Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Resident Film Critic Chris Cabin Reviews - Antichrist

Image by IFC Center.

An aria by Handel soundtracks the opening salvo of the entity henceforth to be known as Lars von Trier's Antichrist. Underneath the operatic swell, a series of slow-motion, black-and-white movements details a married couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) losing themselves in a particularly encompassing bout of pleasure while their toddler climbs up to the windowsill and falls to his death. A moment of this plainly ridiculous segment even features a close-up of genital insertion while the two are showering, catching glimmers of the bathroom light in the cascading drops of water.

Despite numerous reports that von Trier's lunatic cannonball into the void of art-horror is insufferable from frame one on, this stiff introduction counts as one of only two moments that deserve to be so harshly judged. For most of the films 100+ minutes in fact, von Trier orchestrates an effective look at grief gone mad, tucked away in a remote cabin the couple has named Eden. It is in said cabin that Dafoe's manipulative psychotherapist takes Gainsbourg's struggling PhD candidate to work out her grief and remorse through a series of exercises he has planned, including a rather fruitless attempt to figure out what she is really scared of: Husband, herself or just the plain evil of nature.

Then, as the film's now-canonical central quote pronounces, chaos reigns. A storm of acorns rattling Eden's roof and Dafoe confronting an animatronic fox eating its own intestines in the woods are fanciful lead-ins to the orgy of clitoral castration, penis-smashing and wanton mutilation that dominate the film's final quarter. As her madness begins to bellow in fits of screams and accusations, he finds a scrapbook of witches and pagan rituals performed by women that she has collected and entitled "Gynocide", which may or may not be a tip of the hand from the film's director.

The clutter is immense; noisy, showy and often times deliberately assaultive towards von Trier's (perhaps misguided) concept of inactive cinema. The Danish enfant terrible has consistently incurred bloodlust from the cinema community for his happily malevolent, wildly ambitious canon of experiments in genre mechanics. Over the years the results have swung from triumphant (Dogville, Europa, Breaking the Waves) to provocative (The Idiots, Dancer in the Dark) to imprudently polemical (Manderlay, Epidemic) but they are never films unfit for discussion or boring, for that matter.

Antichrist is no different; but for the first time in his career, von Trier's narrative diversions feel self-conscious and without meaning. The director has said that the film was birthed from a case of severe depression that he looked to excise through the filmmaking process and it's not hard to imagine his more brutal diversions (the fox, the raining acorns, a living burial) as cathartic responses to a dark psychotic state. But underneath the melee lies a tenebrous piece of traditionalist 1970s horror, something Polanski wouldn't have been completely incapable of creating in his heyday. Von Trier's structure here -- bouts of concentrated form interrupted by puerile intimations towards the avant-garde -- suggests a tightly paced art-horror film that was assailed by the director's own psychological dissonance.

That being said, Antichrist does contain one consistent element amongst its anarchy and that is Ms. Gainsbourg. Certainly one cannot discount the reliable Dafoe, who employs his distinct intensity and snarl here with sincere discipline, but Gainsbourg's dedication to von Trier's vision -- something which has been argued as wildly anti-woman and covertly pro-feminist -- is quite simply astonishing. Whether furiously masturbating against the bare, impious roots of a tree or trembling and torturing herself in their barren apartment, Gainsbourg's physical manifestation of one woman's hell is unshakeable. The same thing cannot be said, in whole, about Antichrist whose director seems too distracted by his own demons to dedicate himself to his characters' demons.

Antichrist is playing at the IFC Center in the West Village (ah, those were the days at the Waverly bar).

Chris Cabin is our very own resident film critic. You can find his reviews mainly at AMC's FilmCritic.com.

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