Sunday, December 20, 2009


(Note: Yes, this took way too long for me to write and post - I started it a week ago and just now got around to finishing it. The movie has come and gone, although we were lucky to have played it for the one week. Unfortunately, one can’t live by art film alone - which is why we have to play smarmy chicken-fried nonsense like The Blind Side and geriatric porn like It’s Complicated. Sigh. What are you going to do? Antichrist will be out on DVD on January 11, 2010, for those who are still interested.)

I don’t know that this is really the kind of movie that you can “like.” That’s mostly how I answered the question, of whether or not I liked this movie, while I was at work on Friday. Thursday night, after the lights came up, one of the other people who watched it turned around in her seat and asked me if I understood it; and I said, “A little, I think.” Twenty-four hours on, I don’t know that any of it is clearer to me, objectively; but I have a better idea of what I thought about it, and I think that’s where this movie really succeeds - as a thought-provoking, challenging piece of art, though one that most people probably won’t be able to stomach.

The basic framework of the story has to do with a man and woman, whose only identities are given as He and She - which a lot of people are taking to be a pretentious affectation on the part of writer-director Lars von Trier, a Danish filmmaker who seems to be best known for trying to shock his audience. I disagree that the appellations are either pretentious or an affectation, but I can’t speak to the rest of the von Trier oeuvre - this is the first of his pictures that I have seen. (Some of the others include Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville.) He and She retreat to their cabin in the woods - strategically named Eden - after the tragic death of their young son, so that She can cope with her grief, pain, and despair.

And that’s pretty much it - for the basic part, anyway. The rest of it is complicated…shocking…perverse…disgusting…sometimes random…and, some would say, entirely without a point. It’s also thought-provoking - maybe more so than any other movie I’ve seen this year - if you can get all the way through it without wanting to block it out of your memory for the rest of your life. I will say, however, that it wasn’t quite as thoroughly icky as I thought it was going to be, based on much of what I read about the film after it premiered in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival in May.

We should probably begin with the name of the cabin in the woods - Eden (where a lot of fiction has its…ahem…genesis). Only this time, after Something Really Bad (and unlikely) happens Man and Woman go back to Eden. A stretch? Not really. The movie is called Antichrist, after all - though if you’re thinking young girls vomiting pea soup or unholy babies living in the posh digs of the Dakota Hotel, you’re on the wrong track. Roger Ebert puts it nicely in his review by noting that the word antichrist is often thought to mean the opposite of Christ, whereas its translation from Greek is “opposed to Christ.” Mr. Ebert goes on to make the distinction that the “opposite of Christ” is supernatural and the “opposed to Christ” is the mere mortal - but I saw it a little bit differently than that, which is possibly due to the fact that I don’t think the concept of a “Christ” is any more valid than arguments against gay marriage or Sandra Bullock being nominated for any number of Golden Globes other than zero.

I read “opposite of Christ” as the physical manifestation of whatever stands against this Christ person; but this idea is fraught with problems - not the least of which is that Christ is a myth, which means that the antichrist, defined as the opposite of Christ, must also be a myth. Defined that way, “antichrist” isn’t anything at all, because the thing that it’s anti- isn’t anything at all, either. That leaves “opposed to Christ,” which is much more interesting - and actually possible in a world where science and reason count for something! Since “Christ” is only an idea, then “antichrist” here becomes opposition to that idea - or rather, those ideas, in plural, since “Christ” is really just the synthesis (depicted incorrectly as caucasian in literary works and art by arrogant, and stupid, Western whites) of a number of better-than-the-Old-Testament ideas like peace and love and forgiveness. This last idea, that of forgiveness, is most interesting within the framework of this film.

The film opens with He and She having exquisitely photographed black and white sex in the bathroom while their toddler manages to get out of his crib (quite gracefully, by the way), climb onto a window ledge, open the window, and topple to his death. They go back to Eden so that She can deal with her grief, despite the fact that He - a therapist who decides to treat his own wife, never mind the taboo - is oddly cold and reptilian for someone who is supposed to be caring for and treating her. Not much of what takes place at Eden is probably in the psychology textbooks, and none of it seems to do much to address forgiveness, either - though forgiving herself is what She seems to have the most trouble with. Eventually, we come to find out that She has been coming to Eden now and again to do research for her thesis - a rambling, scrapbook-like construct that would have looked right at home to the John Doe character in Seven, and which is steeped in the history of how women have been mistreated at the hands of men. The montage shown when He discovers her work not so subtly reveals that the research seems to be having a deleterious effect on her mental health.

Whether they actually deal with their grief is open to debate, but in the end, what we have is a fairly interesting meditation on evil and human nature - one that leaves you with quite a lot to think about it, but no clear answers. I don’t get a good sense of whether von Trier’s purpose here is to foster discussion or just disgust the viewer (this is where having seen some of his previous films would have been helpful), in part because he does a reasonably good job of doing both; but I tend to lean more toward the idea that he wanted to foster discussion. I don’t know that it’s an especially good film, but I would recommend it even if it were only challenging - which it is; that it is also quite thought-provoking merits at least a mildly enthusiastic recommendation. But it is most certainly not for the faint of heart.

No comments: