Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Intellectual Versus the Visceral

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - For once, I'm actually finding myself excited by the prospect of coming home from a long day of work to try to write reviews such as the ones I've been tossing off recently. If nothing else, it makes me feel like I'm, I dunno, making some progress in my attempts to, if not conquer the world of film criticism, at least grab a piece of it.

In that spirit, onwards to...

Antichrist (2009, Dir.: Lars von Trier)


Riding into its recent theatrical release on a gust of controversy, Lars von Trier's fever dream of psychotherapy, marital distress, and primeval violence promised, simply from the press it generated at its disastrous Cannes premiere earlier in the year, to be one of those divisive, love-it-or-hate-it propositions. Leave it to me, then, to stake out the middle ground on this one.

For me, Antichrist presents an interesting case of a film that impresses almost entirely on the strength of its images, by turns hauntingly atmospheric and brute-force blunt in the way they explore von Trier's ideas about guilt, sexual power and the nature of evil. I don't really find said ideas particularly interesting. Antichrist more or less adds up to a rather muddled treatise on the nature of feminine evil, not so much universal evil; basically, it's witchcraft through the ages, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, etc. Charlotte Gainsbourg's nameless anguished matriarch, it is revealed, has become dangerously obsessed with the notion, borne out of academic research, that women have been carrying inherent evil inside them throughout history; her obsession tips over into mania in its grand Guignol final act as she, among other things, smashes her husband's testicles; jerks off her husband's dick to a bloody ejaculation; and ultimately mutilates her own clitoris, out of fear of her own woman-ness, I suppose. So basically, all women are vengeful, sex-crazed bitches at heart? Um, riiiiiight. All of this is, presented in a pseudo-Christian light, and nary a hint of humane empathy, suggesting that such behavior is merely hearkening back to primal instinct.

And yet, while others have been able to laugh off Antichrist, dismissing the whole thing as just another one of von Trier's elaborate pranks, I find myself not quite being able to join that crowd. The film, for all its incoherence, affected me, if not emotionally, then purely on a visceral level. Anthony Dod Mantle's digital-video photography successfully captures a sense of Biblical portent amidst the environment the central couple ironically call "Eden," and von Trier eventually piles on the nightmare imagery. The image of the fox eating his own innards and saying, in a deep voice, "Chaos reigns," has by now become as much an object of ridicule as it is the film's calling card, but it actually plays quite unsettlingly in context, suggesting the hell about to befall their home away from home. (Even now, I still feel a chill remembering the image.) And its final act truly is horrific, for better and/or worse; it's been a long time since I've felt the urge to cover my eyes during a film.

None of this adds up to the kind of genuinely disturbing experience that von Trier seems to be aiming for in Antichrist (whether von Trier really did make this film in the midst of a major depression, as he has publicly claimed, it isn't readily apparent in the finished work)...but nevertheless, I can't wholly dismiss it. The sheer expressive power and dreamlike flights of fancy contained here suggest an artist possessed to bare all of his obsessions on the screen, and lay it all out there, leaving the viewer to figure out what to make of it—indeed, whether to take it or leave it. In that sense, I admire Antichrist. Intellectually, I don't find I have much use for it; but if we all agree that film is primarily a visual medium, on that level it's often startlingly vivid and effective. The choice is yours. (Currently playing at the IFC Center in New York)

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