Antichrist

Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist

By now you may well have heard of Antichrist, the new film from Danish director Lars Von Trier that upset a lot of people at the Cannes film festival and has surfed to UK cinemas on a big, fat wave of controversy.

However, what you have been witnessing is merely the gears of the filmic chattering classes being cleverly manipulated by a cunning provocateur.

The story involves a couple simply called He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who retreat to an isolated cabin in the woods, where they hope to repair their relationship after their child has died.

Given that this place is called ‘Eden’ and that the two central characters are not even named, you would be correct in thinking that we are back in the pseudo-parable territory of  Von Tier’s previous work like Dogville.

It then unfolds in a series of chapters titled ‘Grief’, ‘Pain’, ‘Despair’ and ‘The Three Beggars’ in which Defoe’s character (a psychotherapist) tries to cure his traumatised wife with increasingly disastrous results.

As their relationship breaks down, this emotional chaos is reflected in the outside world of the forest, with even animals saying ominous things.

When it first screened at Cannes many in the audience were appalled at the graphic sex, violence and the perceived misogyny of the director.

But if you actually go and see the film (unlike the complete clown at the Daily Mail who denounced it without seeing it), you may wonder what all the fuss and heated commentary has actually been about.

Whilst there are possibly two graphic moments that will upset those of a nervous disposition, they aren’t anything that horrendous compared to the violence in modern horror films like Hostel, Saw or even The Passion of the Christ.

For various boring reasons I couldn’t make the press screening and instead went to see it at a local art-house cinema showing it.

Watching with a paying audience can often be a lot more interesting than catching it with journalists ready to add to the already high-pitched chatter, so part of me was curious as to how it would go down.

When two older women sat in the row behind me I was wondering if there would be a mini-repeat of the now infamous Cannes premiere.

Would there be boos? Perhaps an invasion of militant feminists? Maybe even Daily Mail writers led by Baz Bamigboye would storm the building with pitchforks?

Unsurprisingly none of this happened at the late afternoon screening I was at and furthermore, the supposedly shocking moments were not actually that shocking.

The first sequence has upset some viewers becuase it slowly juxtaposes the two main characters having sex whilst their young child jumps out of a window to his death, all to the strains of Handel.

But tragic though the event is in the context of the film, is it really that offensive?

In Cruising (1980) William Friedkin chose to intercut gay porn with characters getting stabbed in the back by a gay serial killer (not the most subtle moment of his career), whilst the climax of Munich (2005) saw Steven Spielberg intercut a slow-motion sex scene with the massacre of the Israeli hostages.

So, you’ll have to excuse me if I didn’t find it new or shocking. If seeing a dying child on screen is so bad, then where where the howls of outrage at Pan’s Labyrinth or Assault on Precinct 13.

The shot in this sequence that is going to make the sex-averse MPAA unhappy is one which involves porn-like erect penetration.

But even that isn’t really a big deal – one of the women behind me merely let out an excited ‘ooooooh!’ when that happened, so I don’t think we need to get too hung up about it.

The other two moments that ‘scandalised’ the Cannes crowd involved two intimate parts of the male and female anatomy.

When it the story kicks in to the final straight, Defoe’s character is knocked unconscious and has his penis damaged by his (by then) deranged wife.

For good measure she decides to masturbate him, which results in a bloody ejaculation, which (although not pleasant to watch) isn’t exactly as bad as it sounds given that it is shot in a matter of fact style.

The other piece of genital mistreatment is more extreme, as Gainsbourg takes a pair of scissors to her clitoris and performs an act you will never see unless Eli Roth gets to guest-direct an episode of Casualty.

Is it shocking? For that moment it is, but no less than many other films that have featured body parts being cut off.

Mainstream multiplex fodder can often feature such graphic violence: Watchmen has a brutal sequence in which someone’s arms are sawn off, whilst the climax of Hostel 2 features someone’s genitals getting cut off and fed to a dog amongst numerous other graphic body horrors.

But I’m guessing that the combination of the ‘holiest of holies‘ (as Samuel L Jackson’s Jules described it in Pulp Fiction) and the air of controversy surrounding this film has given it extra dimension of notoriety.

As for the misogyny charges, this is something that is regularly hurled at Von Trier, often by people who seem influenced by the more ludicrous elements of post-modern ‘film theory’, have a Freudian’ interest in his background or simply don’t like the look and feel of his films.

He is a filmmaker who has a natural tendency to bait and provoke his audiences, be it the presentation of religion and marriage in Breaking the Waves, disability in The Idiots or the depiction of American culture in Dancer in the Dark and Dogville.

The fact that he seems to derive active pleasure from the critics who get so angry at his work just pisses them off even more, but to me this irreverent attitude is part of what gives his work an extra fizz and bite.

In the case of Antichrist, these two things have collided as the basic story – woman goes mad in the woods - seems to be a cinematic red rag tailor made for those that loathe his films.

I don’t feel his works generally – including this one – are misogynistic, but they do try to rile viewers who have an outdated 1970s view of what feminism is or was.

If a male critic couldn’t entertain the possibility that a female viewer could ever like Antichrist, who is actually being sexist?

The fact that views like this come a critical community that is – in the UK at least – overwhelmingly male, merely adds to the irony.

With his latest, Von Trier clearly seems to be screwing around with the mysogny accusations as well as the certain kind of liberal mindset that espouses them. (For a rough idea of this mindset, think of the liberal commentariat who get very upset at things like Brass Eye and Bruno).

Gainsbourg’s character in the story was working on a thesis about women in history (and comes to some startling ‘revelations’) whilst her husband is a therapist who believes he can cure her with things like ‘roleplay’.

I won’t give away the climax but it feels like a calculated middle finger to a certain kind of chin stroking, academic feminism but also to the idea that pyschological problems can be cured by talking about them.

In short the kind of people who think 1968 was the most important year in human history will likely hate this film.

Surely it is this – allied with the sexual violence – that has got people denouncing and praising Antichrist since May.

But if we strip away all the commentary that has dominated the wider perception of this film then the fact that remains is that this is a dissapointment.

Somehow, in trying to outdo his own brand of wry shock-making, Von Trier has unleashed a boomerang that has come back to hit him on the head.

The narrative of the film is too flat and never allows the characters to live and breathe, meaning that too much of it consist of banal talk in rooms and not enough action (although, ironically much of the hoo-hah has been about the scenes where stuff does go on).

The result is that sections of the film just drag and whilst things heat up considerably, it never recovers as a whole.

That said, there is much to admire here visually: Antony Dodd Mantle’s cinematography is highly impressive, using digital cameras (such as the RED One) in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before on the big screen.

The crisp clarity of the images (especially close ups of the actor’s faces) and the changing colour palette were striking, indeed a lot more interesting than what was coming out of the actor’s mouths.

But that said, Defoe and Gainsbourg do deserve a lot of credit for throwing themselves into their roles with such energy commitment.

Although they are let down by the writing this cannot have been an easy film to make or watch for them.

As for Von Trier, when all the brouhaha subsides, this will not go down as one of his better films.

It never appears to have an identity of its own and, at worst, almost it feels like a pastiche of his earlier work.

A protracted sequence involving a stone feels unintentionally comic (a satirical take on the ball and chain stuff in Dogville?) and as for the very end scene. WTF Lars?

Don’t be fooled by the controversy, just notice the drop in quality.

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