in their work. “Antichrist” is undoubtedly a personal film for writer/director Lars von Trier. But that doesn’t mean that the film can only be about what he says it is about, and it doesn’t mean that it can’t be about something he claims it most certainly is not about. Von Trier has said this about his film: “The film does not contain any specific moral code and only has what some might call ‘the bare necessities’ in the way of plot. In any case, I can offer no excuse for “Antichrist.” Other than my absolute belief in the film.”
But belief in what? Belief that the film’s themes are true? Belief in the brazenness of the film? Belief that the film was important to him for whatever nameless reasons? I can’t anticipate every moral reaction to the film, but I can share my own. The film I saw presented a worldview that is hopeless at best and depraved at worst. In which nature is not simply evil but refuses good. In which sex and violence are undeniably linked. In which men are purposely emotionally remote and seek to command the way women think in order to punish them. In which women are so emotional that they also fall victim to their own manipulative abilities without knowing or being able to control it. In which no one can be trusted.
Which is not to say that there is not some truth in all of those things. There is, which makes this a film I cannot dismiss. It is worth discussing. But I think von Trier is guilty of manipulation here as well. His film is a technical marvel, with beautiful slow-motion shots of characters surrounded by nature (both the literal nature and their own personal nature), which left me in awe at his filmmaking ability. He crafted moments of terrible violence and horror, but in my opinion he also crossed the line of what is acceptable to be shown in a fictional film He proved to me that he is capable of provoking and intriguing me; but he didn’t do the most vital thing for him to do with a film of this nature. He didn’t move me. And that is a shame.
. . .
Click here to see a featurette and three clips from “Antichrist.”
Follow Jason Eaken on Twitter at http://twitter.com/EAKEN.