When Lars von Trier co-wrote the Dogme 95 manifesto quite some time ago with fellow European filmmakers, he mandated that, for a film to receive the Dogme 95 seal of approval, it mustn’t include any credit given toward the director anywhere in the film. The goal, implicitly, was to remove film from the baggage that a famous director’s cult of personality carries, undermining the role of the auteur and acknowledging film as a collaborative creative experience rather than some manifestation of a vision articulated by a single artistic mind. Almost ten years after von Trier’s own Dogme 95 entry hit screens (the frustratingly commercially unavailable The Idiots (2000)), the director seems to have abandoned this radical idea entirely, as the opening seconds of his newest, the unavoidably controversial Antichrist, features his name in big letters scrawled across the screen (without the expected “directed by” or “a film by” credit).
This decade-long 180 by the director is indicative of von Trier’s active role not only within the aesthetics and themes of this newest film (suggesting a regression to pre-Dogme ideals, the gorgeous use of slow motion and black-and-white is a throwback to his earlier films Europa and An Element of Crime), but also how he has taken such a role to actively and provocatively shape audience opinion of Antichrist. In a Q&A after its premiere at Cannes last May, von Trier notoriously uttered that he is the world’s greatest living filmmaker. Only those present at the Q&A can attest to the tone and context of this statement, but there is no doubt that von Trier has an ego that translates into a weighted cult of personality of the auteur that he had sought to reject some time ago. Despite the arrogance of such a statement, it is arguably not without validity, as von Trier should be credited as one of the last of a special type of filmmaking personality, one whose worldview explicitly informs all level of content in each of his films. Von Trier, a walking contradiction, is pretty old school in the way he goes about spreading his auteur ego. He’s unwavering in his politics, intense and demanding in his filmmaking process, challenging and fearless in his technique, and he’s probably the last living filmmaker that, you know, writes manifestoes.
I mention all this because it’s impossible to view Antichrist without engaging in some debate regarding many factors surrounding the film, including the merit of von Trier’s work as a whole. While any movie critic worth his weight in DVDs should be expected to judge a movie solely by the movie itself, the experience of seeing Antichrist is determined not only by the debates and polarized reactions surrounding the film, but by the fact that the film itself seems to actively incite these ongoing debates. In many ways, the intense reactions to von Trier’s latest are exactly what the director expected and intended.
In short, Antichrist is about a dysfunctional couple (…). I provided that ellipsis for those reading this who have seen the film so that they have time to clean whatever they were drinking or eating off their computer screens. Dysfunctional, of course, is an understatement to end all understatements. The film opens with the death of the couple’s toddler, who falls out a window as the couple has sex. The rest of the film deals with the various forms of the wife’s grief. Dafoe’s character is a therapist who decides to make his wife’s grieving process his own personal project, objectively guiding her through the many stages of grief while seemingly never realizing that he too should be suffering over the loss of their shared offspring. Charlotte Giansbourg’s character’s intense emotional turmoil becomes more of a venture to allow Dafoe to prove his chops as a therapist, making her his own personal experiment, rather than a couple’s mutual process of overcoming. Gainsbourg is correct when she accuses Dafoe of emotional distance, and in this respect the film explores interesting ideas regarding gender relations in a relationship, empowerment through psychoanalysis, and relationship responsibility vs. selfish need. In a way, then, the eventual manifestation of her grief as violent action onto him is inevitable, even justified by her character logic, rather than the unremitting ‘evil’ the movie itself introduces it to possibly be. Antichrsit indeed introduces the possibility that what ideas the film itself seems to propogate may not be exactly the message that intends to come across.
Antichrist seems like at first like an unusual film to show at a genre fest, but in many ways it truly is a horror film. Here the villain is grief, and the prospect of a grief so strong that it is unavoidable and never-ending to the point of actually taking control of the person is truly terrifying, and horror is a fascinating way to encapsulate such an idea. Such an experience is inferentially universal, but Antichrist could have been much more effective if we experienced the relationships between this family of three before the paralyzing grief began. Instead von Trier launches us head first into some really emotionally complex territory, and in this respect he potentially loses a great deal of his audience long before the truly challenging material appears onscreen.
Central to how one experiences Antichrist is the way in which one makes a distinction between the perspective of the characters and the perspective we bring to the film itself. Antichrist has received many an accusation of being misogynistic. There’s certainly an argument to be made there, and the film will no doubt become a central text in feminist film theory and criticism, coupled with von Trier’s history of treating his lead actresses in not the most respectful manner (many of which have consequently resulted in some of the best performances of their careers, including Gainsbourg’s). But to call Antichrist misogynistic is like saying American Beauty is a movie the champions pedophilia. Just because the idea is introduced and explored does not mean the standpoint of the film, the filmmaker, or how we perceive the film simply and directly runs in line with that. To make such an accusation is dismissive and simplistic, ignoring the many of ideas going on in a film whose central flaw lies in its very ambition. That the message of Antichrist is confused and muddled is a reaction to be expected, but the accusation of misogyny entails a frustrated preemptive refusal to explore the film any further. If Antichrist should be lauded for anything, it’s the many debates on sexism, the depiction of violence, the responsibility and influence of the filmmaker, and the important differences between meaning intended by the filmmaker and meaning interpreted by the audience. But the only way these debates can be constructive is if one genuinely attempts to view this film outside its now-notorious knee-jerk reactions at Cannes and take it at face value.
Granted, the many messages of Antichrist do become muddled, confused, and often contradictory. The film, like all of von Trier’s work, remains intent with meaning to a suffocating degree, but unlike his other films this meaning is elusive and debatable, tarnished with holes and inconsistencies. This is not necessarily a criticism of the film, as it is refreshing to see a filmmaker with such a predetermined agenda (the guy wrote manifestos, god dammit!) who truly challenges you to take away whatever messages you may come away from this movie with. This might be the first totally unambiguous film I have seen that dares the audience to fill in its meaning themselves. Part of the muddling comes from the quite fair criticism that audience alienation results from the pretentious the execution of this film, especially in dialogue, featuring ham-fisted but frustratingly vapid and vague thematic snippets like “I was dead once, too” or “nature is the devil’s church” (and, of course, that indefensible much-quoted two-word line of dialogue from a very unexpected source that could not have come across any further from von Trier’s intention). And by the film’s second half, it is easy to feel like von Trier has copped himself out from the complexity and confident but challenging moments of wholly original (and, in its own way, violent) cinematic elegance set up in the first half. Gainsbourg’s transformation seems at times like the easy way out of an ambitious reach the director has set up for himself that he can’t quite grasp, taking his own carefully formed structure and suddenly tearing it down. But this doesn’t take away from the first half, or even from the second, as it is in this way, for better or worse, that the film truly challenges the audience. It is the first bout of elegant, intricate filmmaking, which smacks the audience on the back of the head. I simply haven’t seen anything like it before.
It is not von Trier’s intention that we like his film, but it’s also not provocation for its own sake. Antichrist is a film worthy of its existence, worthy of any non-simplistic praise and criticism it receives. It deserves to be mulled over, debated over, spit at, and embraced. I might not have enjoyed Antichrist or even thought of it as the major cinematic achievement von Trier undoubtedly regards it is, but I found the experince revealing and even enlivening. I am thankful that such films, and such filmmakers, exist to allow us to react and question. Antichrist is proof that cinema still has the capability to shock, resonate, polarize, and infuriate. It is cinema as an event. As a film it is both fascinating and infuriating, beautiful and brutal. Antichrist is neither good nor bad. It simply is, whether we like it or not.
The Upside: It’s already a pretty notorious film, and you might want to join the debate.
The Downside: Chaos reigns.
On the Side: Antichrist features an end dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky (which Cannes audiences sneered at), the beloved Soviet filmmaker who died twenty-three years ago. Besides Antichrist’s preoccupation with nature (a recurring obsession with Tarkovsky), I saw know real connection between film and filmmaker, as Tarkovsky never made anything resembling a horror film…Also, there are no discernible religious themes in a movie called Antichrist. None.