Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: NYFF09 Movie Review: Antichrist

Monday, October 5, 2009

NYFF09 Movie Review: Antichrist

by Tony Dayoub

There have been movies that continue to intrude on my psyche weeks after first having seen them. Movies that despite my initial negative opinion so surprised me with their subtle way of insinuating themselves into my thoughts that I couldn't help but reassess them. But there's rarely anything subtle about Lars von Trier's Antichrist. The film is like a bully that bludgeons you into submission when it really doesn't need to. Lars von Trier is known for his desire to take risks. Sometimes they pay off, like in the wonderful theatrical staging of Dogville (2003). But Antichrist betrays its director's lack of confidence in his own proven ability to move you.

The unnamed He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) grieve over the death of their son, Nic. His death is depicted during the film's tragic and beautiful prologue (black and white, slow motion, with an opera piece playing over it), in which He and She make love as Nic climbs out of his crib and out a second story window, falling to his death. Distraught, She is hospitalized for over a month, medication interfering with her natural grief process according to He, a rational psychiatrist. Trying to help her get through the grief proves futile in their modern surroundings. She's natural inclination is to replace her despair with the ecstasy of sex. He convinces She to go to Eden, their cabin in the ominous woods, in order to help her start to heal. But the intuitive She is skeptical, and fearful of the woods, which she senses are evil... with reason as it turns out.

At various stages, the evocative imagery reminds one of The Shining (1980), Don't Look Now (1973), and Blue Velvet (1986), all movies that deal with a child in different stages of jeopardy. Like in The Shining, where Kubrick imbued the Overlook Hotel with an animosity through effective use of the camera, von Trier and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle frame the woods in distortive widescreen lenses that seem to animate the trees with a sense of foreboding. There is that sinking feeling that She is becoming possessed by the evil nature of the woods, as Jack Torrance was by the Overlook, and that it stimulated abusive behavior towards her child in the past. Like the role Venice played with regards to the grieving couple in Don't Look Now, the woods become a battleground for the couple against the invasive evil that is trying to fill the void left in their lives by Nic's death. Scenes like the one where She begs for He to hit her during lovemaking remind us of Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet who is pushed into using violent sex to "heal" Dorothy Vallens' grief over her absent son. He is goaded into giving into She's competing desires for pain and sex to quell her sadness. And the camera dolly into the grass, burrowing deep into the dirt reminds one of the same shot in Lynch's film, both symbolizing the underlying evil ever present in our lives.

But those parallels, which read quite elegantly on paper, are inartfully presented by the director due to is hamhanded method of delivery. The symbolism is a bit on the nose, don't you think? He, She, and Eden... really? And the graphic sexuality that punctuates the film throughout is a bit distracting. A scene of penetration is ill-suited in the prologue involving Nic's death. Oh, wait... that's the point isn't it. BONK! Bonk on the head if you don't get von Trier's comment on sexuality as the root of gender dissonance. Don't worry he'll continue to illustrate it in even more pronounced ways, literally attaching a millstone to one character late in the film, and graphically depicting genital mutilation late in the film if you still haven't gotten it (in a scene that shocked even the seen-it-all New York audience at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall).

In the end, Antichrist seems to be two films duking it out to see which one will prevail. One is a quite stirring psychological meditation on the loss of a child. And the other is a misogynistic film designed to titillate with no discernibly loftier goal than the average horror film. I'm not sure that either film overcomes the other.

Antichrist is available on demand from IFC Films on October 21st, and opens in select theaters on October 23rd.

Photo Credit: Film Society of Lincoln Center
/IFC Films


Chuck Williamson said...

I disagree with almost everything you said here, but that doesn't detract from the quality of this review. Very well done--a nicely constructed argument against Antichrist that I, personally, don't agree with.

It's so good, in fact, that I want to quote you later on. Of course, as I am currently writing a conference essay on Antichrist, I should warn you that I will most likely cite you in the counter-arguments section. You've officially been warned.

Tony Dayoub said...

Chuck, there is no one I'd rather have argue against this piece than yourself. Intelligent debate is always welcome, and I hope to get the opportunity to read your essay.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I have a rule that I don't go see films just because they're controversial (I've never seen Salo for instance)...and for a long time that is what von Trier's newest film sounded like.

Your review makes me want to see this movie, though. Despite the obvious shock value von Trier is going for you've piqued my interest with the "other film" as you call it, where He and She grieve their sons loss. The comparisons to The Shining and Don't Look Now also have me intrigued.

