Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Antichrist" Review

It sounds perverse to even express enjoyment of Lars von Trier's "Antichrist," as bleak and twisted a portrait of misery as any committed to celluloid or canvas. Inasmuch, the most descriptive compliment I can pay the film is 'fearless.' "Antichrist" disarms its audience early, with an incredible high-shutter close-up of an erect penis before penetration, and becomes exponentially more shocking and less tasteful from there. The act of intercourse between He and She (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg portray the unnamed characters) serves as the impetus for the cryptically metaphoric story; their passionate lovemaking is juxtaposed with the death of their child, who falls from a window in their negligence.

Gainsbourg's character suffers from a crippling postmortem depression, including an implacable fear of death itself. She stifles these imbalances sexually, with and against the better judgment of her husband. Dafoe's Man is a psychologist, taking it upon himself to dispel his wife's fear through assimilation with the source of her overwhelming anxiety. Von Trier's portrayal of Woman has instigated accusations of misogyny. She is emotional, irrational, and helpless, with the interpretation of the latter half of the film, during which She becomes a decided antagonist, being that She is the 'Antichrist' of the title. The character is demeaning, perhaps, but I don't feel von Trier's depiction of man is any more flattering. Predicated on cold logic and condescending passive-aggression, He is incapable of love.

He takes Her to the forest (they call it 'Eden'), where the two have a decrepit cabin. The woods are filled with death, dying and decaying creatures, and as He begins treating her fear, succumbs to it himself. The film, full of ghastly, macabre photography, seems to exist in a world without good. Any moment of happiness or even placidity in "Antichrist" is overshadowed by manipulation or mutilation. The movie makes an abrupt about-face halfway through as the control dynamic shifts between the characters, and von Trier devilishly steps off the low end of the seesaw, leaving his audience to feel the impact. What follows is unrepentantly gory, culminating with Gainsbourg's character performing a self-circumcision with a pair of scissors.

What symbolic meaning is intended in the literal removal of Her womanhood is never revealed, and the closest the film comes to enlightening its audience is in the revelation of a thesis project She had written on the correlation between Satan and nature, and nature and woman. Still, to suggest She, or woman generally, is the antichrist seems a deceptively easy interpretation to write the film off on. The antichrist, if anything, seems be the architect of this world.

Von Trier has been miserly in offering answers to those confused or offended by his film, but the less he shapes his audience's interpretation, the more potent "Antichrist" becomes. It ebbs at the inky corners of the mind like an inexplicable piece of dark magic; von Trier would rather bewilder than satisfy. His efforts make for a particularly brutal, challenging psychological horror film that will likely dissatisfy anyone in the theater expecting to be conventionally frightened. The film asks a lot of its audience in indulging in a world of complete, restless unhappiness, and many would rather label it as derogatory or exploitative, when its clear the film's primary intention is exhibiting absolute inhumanity. "Antichrist" is like the film equivalent of Francisco Goya's "Saturn Devouring his Son."

And in that respect, von Trier's film is nearly flawless. Minor distractions like the violence, which feels too familiar in the age of "Saw" to deliver the appropriate impact, and the aggressive, borderline pretentious cinematography occasionally upstage the story, but cannot detract much from the power of the experience. That the film is powerful is, I think, inarguable, as every opinion on the piece has been defended passionately. Regardless of where yours falls, however, "Antichrist" is the sort of film that sticks to you. Love it or hate it, but you won't forget it, and that's all truly fearless storytelling can hope for.


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