Thursday, November 5, 2009

Danger lurks in the forest of 'Antichrist'

Charlotte Gainsbourgh consoled by Willem Dafoe.

The worst thing, I suppose, would be to make a cause celebre out of Lars von Trier's Antichrist, an increasingly repellent and often shocking portrait of a deteriorating marriage.

Most of Antichrist takes place in a forest cabin located in an area called Eden. Any evocation of that other famous garden must have been purely intentional on von Trier's part, but who knows precisely what von Trier had in mind with the rest of a moody, dream-like movie that's at its best when it's being most elusive.

After Breaking the Waves, Dogville and Dancer in the Dark, one is primed for the indigestible where von Trier is concerned. In that sense, Antichrist breaks no new ground for the director and only shores up his reputation as an artist who views the world as a cesspool in which humans can be counted on to behave abominably. Why lie? Some days, I think he has a point.

If you read about movies, you probably know that the movie isn't easy to take: It culminates in a lengthy helping of brutal violence involving castration and self-mutilation. Prior to the bloodshed, a talking fox (no, I'm not kidding) tells us "Chaos reigns." As if we didn't already know.

So what leads to all this cruelty and bloodshed? You might guess that things begin to go wrong because of sex. In the movie's opening scene, a husband, known as "He," is having sex with his wife, known as "She." They're too preoccupied with their ardor to notice that their young son has climbed onto the window sill in another room and is about to fall to his death, a tragedy presented by von Trier in reverential slow motion. The music may be Handel, but this black-and-white sequence plays like a twisted rock video for a group that might be called Falling Babies.

Once the toddler exits the scene, von Trier is stuck with two grieving parents about whom we know nothing other than that they're capable of entangling their body parts. To the extent that there's a plot, it can be summarized thusly: He and She head into the woods, presumably to be alone with their grief, fear and torment or something. He, a psychologist of some sort, treats She as if she were his patient, constantly encouraging her to face her fears. She evidently has a different coping mechanism, preferring to drown out life's sorrows with groping sexual encounters.

She's also an academic who has studied witchcraft, which adds another dimension of possible evil in a world that's fully corrupted and pushes the movie toward what turns out to be an ample helping of misogyny.

You can tell that Antichrist is seriously intended because it has ominous chapter headings: Grief, Despair, Gynocide and The Three Beggars being examples. You'll have to see learn about "gynocide," providing you're able to look at the screen throughout the carefully calibrated mayhem that von Trier orchestrates.

Gainsbourgh won an acting award at Cannes, but cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who also shot Slumdog Millionaire, may be the movie's real star. Mantle does some great work in the woods. The movie is supposed to take place in the American northwest, but actually was shot in Germany. Mantle is exceptionally skilled at forebodings, and for a while, the movie seems to be building toward something important: two bereft people adrift in an intolerable forest. He's annoyingly solicitous and She tries to accommodate him.

Von Trier also provides food for thought: Why does He (Willem Dafoe) treat his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourgh) as if she were a subject in a therapeutic experiment? Why does She stand for it? What sort of relationship do these people have? Are they meant to suggest a particular couple or are they some reincarnated version of Adam and Eve? And what about the movie's title, anyway?

Both Dafoe and Gainsbourgh give themselves over to the work, an act of submission that can be interpreted either as a demonstration of extreme courage or simple bad judgment, depending on how the movie strikes you.

Are the ideas expressed in Antichrist worth the ordeal? What exactly is von Trier trying to say? Those are questions you can debate after seeing the movie. I'd say, though, that the Antichrist suffers from a more rudimentary problem than arty obfuscation.

Von Trier reportedly set out to make his version of a horror movie. If he really wanted to play around with a conventional genre, he should have watched a few more horror movies. It seems to me that, among other things, von Trier forgot to include a second act, leaping from the build-up of act one to the insane violence of act three.

Even had it established a better rhythm, Antichrist might not have been able to live up to the promise of its artfully imagined early scenes, but it at least would have had dramatic coherence. This could be a case in which a director sabotaged what might have been a brooding, powerful movie by undermining its eerie, suggestive qualities with ghastly helpings of violence.

Late in the picture, She drills a hole in her husband's leg. We need this? It's as if the late Andrei Tarkovsky, the Russian director and proclaimed cinema poet to whom the movie is dedicated, got sick of digging deep and decided to make Saw IV.

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