Everything you've said about the ending and the shock stuff doesn't surprise me as that's all I've been hearing about the film, but I'm glad you focused on some of the other qualities. I just may have to give this try on IFC OnDemand.

Great review here, Tony. I personally loathe von Trier and think he's one of the most overrated filmmakers working today (I know I may be in the minority on that one), and his smug, bludgeon-you-over-the-head approach to storytelling has never jived with me.

James Hansen said...

I'm with Chuck all the way, in terms of disagreement and also finding, as always, your arguments to be well constructed and quite cogent. My review at Out 1 goes into my defense a little more (although I could have used a more recent viewing, to be honest) but I'll explore this more here and maybe Chuck will chime in with his analysis and take, if he wants to give us a preview of his essay...

I guess my main question about your review is about the subtlety. Of course, I'm not going to come on here and say thats its subtle (its mostly not) but I think the two halves of the film (psychological half, horror half, if we want to split it that way) work pretty differently, which, arguably, could be a negative. But in the first half, I find the powerful, riveting discussions setting the underlying stage of the whole film; not only for the "in your face" moments of provocation, but a sly, tongue in cheek way of confronting depression and the (sometimes abusive) powers of gender roles. Much as women have a tough time in LvT's films, I've never really found any of it misogynist since identification always seems to be with the women. This is also why I tend to find LvT very rooted in classical melodrama where suffering can transmute into other consequence. If anything, his finger is pointed at He much more than She for instilling the nature of evil. The double standards of He in the psychological discussions pivot upon She beginning to buy into what he says about her. These smaller factors create for the impetus for depraved violence and excess (an important elements of melodrama and horror).

This is why when ANTICHRIST goes "overboard" and most certainly isn't subtle I'm able to stay on board. They are extreme measures and playing off extremes is never subtle. But because of the way the first half is constructed (and the way excess is introduced with the penetration shot, showing us the source of pleasure that devastates She), I see the non-subtleties as a natural progression of both the film's form and content. The tongue-in-cheekness of the intro (from the opera to the use of b&w to the penetration shot to the place being named Eden!) is countered and then flipped back on itself. I dunno. I guess I just find the way the film works (and succeeds) is about the small details. It might be lost because of the lack of subtly of what you see in the second half, but I think there is more going on than you give it credit for.

Tom Clift said...

While I definitely liked (if liked is the right word) the movie more than you, I do agree that all the graphic sex and violence was completely unnescessary - not because I'm put off by violence or sex necessarily, but just because it didn't really feel as though it fit in the film.

I though the movie was beautifully made, but things like that one out of place shot (you know the one I mean) in the opening sequence felt more silly than they did symbolic.

On the other hand, I think James here puts up a pretty good argument to justify it's insertion (pun fully intended)

Tony Dayoub said...

Truthfully, I didn't dislike this movie as much as you guys seem to perceive I did. I'm partly to blame, because I did smack it down pretty hard in the review in order to say, "Hey, it's really not that great."

But for the first two acts, I felt like it was a pretty effective psychodrama/horror movie. When he found the Polaroids (you'll just have to see the film) I was even really digging the film. But at that point it almost felt like LvT got lost in his own story. And when cornered, I believe LvT falls into a familiar trap for him. He decides to be "shocking."

Those "shocks" seem like acts of desperation rather than organically growing out of the rest of the film. It felt like smoke and mirrors used to cover up his deficiency in coming up with a successful confusion.

Even so, I'd still give the film a C-. Not great, but not awful.

Chris Voss said...

It's great to read a well reasoned argument against the film; I've read so many nonsensical diatribes that simply target the excessive violence or sex (not having see it I can't tell what they're defining as "excessive") that it's making me more interested in catching this when it premiers on VOD.

As always, great review.

Anonymous said...

(SPOILER)I think the graphic scene and the violence have to be there because its important to show that Nic die because of the sexuality of the two protagonist. Pleasure kill! So the shot that we saw a penetration in the shower gave a power to the mutilation Scenes we saw after that because she(Gainsbourg)try to punish herself and his husband of her negligence by don't having a eye on his son!!

Tony Dayoub said...

Oh, I get why it was there, and it didn't necessarily bother me in that initial scene. I am extremely supportive of sexuality in cinema. But as the Antichrist seemed to lose its way, I found von Trier depended more on (SPOILER) graphic scenes of genital mutilation to keep the audience off-balance, and thought it was an easy way out.