Friday, October 30, 2009

An Opinion: Antichrist

It has been nearly a week since I saw Lars von Trier's latest controversial piece of work "Anti-christ" (2009). I debated with myself whether or not I should write about it. I wasn't sure of my feelings. The movie opened up a lot of questions for me regarding movies and how we should interpret them and what exactly is their purpose. I haven't answered those questions yet but I thought I should get down my thoughts before they escape me.

"Antichrist", depending on your film taste, was one of the major film events of the year. People have been buzzing about it for a while, though, word was it was pretty bad. At the Cannes Film Festival stories came in that people walked out during the screening. Some say people were throwing things at the screen. It has been described as a "train wreck" and "torture porn".

Now that it has open in Chicago, I looked forward to seeing the movie. I'm usually in von Trier's corner. I've celebrated his films in the past. I was a great admirer of his "Dogville" (2004) which several people slammed as "anti-American". I called it one of the best films of the year. I also enjoyed "Dancer in the Dark" (2000) and "Manderlay" (2006). I called his "Breaking the Waves" (1996) one of the best films of its year too. So walking into "Antichrist" I was expecting to be pleased. I felt I'm in sync with von Trier's artistic sensibilities. Those other films were considered controversial as well. So I didn't take much notice when people said "Antichrist" was a divisive film.

Earlier in the year I saw an older Japanese movie, Nagisa Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses" (1976). It is generally regarded as a classic. The film shows acts of an intense sexual nature. Characters choke each other during the act and the film ends with the image of a jealous woman cutting off a man's penis. As I watched that film I began to feel dizzy. I was nausea. I don't have diabetes but my sugar dropped. I felt weak in the knees. It felt as if someone had hit me with a baseball bat in the chest and knocked all the wind out of me. I had to shut the movie off, lay down and eat some candy to restore my blood sugar. It was the most unpleasant movie going experience of my life. I have a pretty good stomach when it comes to screen violence. Slasher horror films have little effect on me. But, there was something about that film that left me so devastated.

I felt the same way when I saw "Antichrist". Unfortunately I wasn't in the comfort of my own home where I could shut off the movie and take a break. I couldn't tell the projectionist to stop the movie for me. I was weak in the knees again. My blood sugar dropped but I was too numb to get up and get some much needed candy. I was going to have to endure this until the very end. And I tried my best.

"Antichirst" makes me wonder, can a film be disgusting and vile and still have artistic merit? I suppose in theory the answer is yes but I've decided I don't want to see it done in practice. But does art have to comfort us? Do movies have to be pleasurable experiences for us? Can they rattle us and drive us to the point of vomit and still be about something? What if that was the director's desire? Can we fault him for achieving his goals?

I look at it this way. Lets say you have a student in a classroom who does disruptive things. They say mean things to the other students, they are rude, disobedient. Do you say, well, the child is engaging in individual expression and reward bad behavior or do you punish the child? In other words, by watching "Antichrist" and giving the film money are we rewarding bad behavior? Meaning, by seeing this picture are we telling Lars von Trier we want him to make more movies like this? I personally do not want him to. But does he care?

My gut tells me Lars von Trier is the kind of filmmaker who does precisely what he wants. He makes films for himself. Many times that is the best thing for an artist to do. I gather von Trier doesn't really care what the public thinks of his film. This was personal. Supposedly von Trier made this film after a two year battle with depression. You can tell something was wrong with him for making this.

The film stars William Dafoe as "He" and Charlotte Gainsbourg as "She". They are a married couple which has just lost their child. "She" is grief stricken. "He" is a therapist and thinks he can treat her. They go off to the woods, where "She" and the child went for their last summer vacation, a garden called "Eden".

After hearing about the buzz surrounding the film, the first hour or so of the film seemed very conventional. It was pretty slow moving and I wasn't having much interest following the story. It takes such a distant approach I felt. The viewer is isolated from these characters. But I felt I was on a cautious journey. I kept expecting some sort of twist. And then it happens, with in the last 40 minutes or so of the film. It turns extremely violent. We are now dealing with scenes concerning genital mutilation, male and female.

Was any of this needed? Could von Trier have given us the same message without the violence? I can think of another director who has explored issues of guilt, lost, trauma, relationships and good vs evil; Ingmar Bergman. His films "Cries & Whispers" (1973) and "Scenes From A Marriage" (1974) are prime examples. "Scenes From A Marriage" remains the most intense film I have seen on the subject of love and marriage. But von Trier dedicated his film to Andrei Tarkovsky, that other great existentialist. But I don't really see the comparison. Is "Antichrist" von Trier's "Solaris" (1972)?

Watching "Antichrist" the film felt as hallow to me as the recent Vince Vaughn comedy "Couples Retreat" (2009). Von trier has nothing meaningful to say about relationships. What, ultimately is he telling us? It is not the film's message which is controversial but the violence. But does the violence over shadow von Trier's themes? I think so. The bad reaction the film has been getting has been because of the violence. That is what people are reacting to. The group I saw this movie with were disturbed as well. No one moved once the film was over. I couldn't move for medical reasons. But when I did finally get up, I saw people walking outside saying they needed a drink. Other were smoking. People just had to partake in some sort of vice to ease what they had just seen. I eavesdropped to hear what others were saying and they all pretty much said the film was disgusting. They didn't understand what von Trier was doing. I didn't hear one person say, "boy, that was great! I can't wait to see that again!"

It seems to me "Antichrist" is a film full of symbolism and metaphor. The film goes for biblical references. "The garden of Eden", naming the characters "he" and "she". Animals in the garden are possessed and speak. This of course reminds us of the story of Adam & Eve. There an animal spoke too, the Devil, who disguised himself as a snake and tempted them to eat an apple. Von Trier asks the question are women evil, another biblical musing, since it was Eve who ate the apple first and tempted Adam to follow. But what about all of this? What is "Antichrist" hitting at?

On some level this can lead one to appreciate the film however. There does seem to be something artistic about the film. Von Trier seemed to have a vision and put it on-screen. He did not compromise. He must have known the kind of reaction this film would receive but he was bold enough to proceed anyway. I suppose you have to admire that. But the film is not a pleasurable viewing experience. Does that mean anything?

And that is why I have not written a formal review with star ratings. Rating are irrelevant with this movie. Plus I wouldn't know how much (or little) to give it. Do I bend over backwards in the name of artistic expression and congratulate von Trier or do I consider my personal reaction and respond to that?

Here is what others have written; "Lars von Trier cuts a big fat art-film fart with "Antichrist" starts off the review by "Variety" as it continues "derisive hoots were much in evidence during and after the Cannes press screening."

A.O. Scott of the New York Times called the film "ponderous" and says it is "so conceptually thin and so dull."

And finally Joe Neumaier of the New York Daily News states the film is "artfully horrific but artificial and soulless". Too bad the paper didn't let the much better critic Elizabeth Weitzman review it. It would have been interesting to read a woman's take on the film.

So I'm not alone in not fully celebrating the film. All I know is I never want to see this film again. I don't care if I can gain a greater insight into it after a second viewing. Now that I've written about it, I never want to discuss it again or even think about it. I want to erase it from my memory. After watching this film I started reviewing screen comedies on this blog. See there is a reason for everything. I needed to take pleasure in watching movies again.