Starring: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Director: Lars von Trier
Screenwriter: Lars von Trier
I tend to be the kind of person who likes to judge a piece of art (and remember: bad art is still art) without taking into account the artist himself. A work should be able to stand apart from its creator. Lars von Trier is a filmmaker that I’ve found makes that an extremely hard rule to follow. Antichrist is a film in which von Trier makes damn sure you know he’s the filmmaker, and the presumptuousness of such a thing makes the film difficult to swallow. The film has been plagued by controversy. People at Toronto and Cannes walked out of screenings. I, like I believe most people who pick up this film will do, watched it “to see what all the fuss is about.” I wish I had read more about it beforehand.
The film is the classic example of snobbish, pretentious independent filmmaking at its very worst, trying with each frame to convince its audience that it stands for something, that it has a purpose, and that it has a deep, thoughtful, and almost revelatory meaning, if only we’re willing to dig through it to the great nuggets of knowledge beneath its filthy surface. The issue here is that beneath the filthy surface, there are no nuggets of knowledge. Nor are there even nuggets of attempted knowledge. Essentially, this is a hollow film that has two very competent performances from two fearless actors.
In the first scene, which is filmed in black and white, all done in slow motion, and with an opera soundtrack playing over it, He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) make love. The act is put in full, explicit detail, but with what point, one can only guess. Then, their son wanders onto a windowsill and falls to his death.
I wish I felt some kind of emotion for this. Maybe I would have had von Trier not used every cliché convention in his arsenal to make it seem meaningful. Such conventions continue throughout the film, which is told in three chapters: Grief, Pain and Despair. Dafoe’s character is a psychiatrist. Gainsbourg’s is a woman who was still in school, I suppose, and writing her thesis on some kind of witchcraft. He’s a passive aggress authoritarian. She’s a depressive who’s obsessed with the supernatural (I guess). But these superfluous details don’t really matter. The story meanders from one place to another. At first, the grief these two people are feeling is understandable. One can only imagine the pain of losing a child. But after a while it grows tiring.
I can’t blame it on the actors. Both of them are fearless, never once seeming to resent the positions and circumstances they’re placed in, no matter how gruesome they are. They dive into their characters and embody the only piece of the film that’s in any way compelling. I just wished that von Trier had allowed them to play out more organically. I wish he had written them as characters with a logical place to go. Which brings me to the controversy.
The film has notoriously been attacked for its blatant and explicit scenes of sex (of which there are many), violence (more psychological than physical), and genital mutilation (in a couple of scenes). Apologies if I spoiled something, but I feel I must to make my point. It’s as if von Trier put these scenes in with no purpose other than to stir up controversy. They don’t really have a purpose. The simple sex I didn’t have much of a problem with, until it got to the point where I felt his use of sex was no longer simply a way of showing two mourning people trying to cope with their problems, and devolved into explicit sex for the sake of explicit sex. It happened quicker than I had expected. The violence and mutilation is honestly uncalled for. Is it “torture porn,” as some have suggested? Perhaps. I don’t believe that it can’t have its place in within film, but I do believe that, like any violence, it needs to have a purpose.
And the idea of purpose is where this film just fails. It doesn’t have one. It pretends to. It masks its pretensions and shallowness with scenes and shots that are, I suppose, supposed to make one think, “oh wow, this is truly artistic.” But for anyone with even the slightest bit of insight, the “artistry” is obviously a veil to hide a narrative that’s devoid of any real meaning.
Looking back on what I’ve written, I realize I might have been pretty harsh. But I don’t know. Maybe it’s telling when even Roger Ebert, who gave the film 3.5/4 stars, barely praised the film outside of its performances in his review. From my perspective, those were the only things of any worth.