Imagination overwhelms story in "Antichrist"

Mon May 18, 2009 10:56pm EDT
 
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By Peter Brunette

CANNES (Hollywood Reporter) - With his latest offering, "Antichrist," Danish bad-boy director Lars von Trier is in no danger of jeopardizing his reign as the most controversial major director working today.

Visually gorgeous to a fault and teeming with grandiose, if often fascinating, ideas that overwhelm the modest story that serves as their vehicle, this may be the least artistically successful film von Trier has ever made. As such, commercial prospects appear slim for the film, which is competing at the Cannes festival. But many of the auteur's most ardent fans will want to see the film anyway. And they should.

"Antichrist" is relentlessly and solely focused on a married couple, played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. As we learn in a rather pretentious prologue shot in slow motion and black-and-white, their toddler son fell to his death through an open window while they were making love. Bereft, they retreat to Eden, their ironically named cabin in the woods, to recuperate from their loss. At this point, von Trier switches to color and his signature chapter headings. The fact that the first three are "Pain," "Grief" and "Despair" does not bode well.

In discussing what he calls "the most important film of my career," von Trier has referred to the forbidding Swedish playwright August Strindberg. Clearly, or rather not so clearly, von Trier is working in a full-out symbolic vein here, as did Strindberg late in his career, but alas, the film medium inevitably carries with it, like an albatross, a heavy charge of realism. Hence, many of von Trier's more outrageous, ultra-serious symbolic moments (such as a talking fox, its guts half ripped out, muttering "chaos reigns" in an "Exorcist" voice) will -- and did, in the press screening at Cannes -- undoubtedly provoke unintended laughter. Or horror, as when genitals are scissored off, masturbation produces blood rather than semen and holes are drilled into legs.

The film's most successful thematic confrontation is that between frail reason (embodied in the pathetic, infantilizing attempt by the husband, who's a psychotherapist, to treat his deeply disturbed wife with cognitive therapy) and the uncontrollable forces of emotion and mystery that emerge victorious.

Another powerful idea, that nature is cruel and vicious and completely antithetical to human welfare, seems to align von Trier with the German visionary director Werner Herzog. ("Nature is Satan's church," the wife utters apocalyptically at one point.) This focus on nature subsequently gets conflated with human nature and finally with female nature, where von Trier's careerlong misogyny comes into fullest bloom. In any case, all the ideas of the film are so extravagantly and feverishly expressed that one fears that von Trier, always working on the edge, has finally become unhinged.

The film works much better on a purely visual level, if only viewers were able to forget that these are real people being represented in these voluptuous images, abetted by an often superb sound design. From the opening titles, abstract expressionism reigns powerfully and conveys a great deal of intense, if finally unspecifiable, meaning. Unfortunately, at some point a story has to be told, no matter how minimalist, and with actual human beings, no matter how symbolically freighted. This is where the film falls apart.

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<p>Director Lars Von Trier (R) arrives with cast member Charlotte Gainsbourg for the screening of his film "Antichrist" in competition at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, May 18, 2009. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann</p>