By Chrysa Pikramenos
My sole recognition of Danish director Lars von Trier, was that of his 2000 film Dancer in the Dark, starring Icelandic singer Bjork. I can honestly say it’s difficult to revive an immediate emotion of my own from the film, most likely because I wasn’t all that affected by it. Antichrist on the other hand, a 2009 release, seemed too compelling to dismiss, well that is, at least its preview did. I try to remind myself though as my elementary school teacher once did, to never judge a book by its cover. I’ve learned nonetheless, that that particular principle applies to most things in life, including movies and their trailers.
Antichrist tells a story about a couple, played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who are the only two actors in the film, and are referred to as He and She. They attempt to work through their grief over their dead son, while they stay at their isolated cabin in the woods. Although the main intention of the retreat was to heal psychologically, things within nature and themselves start to change for the worse, bringing them to terrifying circumstances.
I had so many expectations for this film, provoked mainly by the visually seducing trailer, and the eerie storyline that seemed to promise a mentally menacing and horrific experience. I must admit, I was also lured in by the frenzy the film sparked at the most recent Cannes film festival, where some argued against the film for being “misogynistic”, “sexually violent” “pornographic” and “anti-male”, and for those reasons, the film was regarded as “highly controversial”.
Putting aside all the hoopla surrounding the film, as an allegedly “supernatural thriller” with disturbing capabilities, I was hardly disturbed, but rather disappointed from the sluggish tempo of the script. Many of the scenes functioned as teases, alluding to the possibility that some engaging element, inciting curiosity and fear, would eventually appear in either the dialogue or the characters. Instead, only monotonous conversation and unimpressive psychobabble ensued.
The characters were rather flaccid and not captivating enough to crave more of their presence, which had nothing to do with the actors’ capabilities, but instead with the script, which lacked the appropriate rhythm, depth, and direction. Although Charlotte Gainsbourg won the award for best actress, for her role as She, I didn’t come away from the film thinking that it was a stellar performance. While the part did require her to expose herself emotionally, psychologically, and physically, which is what I assume won her the award, she did so on a superficial level, which I attribute to the restraints of the script and directing. Eva Green, which was originally approached for the female lead, did not accept the role, because her agents refused to allow her to, which was a smart move on their part.
Willem Defoe, who stars as He, the husband and psychotherapist, attempts to help his wife who is suffering from her grief. I generally like Defoe as an actor, but I found his presence in this specific role was in one word, blah. It’s hard to criticize an actor in a film that doesn’t really do them any justice, but I just didn’t think he was the perfect fit for the role. I found it humorous though, after reading from an online web source, Trier’s wife was “skeptical about asking a renowned actor like Dafoe to do such an extreme role”. While the director may have intended for the role to carry such potency, it would have been nice if he decided to share this supposed extremity with the viewers.
I also found it amusing that, “Critics gasped, jeered and hooted — and at least four people fainted — during a preview of the movie”, due to the “explicit violence” as stated in an article found from BREITBART, an online news source. I sometimes wonder if such people were planted in the audience to attract publicity for the director. Seriously, have these people been living in hiding for the past decade where they have not been exposed to any sort of psychological horror and raw nudity in a film that they actually found this film to be so shocking, causing them to physically withdraw and lose consciousness?
I found myself indifferent about the director’s reputation as being politically incorrect, and couldn’t care less on whether he is anti-female or anti-male. While Trier has been questioned by journalists and critics for his beliefs underlying his films, a filmmaker’s personal ideology shouldn’t have any bearing on the film’s artistic influence. I welcome controversy and taboo subjects, but if it’s not coupled with compelling and convincing content, then all the film seems to do is incite unnecessary media attention that only promotes the film and the director as being some sort of an artistic rebel or genius, which I couldn’t find is farther from the truth. Simply put, there wasn’t anything emotionally provoking about this movie, which I surprisingly found because its main objective is to explore through the various stages of mourning and the effects of psychological trauma.
I can appreciate an emotionally dark and pessimistic film, but it seems as if the director attempted to present grief and depression at a level too personal and deep, where it was incapable of penetrating the surface to those outside of it. According to Lars von Trier, the film was shot during a state of his own depression, and writing the script was a part of his own therapeutic treatment. Trier was remarked as saying in an interview, “The script was filmed and finished without much enthusiasm, made as it was using about half of my physical and intellectual capacity.”
Trier’s lack of enthusiasm translated through the screen as lazy directing, and perhaps he should have waited till the end of his treatment before starting production. Trier unveils the fascinating subject of gynocide, the deliberate extermination of women, throughout the movie, as material that the wife studies for her thesis. He integrates the idea that evil is inherent in women, and how it relates to the female lead and the loss of her son. His integration of gynocide is rather illusive and uncreative, and I wish he would have delved into it further. Even the allegedly “shocking” elements, such as the penis ejaculating blood and the clitoridectomy, failed to instigate much terror or excitation, due to its stale context.
The only positive acknowledgement I can lend to Antichrist is in its camerawork due to to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, and editor Anders Refin. Mantle has previously worked on films such as 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire. The cinematic shots and editing beautifully captured the psychologically tormented state of the grieving wife, and if this film were a piece of art hanging in a gallery, I would visit it often.
The slow surreal motions, mirrored from the wife’s afflicted psyche, are perfectly depicted through mesmerizing and haunting images of herself and nature. The opening scene specifically, was eloquently captured in black and white, with hypnotic fluidity in the sexual motions of the couple and the disquieting image of the young boy amongst the soothing particles of snow.
Unfortunately, expectations of a film should be met on a holistic level beyond just the visuals, and there wasn’t anything particularly magnetic about the film as a whole.
While Trier may have pretentiously claimed to be the “best director in the world”, even he must be aware that even some of the self-proclaimed best directors of the world don’t always make some of the best films, and Antichrist by far is no exception to that rule.
Here’s a link to the trailer for Antichrist: