by Paul Deines
Profiles in Batshittery is a series where I break down a train-wreck film, one with style and exuberance that fell short artistically and commercially. The type of film that still draws me in when I happen upon it late night on TV. I choose one batshit classic per year, moving back in time as I go.
How should an artist’s personal behavior affect our assessment the art? Consider, for example, Kanye West. He is, to my mind, the most exciting popular artist working today. Of his six albums, five are among my favorites in the last 10 years (of 808s and Heartbreak, the less said the better). Kanye West, though, is a douche. Nothing about his public persona is appealing, but West’s massive-but-fragile ego fuels his music. Only a self-important jerk could produce an opus like Yeezus; so I say who cares what he says.
But wait – West interrupts people at awards ceremonies and rants in interviews: that’s the extent of his awfulness. That’s easy for me to ignore. I can look past the awful opinions of John Updike and T.S. Eliot or the general assholery of Alec Baldwin. The likes of Bill Cosby or Woody Allen, with their horrific (alleged) crimes, are something worse.
Words, even disgusting words, are easier to dismiss if the work is beautiful.
So what about someone like Lars von Trier? He combines the sanctimony of a religious fundamentalist with the shit-eating self-possession of a college freshman. His opinions are across-the-board awful: all women are succubi, humans are inherently psychopathological. Von Trier is a misanthrope that revels in his own truculence and expects others to thank him for it.
His retrograde attitudes toward women, though, are integral themes in his films. More problematically, they are central to his best films. Most maddeningly, these deeply misogynistic von Trier pictures have amazingly-drawn female protagonists. He’s shepherded stirring performances from Emily Watson, Björk, Nicole Kidman, Bryce Dallas Howard, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst. Three of those women won Best Actress at Cannes for their performances. Uma Thurman – far and away the best thing in von Trier’s awful two-part Nymphomaniac – suggested that the director has “the courage to examine female characters from many angles—good and bad—and not in just a one-dimensional manner.” Which begs the strange question: does a man with unbelievably problematic views on women produce the best women’s roles today?
So, today I’m discussing the most problematic film in von Trier’s oeuvre, Antichrist starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe.
What it promised …
When I saw Antichrist at the New York Film Festival in 2009, it had already inspired ominous chatter for its graphic sex scenes and extreme violence. The matinee I attended was buzzing about the night before, when an audience member had a seizure during a must-discussed onscreen act of self-harm. Yet I went into this screening knowing little apart from dispatches from its Cannes premiere: audience members retched and stormed out, Gainsbourg won best actress, the film won a special prize for misogyny.
Antichrist’s promotional images looked far different from the Lars von Trier recent films. Since 1995, he’d been the most public face of the Dogme movement, which eschewed artifice and embraced abstemious filmmaking. His Dancer in the Dark was shot with handheld digital cameras and practical light. The first two parts of his aborted “America trilogy” Dogville and Manderlay, were variations on Our Town, taking place on empty soundstages. All three films are stripped-down exercises.
Antichrist, by contrast, is ravishing. Von Trier sticks to his quavering handheld shots for intimate scenes, but he complements these with meticulously photographed dumb-shows, gloriously rendered in painterly detail – sometimes moodily shadowed, sometimes theatrically lit. It looked unmistakably von Trier without looking like anything he’d done before.
What it delivered …
Lars von Trier’s work is theatrical, by which I mean his films could easily be plays. His first feature, in fact, was a television production of Medea. His America films recall Our Town, and Dancer in the Dark, a musical, consciously borrows from The Sound of Music. Breaking the Waves – the 1996 film that made his name internationally and still his high water mark - recalls his Scandinavian progenitor Henrik Ibsen. So does Antichrist.
The film is a two-hander. Dafoe and Gainsbourg spend most of the film isolated in a cabin, and there are no other speaking roles (except on talkative woodland creature we’ll discuss later). In fact, the first half of Antichrist resembles a particularly caustic domestic drama from Ingmar Bergman – another artistic forebear – and it’s remarkably straightforward.
