By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009
It surely speaks to the success of torture porn -- a subspecies of the horror genre known for its graphic, sadistic violence -- that its slashing, spurting vernacular has finally migrated to the art house. With "Antichrist," the venerated Danish auteur Lars von Trier experiments with how far he can take the most extreme elements of a cinematic language perfected by the "Saw" franchise, the sixth installment of which opens Friday (and was not shown to critics). Surely, "Antichrist's" distributors timed that coincidence deliberately, suggesting that the best spirit to approach this by turns transfixing and off-putting provocation is as a sick joke.
Since his 1996 breakout hit, "Breaking the Waves," von Trier has made a specialty of female martyrdom and putting his actresses through hell. In "Antichrist" the dubious honors go to Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays an unnamed woman grieving the loss of her young son. When she and her therapist husband (Willem Dafoe) repair to their cabin in the woods, they plunge into an ever more surreal battle between irrational, "female" nature and logical, "male" reason, a fight that culminates in the film's shocking final scenes of sexual mutilation and sadism.
There's a mystery that will linger long after the film's psychosexual dynamics and philosophical musings: Just who is von Trier trying to reach with "Antichrist"? Surely the teenagers who have made "Saw" into such a cash cow aren't likely to sit through more than an hour of carefully composed set pieces and Bergmanesque encounters between the lead couple. And it's hard to imagine the bourgeois sophisticates who have flocked to von Trier's other films being able to stomach this one's most outrageous moments.
Most likely, von Trier made "Antichrist" for himself only, in an effort to chase down and expose the demons -- so often embodied by women -- that have animated his entire career. The question it raises so repulsively is whether in trying to tame his most transgressive impulses, he's become the thing he hates.
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The famously neurotic von Trier has never visited the United States, due to his notorious fear of travel. But he's nonetheless fascinated by American culture, which he observes and recycles by way of genre exercises ranging from the melodrama ("Breaking the Waves") to the musical ("Dancer in the Dark"). Here, he offers his alternately elegant, absorbing, idiotic and finally confounding take on the horror film, which begins as an engrossing, even mesmerizing psychological chamber piece and ends in a bloodbath so ritualized and grandiose that it would be laughable if it weren't so cruel. With "Antichrist," von Trier seems to want to test his viewers' tolerance for abuse, brutally poking and prodding until they cry uncle. (In this latest exercise in the Cinema of Cruelty, von Trier joins the ranks of Gaspar Noé, Michael Haneke and Terry Gilliam in pushing his audience to that particular threshold.)
I'll admit that I was transfixed through much of "Antichrist," which begins with a slow-motion, black-and-white flashback of the child's horrific death (and a hint to the mother's unrelenting sense of guilt). Later, when she is suffering from crippling depression and anxiety, her husband tries to treat her with a series of visualizations and breathing exercises, trying to get at the root of her fears. When he asks her where she's most afraid, she tells him Eden, the name of the tiny cabin where she spent the last summer with her son, working on her thesis. So the helpful hubby earnestly packs them off to the woods, the better to face her fears, expose them for the irrational responses that they are, and return to the world repaired.
This first hour and 20 minutes of "Antichrist" have all the makings of a great contemporary horror film, recalling "Psycho," "The Shining" and even Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" in their visual composition and tense psychological back-and-forth (early scenes of Dafoe's character putting his wife on the figurative couch resemble the most intense episode of "In Treatment" ever made). It takes actors of supreme control and watchability to make what is often banal dialogue even remotely interesting, which surely explains why "Antichrist" succeeds in hooking viewers so craftily. Dafoe and Gainsbourg are blessed with deeply expressive, fascinatingly mutable faces, hers a mask of maternal loss and despair, his often breaking into a rictus grin of genial superiority. "You're so damned arrogant," she spits at her husband at one point. And viewers see what she means: Ever the patient and kind clinician, as played by Dafoe he exudes an air of insufferable equanimity, with just a whiff of menace.
Filmed with sensitivity and lush, painterly texture by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, "Antichrist" often ambushes the audience with images of startling beauty, especially when the couple gets to Eden and they're dwarfed by the forest's verdant, voracious fecundity. (The film's cardinal image, of the couple making love against a tree whose roots are entangled with writhing, disembodied arms and hands, may well stand as one of the most hauntingly beautiful images ever composed for the screen.) Ratcheting up the tension with exquisitely timed twists and turns, von Trier begins to delve deeper into the mother's relationship with the child, a dynamic that turns out to be more fraught than initially assumed. If some of the images are tiresomely on-the-nose -- a pelting storm of vaguely sinister acorns, Dafoe's character simultaneously riveted and repulsed by a deer giving birth -- "Antichrist" exerts an undeniable pull, drawing viewers ever more seductively into what looks like the characters' competing dreamscapes. Will Eden be the garden of wholeness and healing that its Biblical sense suggests? Or is nature, as Gainsbourg's character insists at one point, Satan's church?
It's just these tendentious, pseudo-deep pronouncements that make the over-the-top finale of "Antichrist" so difficult to endure. In fact, viewers are far more likely to cry uncle not when Gainsbourg's character attacks her husband with a block of wood and, later, a whetstone, or even when she commits a gruesomely masochistic act with a pair of scissors, but when Dafoe's character happens upon a disemboweled fox that has enough life left to intone, "Chaos reigns!" -- a jarring moment of an animatronic cheesiness that recalls Spike Lee's talking dog in "Summer of Sam."
It's at precisely this point in "Antichrist" that von Trier's intellectual diddling, latent misogyny and paste-pot symbolism begin to devolve into an incomprehensible Bosch-like portrait of ids and their kids run amok.
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Since their invention, movies have defined the psychic space where we rehearse our deepest fears. As a founding element of cinematic grammar, violence is as much a part of the filmgoing experience as a Busby Berkeley dance number or close-up of a kiss. And there's a case to be made for presenting horrific images up on a screen, whether by way of the campy irony of George Romero and, more recently, "Zombieland," or even those unsettling scenes when David Lynch takes core samples of the subconscious. A visceral, bloody jolt can deliver a catharsis -- just ask Alfred Hitchcock -- but only when it's earned.
In "Antichrist," von Trier treats his gory, gushing "wammies" as punctuation marks of last resort, resolving questions that simply don't bear the weight of his elaborately belabored scrutiny. Von Trier has said that "Antichrist" was the film he made to force himself out of a long-term depression; he's also remarked that he was inspired by the plays of August Strindberg and their battles of the sexes. Here, von Trier's antecedents might as well be the "Hostel" and "Saw" franchises. Presumably, now that his embattled characters have duked it out in their grueling fight to the finish, von Trier is feeling restored and renewed. Viewers, however, are likely to feel as if they've been baited and switched by a gifted, even visionary master mired in his own pulpy pretentiousness.