“There a humorous technique to my writing. That doesn’t mean it’s funny.”
–Lars von Trier, commentary track to Antichrist.
Danish director Lars von Trier has proclaimed himself “The best director in the world,” and while he has consistently made films that were either excellent or controversial – occasionally at the same time – his self-absorption is apparent even if you were unaware of his inflated self-regard. The stylistic excesses of his breakout film Zentropa (aka Europa), the punishing, ground-breaking roles created for Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves and Bjork in Dancer in the Dark; the extreme discomfort in nearly all of his films, the “Dogme 95 Mainfesto” which required participating fillmakers to take a vow of cinematic purity: hand-held camera, natural lighting, no props, etc. Such dedication is bound to reap rewards at least some of the time – I admire Breaking the Waves and find The Idiots inexplicably moving. But he has blinders on, and in Antichrist, made during a bout of deep depression, the self-absorption eats himself and his characters alive.
There’s a great film about a woman’s grief; the director wove this film as a precisely composed chamber piece. Part psychological drama, part avant-garde mind-fuck, the two parts of the film are both perfectly realized and seamlessly blended with each other. The name of that film is Persona.
Antichrist, on the other hand, is psychological drama wrapped inside avant-garde posturing and dressed up with torture porn - and actual porn. It’s unconvincing and ridiculous, and the only reason I’d recommend it to anyone is that at a certain point the unconvincing tediousness gives way to ridiculousness, and the movie becomes inadventerntly funny. Unfortunately, this also happens to be about the time the film turns into Saw VII.
I first saw the film on the opening night of its theatrical release, and was appalled, and a little amused, to see that one young cinephile took a date to see the film. You wonder in what world anybody would think a movie called Antichrist sounded like a good date movie. Post-cinematic snuggles most likely did not ensue, as the unexpecting young woman finally lost it at the (spoiler-warning-cum-consumer-alert) bloody hand job money shot). Your mileage may vary, of course.
On a second viewing, I have to admit the film has a compelling visual look, at least with the soporofic psychobabble dialogue (which I swear sounds like it was written in crayon) turned down in favor of the commentary track, a conversation with the director and film scholar Murray Smith. Then again, there are those stylistic excesses, which von Trier had kept in check since the overblown visual pretenses of Zentropa (the Dogme manifesto explicitly discouraged such excesses). Alas, he’s thrown out the manifesto (or, more likely, burned it and rubbed the ashes on his bare chest and cried out “Chaos reigns!”).
Style over substance is back with a vengeance from the opening montage, a dirgelike slow-motion prologue of eros and thanatos complete with explicit vaginal penetration. Von Trier worried that it would look like a perfume commercial, but did he ever think it would look like bullshit? Does he realize how funny it is when, in the commentary track, he admits the falling teddy bear was digitally inserted later?
If this comes off badly, it’s no fault of the actors. Shortly after I watched Antichrist I saw Dafoe on stage in Idiot Savant, whose text consisted of what seemed no more than slow-motion babble (I kid you not – many lines were delivered sloooowwwwlllllyyyyy), but his presence as an actor delivered it remarkably well. Charlotte Gainsbourg, as another one of von Trier’s punished women (issues, much, Lars? Don’t get me started on the gynocide theme), gives a harrowing performance full of self-debasement and extreme violence.
Antichrist, with one hilarious exception, is not a pleasant experience, but as a cultural signifier there’s something about it that screams “must-see,” if only to say you have. But if you don’t have two hours to spare, watch the film’s best and most famous scene (it inspired a line of t-shirts) here. This scene led to a mass exodus at the film’s Cannes premiere, but it’s one of the funniest things I saw all year.
One more note on the commentary track, which is quite entertaining. Von Trier claims that the woodland creatures that recur in the film, as well as the iconic line, came to him on a shamanic journey. I’d find a new shaman if I were him.