Film: Lars von Trier: Antichrist (2009)

I hope Lars von Trier’s dedication of his Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky fits neatly, in von Trier’s head, into his wildly deadpan sarcastic streak; it’s hard to see the dedication as anything but a formal joke, a near parody of the things Tarkovsky was able to accomplish with his fiercely controlled, dreamscapish style. People become forms in abstract motion, in Tarkovsky’s slow-motion soliloquies, shot in stark black and white that always seems to lend a certain purist degree of vitality to these sequences. If you can accept the lifelessness that threatens to creep into it, and take it as abstraction, Tarkovsky’s best work rises far above narration, above the telling of stories, and glorifies human experience with the ecstatic formality of a Mozart concerto. Von Trier borrows the form and castrates it with glib, infantile snobbery.

It’s the most boring kind of cinematic snobbery, the kind that mars films like Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Borman’s Deliverance (1972), and, say, Bertolucci’s Besieged (1998) and Mendes’ American Beauty (1999), where a certain formality of style stands in for any true expressiveness. Lord, I hate these movies. Their directors have noticed formality work before, in Coppola’s work, in Bergman’s, in Tarkovsky’s, in some of their own films (early Bertolucci, up to 1900 (1977), held firm sway over contemporary cinematic form, masterful in its control and vertiginous in effect), but they’ve mistaken rigorous craftsmanship as bearing intrinsic truth. Films have to work harder than that. No form carries any meaning; like architecture, it must be put carefully in context by sensitive and insightful craftsmen to hold its intended weight.

Von Trier has built a persona out of meticulously chaotic formality, from his handheld, mic-in-shot messiness of The Idiots (1998) to a deconstruction of the musical in Dancer in the Dark (2000) and the stageplay in Dogville (2003). Those are magnificent films – to my mind, the more so in chronological order – disturbing and fascinating in their authenticity of performance in tandem with von Trier’s intellectual precision. But I think von Trier is also a bit of a self-hating ham; his disdain for filmmaking that inspires upbeat admiration has got to stem from his own feelings about his own work, and I think it makes him something of a clown, compensating – when he’s not berating you with craft for watching his films at all – with a kitschy sort of obviousness. The wonderful closing shot of Dancer in the Dark, with the camera suddenly rising on a crane through the floor and above the action, is both terribly moving in the context of a handheld digital film (with Bjork’s central ballast) and amusingly coy in its generic silliness – the shot belongs in another movie. Dogville goes much further, obliterating any sense of hope for human decency in a 3-hour film set on a soundstage, chalk marks delineating space, that ends with total annihilation; but that von Trier goes all the way along his self-prescribed trajectory, and utterly destroys, can’t be shaken off. It does work – but at what cost?

At the cost of Antichrist. The various possible readings of the film – a misogynist diatribe, a self-reflexive critique of male domination, blah blah blah – are really very, very much beside the point, and that’s von Trier’s fault, not his achievement. He’s too smart a filmmaker to build one out of crumbly clay of little color and consistency, with a story predicated on the screamingly weighted Death of the Child. Later on he suggests that Charlotte Gainsbourg’s She had seen her infant son climb up on the tabletop, while Willem Dafoe’s He made love to her in the shower, on the counter, in the bed – and she perhaps let him fall, or was too filled with carnal ecstasy to stop it, or something. The sequence is done in precious slow motion, to a Handel aria, and not badly either – it just doesn’t in any way give rise to the film that follows, or the bodily tortures that ensue.

Von Trier has something in mind about slowing action to a hair faster than still, showing us each drop of water from the shower in the slightest of falling motion over Her face, and the boy’s plummet from the open window is at the very least impressive (as is much of the film) as action captured on film. Perhaps it’s all meant to be seen as nature, as elements and gravity. There’s a vague conceptual level on which Antichrist might be consistent, but it’s not coherent, and it feels trivial. With his Three Beggars – the deer, the fox, the crow – arriving at the cabin in the woods so that “someone has to die”, von Trier suggests that Nature is synonymous with Evil, that Woman in tune with Nature – destroying the human – is Evil, but it’s all predicated on the assessment that the natural world passes judgment and tries to hurt us as much as it can. Is he reaching for a state of pure nonhumanism, then, when he has Her smash His balls and castrate herself? And does he turn these gratuitous sequences of bodily destruction into frenetic action setpieces because he’s a sly prankster upending our sense of his own world – or because he’s faintly tone-deaf, and has always shot everything handheld?

A word on said sequences. They are excessive beyond reason, and include hardcore penetration and physical destruction in extreme closeup. But to argue with them on principle is immature. Film can grapple with any sort of human experience, all the more because it’s so tangibly image-based. Puritanism in filmmaking or film critique amounts to censorship, denying expression on moral grounds alone. Some will be rocked to their core by these images, and others will find them unacceptably gruesome, but I have to say I think they fall right in the middle – right where their graphic precision and their spectacular arbitrariness cancel each other out.

Maybe that’s what von Trier has in mind, and maybe that’s the source of his audacious sarcasm: to propel us to accept or reject his work by shoving it through our own morality. If we find ourselves loving his work, perhaps our moral standards are broad and loose; if we hate it, perhaps we subscribe to a more structured moral universe (he ends Antichrist on a beautifully evocative shot that clearly spells out his agenda, whatever you want to make of it). But I don’t consider film a fair way to wring people like that, and I think filmmakers who are more interested in manipulating an audience than in speaking to them…well, probably wouldn’t understand the distinction I just tried to make. And they certainly have no business invoking Andrei Tarkovsky in any way, except as a rebuke to what he achieved with the cinematic form.

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