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‘If I were a chef, this would be my version of a classic pork roast’.
Lars von Trier
Antichrist (2009) premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival to a smattering of hostility and derision. In the first press conference for the film a British journalist tersely demanded director Lars von Trier ‘explain and justify’ why he made it. In response, von Trier said that he did not have to justify himself, adding ‘you are all my guests and it’s not the other way around’. This admission of being unconcerned about audience opinion provoked animosity from the press, and his comments were subsequently used in many reviews as a sign of his obvious arrogance. Why a popular entertainer such as Ricky Gervais can get away with professing a similar attitude whilst von Trier cannot is beyond me. Perhaps it is another example of how art or art films serve the false outrage that drives newspaper columns and the popular media today.
Despite the overreaction at Cannes, von Trier is back and at his provocative best after two relatively low-key films; the brilliant office comedy The Boss of it all (2006) and the study of power in American culture in Manderlay (2005). Unfortunately he remains one of a minority of contemporary directors who reflect seriously on the manipulative power of film—and on how a director’s persona impacts on its reception. Two other directors who premiered their films at Cannes 2009 are allies in this regard; Michael Haneke who premiered The White Ribbon (2009), and Quentin Tarantino who showed his latest, Inglorious Basterds (2009) (strangely, all three movies being filmed in Germany). The year 2009 was predetermined to be the year of the auteur at Cannes, however many critics subsequently reflected on it as an abstract and dying notion amidst the current milieu of brain-dead mainstream cinema.
Although von Trier made an impact fairly early in his career it was not until the creation of the ‘Dogme ’95’ manifesto that he became relatively popular and produced his most interesting work. Early films such as Element of Crime (1984) and Europa (1991) have a more flowing, surreal and darkly poetic quality. ‘Dogme ’95’ began his new rigidly structured, play-like sensibility, found in The Idiots (1998), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003), The Five Obstructions (2003) and others—extending upon the structural use of chapters in Breaking the Waves (1996). This emphasis on structure has continued, but Antichrist seems like a bit of a departure. The film is separated into four parts: Grief, Pain, Despair and The Three Beggars, yet it breaks from the hyper-consciousness for which von Trier has become known. There is the sense that he has let go of controlling meaning with this film. Perhaps one could describe it as mixing the lewdness of The Idiots, the strange religiousness of Breaking the Waves and providing a Nordic take on Japanese directors such as Takashi Miike and Hideo Nakata.
The start of Antichrist consists of a great set-up, gorgeously shot and set to gorgeous music (from the opera Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel), in which the main couple played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg make love as their two year old son falls out the window of their apartment. It is one of the best starts to a movie I have seen; rich in metaphor, beautifully shot and sucking the viewer into the oncoming narrative immediately. After the death of their child, the couple retreat to a cabin in the woods (called ‘Eden’) where Gainsbourg’s character had spent the previous summer working on an academic thesis on genocide. Dafoe’s character attempts to wean his wife off antidepressants by conceiving of his own therapy regime. As you might have guessed this does not go as planned.
The last half of the film features random violence as Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character falls apart and seeks revenge on her husband. The randomness of these events seems to match von Trier’s approach to making the film and is probably the reason why it has stirred up so much debate about its message and possible misogynistic outlook. When faced with such ambiguousness over character motivations, I asked myself ‘why are these events happening?’ and ‘why was he so invested in creating these images?’ Yet it was also apparent that these reactions were his goal—even if he was lead to it intuitively. The main theme of Antichrist focuses on the brutally real delusion of depression foregrounded against mankind’s delusions about nature. Arguably, this is a pretty old-fashioned existentialist concern that can also be found in the work of three of von Trier’s heroes: Andrei Tarkovsky, Friedrich Nietzsche and August Strindberg. Here he personalises the subject matter and reinvests these philosophical questions with a new pertinence. We should also remember that von Trier lives in a small town outside of Copenhagen, in a place where idyllic nature is not so far removed.
After successfully forming his own production company, Zentropa, in 1992, von Trier has been able to make the films he wants to make without a lot of compromise (akin to the creative freedom that Stanley Kubrick had with Warner Brothers). Zentropa is also the first film company to produce pornographic films alongside mainstream feature length films—an influence that can be seen in Antichrist, although I did not find the depiction of sex (and genital mutilation!) as exploitatively pornographic as others have reported. In bringing a unique and personal vision to filmmaking, von Trier binds cinema and art closer together. And just as with art, claims about the death of cinema are increasingly being raised. In summing up Cannes 2009, The Village Voice film critic, Jim Hoberman, stated that ‘if the most characteristic films selected for competition were put under psychoanalysis, a fundamental, ontological anxiety might be revealed: Do movies still move us? Does cinema still have the power to thrill? […] Is the medium itself even alive?’1 Like all enigmatic artworks, Antichrist does not say a word, offering up an ambiguous parable that is great to look at and great to think about.
1. J. Hoberman, ‘A Final Report from the Cannes Film Festival 2009’, TheVillage Voice, online edition, 26 May 2009.