Antichrist tells the story of an unnamed bourgeois couple living in the Pacific Northwest. Reeling from the sudden death of their infant son, they retreat to a secluded cabin in the woods at the husband’s urging. A fatuous know-it-all of a psychiatrist, he’s determined to usher his depressed wife through her grief, using exposure therapy and nothing else (he flushes all her medication). Critics accuse von Trier of having contempt for his characters, and in this case they are 100% right. Dafoe is bullying and reckless, placing the clearly-suicidal Gainsbourg in the worst possible circumstances for recovery. Gainsbourg has dark secrets all her own, which to my mind make no sense. But more on that later.
What works and what doesn’t?
The opening of Antichrist might be the most effective sequence this director has produced. A flawless mélange of music, choreography, photography and composition. This video is edited, but it is still unequivocally NSFW:
This passage contains all of von Trier’s worst excesses, perfectly balanced. The lingering hardcore shot of slow-motion penetration, for example: shot like the space ballet in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s surprisingly poignant. The tragic events to come hinge on a juxtaposition of joy and terror, heedless love and heedless neglect, procreation and death. It’s all in this wordless sex-and-death dance. Von Trier – as he’s apt to do – hits his emotional cues with a sledgehammer: the teddy bear looking through the window, the child turning from his copulating parents to the parlous window. But coupled with the Handel, this pointedness feels right. We are watching high tragedy, a loss that will reverberate throughout the film.
The scenes that follow – beginning with a wordless sequence shot through the window of a hearse – drop us into the worst of the couple’s grief (also the title of the first chapter proper in this six-part film). Watching the gentle ministration Dafoe offers the disconsolate Gainsbourg, we suspect something that she accuses later: he has always been remote to his family. This resentment is already burbling below Gainsbourg’s physically wrenching anxiety. Dafoe, meanwhile, sees in his wife’s emotional collapse an opportunity to distract himself from his son’s death. Lars von Trier has contended with anxiety and depression his whole life, and these early sequences are assured. He marries his intense, intimate psychoanalytical dialogue with images seemingly pulled from a particularly dire fairy tale:
(HEADS UP TO READERS: WE’LL BE GETTING INTO SPOILERS IN THE SECTIONS THAT FOLLOW)
Then we enter the exposure therapy. The film transitions to a chapter absurdly titled “Despair (Gynocide),” and all this careful, elegant characterization goes out the window. You see, Gainsbourg’s emotional collapse is actually part of deeper psychopathy. As it turns out, her mysterious dissertation began as an exploration of religious subjugation of women but became a thesis on the satanic essence of womanhood. She physically abused their child and wanted him dead. She detests all men and herself.
As Dafoe realizes his wife is a sociopath, she enters an entropic state. She storms into the nighttime woods to masturbate, accuses her husband of treachery and, finally, turns violent. This section idiotically undercuts all that came before. What starts as an exploration of loss and spiritual decline becomes an unpacking of some very unpleasant ideas about female sexuality.
What’s so batshit about it?
Well, let’s start with the endearingly batshit stuff. For one, Antichrist is full grotesquely evocative images: a baby bird enveloped by ants, a stillborn fawn dangling from its doe, a sleeping hand covered in ticks. Yet all this is presented like grand fresco gorgeously rendered. We see Gainsborough subsumed into the foliage and Dafoe showered with acorns. In probably the most famous image from the film, they have sex amid the roots of an ancient tree, spectral hands emerging from the earth as though to caress them.
Then there’s this, the vulpine punchline that set my festival screening on a roar:
As you can probably guess, all this wondrous imagery is at the service of nonsense mythology. In a cabin called (groan) Eden, our pilgrims meet three animal messengers – the Three Beggars? – including our friendly fox. These symbolize pain, grief and despair, and they are born of nature. And nature is born of the devil, or so says Gainsbourg. And so, I guess, were women. At the end of the picture, a multitude of faceless women emerge from the woods and walk past Dafoe. So there’s that. Von Trier is throwing spaghetti at the wall. Even Valhalla Rising had a more cogent spiritual treatise. The credits include a “researcher-theology” (along with researchers for horror movies, mythology/evil, anxiety and misogyny) but heaven knows what his contribution was.
This everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to religion is one thing. The bloodbath of Antichrist’s last thirty minutes is something else.
Von Trier’s first choice for the wife role was Eva Green, an actress not known for being squeamish. But Green’s management forbade her from taking the part, and it’s not hard to see why. Gainsbourg is asked to do a lot of difficult, unpleasant stuff. Now, I am never of the mind that we need to pity actors for playing rough roles. They know what they’re signing on for (a few sad and notable exceptions aside) and baring oneself (emotionally, often physically) is pretty much the job. By all accounts, Charlotte Gainsbourg was psyched to take on this role.
Graphic sex and emotional degradation are par for the course with von Trier – and perhaps key to the grand performances he’s directed. But the final minutes of Antichrist have Gainbourg acting her heart out at the service of a sadistic joke. She crushes Dafoe’s testicles with a plank, then jerks him off until he comes blood. She drills a bolt through his leg and affixes a millstone. She grinds against him and weeps. The climax of this passage is the act of violence that felled an audience member at Lincoln Center: Gainsbourg removing her clitoris with a pair of scissors.
It’s a horrific moment by any measure, but von Trier shoots it in extreme closeup. He loves to do this in moments of particular awfulness. When a character in Breaking the Waves is being resuscitated by paramedics, he zooms in on her bare, pallid and bloody chest; his camera glares similarly at the Nymphomaniac protagonist’s haunches during a particularly brutal flogging. He knows he’s being transgressive and wants us to flinch.
And I don’t want to be obtuse about the narrative choice of the scissors. It’s to Gainsbourg’s credit that she can make us believe her character is so repulsed by her own sexuality that this is her only relief. It’s infuriating, though, that the script has seen fit to transform her character into something between a rabid animal and an agent of pure malevolence.
Can I recommend it?
Lars von Trier apparently began writing Antichrist with the notion of making a horror film. He then started incorporating elements of his own struggle with depression and unpacking his most misogynistic thoughts. The resulting film is, surprisingly, still an effective horror film. Its lingering sense of dread and slow burn to violence is masterful. And like many horror flicks, it collapses once said violence arrives.
Of course, Antichrist probably wouldn’t have achieved its notoriety without the body-horror of its final act. So, as much as much as I’d love the film to end before the bloody semen and millstones, it wouldn’t be von Trier’s work without it. It fared slightly better than his previous two pictures, Manderlay and The Boss of It All (neither of which cracked $100,000 in the US). Still, it wasn’t a resounding commercial success by any definition. In Germany, von Trier’s company made more money suing people who pirated Antichrist than it did from tickets sales and purchases.
But Antichrist did its job for von Trier inasmuch as it brought him back to the fore in international film conversation. At its Cannes premiere, he declared himself the greatest filmmaker alive and – though mocked and reviled – proceeded to even greater acclaim. In 2011, the director would be ejected from Cannes by decree for joking about Hitler on mic following the premiere of his much-better apocalyptic drama Melancholia. That film made a cool $16 million in the US, and when it received no Golden Globe or Oscar nominations, that was considered a snub. Once again we were forced to decide what it meant to love a film made by a thoroughly objectionable man.
So, I guess I have to qualify any recommendation of Antichrist. It is the most Lars von Trier of Lars von Trier’s films: violent, petulant, nonsensical. It’s glorious much of the time; just as often it’s indefensibly terrible. If you can stomach Breaking the Waves or Dogville, I think you need to watch it. If you think von Trier is execrable to his core, I recommend avoiding the film or any discussion of it.
That’s the balance for a director like von Trier. His films are inextricable from his personality. More’s the pity for us.
Next time, we’ll lighten things up with the criminally underrated Will Ferrell comedy Semi-Pro.