If it hadn't been for the vociferous praise from a friend, wild horses couldn't have dragged me to watch Lars Von Trier's latest controversy. Not only did it seem to be thoroughly unpleasant but having recently been joined by our second son the timing couldn't have been any worse for a film which follows the tortured path of a couple grieving after the death of their toddler. It doesn't matter who you are though, or what your familial setup might be, Antichrist is always going to be an uncomfortable and uncompromising watch. Deeply troubling, controversial in the truest sense of the word and as admirable as it is repulsive, I'm still not entirely sure how I feel but after a week or two I am at least ready to get something out there.
Wednesday, 17 February 2010
It is an uncompromising start, Von Trier seems keen to set out his stall early. The first few minutes of the film, shot in beautiful slow motion black-and-white, show Willem Defoe as 'He' and Charlotte Gainsbourg as 'She' making love, including a close-up shot of a thrusting, erect penis so that you can accuse him of pornography and the simultaneous, slow, almost balletic sequence events that leads to the couple's son falling from their apartment window onto the snowy street below. We are then into Grief, the name of this first section, which has hospitalised and medicated her and left him, who is a therapist, with the cold detachment of a professional, searching for the best way to help her through her grief. At first we feel huge sympathy for Gainsbourg, crippled by her grief, lashing out for some kind of purchase on her emotions, whilst at the same time being repelled by Defoe's clinical and arrogant treatment of his partner. You sense that there can only be danger once the barrier between lover and therapist has been broken down and this feeling only intensifies when the couple leave the oppression of their apartment for the rural retreat they call Eden.
After Grief come sections entitled Pain (Chaos Reigns) and Despair (Gynocide) where rural retreat becomes a place of frightening isolation, Eden becomes Hell, and the couple embark on a course of tortured treatment, recrimination and confrontation. Von Trier's landscape is dark hued and frightening, populated by totemic animals like a doe with a stillborn fawn hanging behind it, and a rank fox which even speaks to Him ("Chaos reigns!") a horrible visual representation of Her assertion that Nature is Satan's Church. The increasingly nightmarish feel to the film continues as the violence escalates and all is enhanced by Anthony Dod Mantle's amazing cinematography; Eden is fecund and rotting, a harsh light cuts through the night and the black and white sections are deep and textured.
The torturous violence meted out wouldn't look out of place in the rash of horror flicks from the Saw stable but it isn't that or the explicit sex that worry me. It is of course the sexual politics and the inevitable accusations of misogyny. I've already mentioned our differing sympathies for He and She and these shift through the film with Von Trier providing revelations that alter our perception particularly of her. She had been working on a thesis of historical violence against women (Gynocide) but her endeavour stalled in the face of her unacceptable conclusion. Human nature is evil and therefore women are evil, a conclusion dangerously close to 'she asked for it' and one rejected emphatically by He. But those revelations about her would seem to support her thesis and the last of these is such a paradigm shift that it risks alienating part of the audience entirely. This is what I'm still struggling with. Von Trier can't really be suggesting that women are evil, their sexual desires perverse and murderous, and their relationship to their offspring ambivalently abusive; so what is he trying to say exactly? The final scene in which a crowd of faceless women surge over the hill on which He now stands alone, baffled, is perhaps an indicator of Von Trier's own bafflement and certainly a neat symbol of mine. What I can say for sure is that the film is a work of art rather than pornography of sex or violence. It is uncomfortable and difficult, challenging and unique. There is no right time to watch it but it would be a mistake to dismiss it out of hand.