Starting in May, when this film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, there's been a lot written about it, and now I think I've read most of it. Two things occur to me in doing so.
First, considering how jaded people think film critics are, I actually believe the opposite is true. I think most film critics are exactly like most general audiences. They do not want to be challenged or provoked or upset by what they watch. They want comfort food. They want something that reinforces what they believe, not something that punches them in the face without apology. They want films that conform to their definition of "entertainment," and anything outside of that has to be dismissed or, worse, torn down.
Second, anyone who considers themselves a critic but whose whole analysis of this film consists of listing all the most graphic moments is no critic at all. It's one thing to discuss details in context to support a point you're making, but when you intentionally try to undercut or even sabotage an audience's experience, you're not a critic. You're just an asshole with an outlet.
None of that means I think people have to like "Anti-Christ." I'm not sure I'd say I "like" it in any conventional sense. But I respect the film, and I think it's a major puzzle piece in the career of one of the most slippery and enigmatic game players in world cinema today.
[more after the jump]
My own experiences with the films of Lars Von Trier have been anything but uniform over the years. When I saw "Zentropa," it angered me for reasons I couldn't even articulate, yet I found "The Kingdom" to be entirely wonderful. "Breaking The Waves" demolished me in the theater, and it was my favorite film released that year, while "Dancer In The Dark" merely wore out my patience with blatant sadism. I have no use for "Dogville," and I never even bothered seeing "Manderlay," but I love "The Five Obstructions" unreservedly. Go figure. I'm hardly a cheerleader for his filmography, but I think anyone who dismisses him as a whole is just plain crazy.
When I sat down to "Anti-Christ," I had not read anything about it, and based on how aggressive people have been with giving away every little detail, I'm glad I didn't. "Anti-Christ" is frustrating. It's occasionally vile. it's amost willfill about the ways it trashes narrative expectation. And yet, it's stuck with me in a substantial way, and it does a better job of expressing the oppressive nature of grief and depression and harnessing the dread of nightmares than almost any film I can name. It is a real horror film, uncompromising and unrelenting, designed to unsettle and wound, and it is one of the most polished and controlled things Von Trier has ever made.
Funny thing is, I'll wager he has no idea why he made it.
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe play a couple who loses their child in the opening moments of the film in a sequence that plays like "Don't Look Now" re-imagined as a DeBeers diamond commercial. While they engage in spirited and explicit intercourse, their child crawls out an open window and plunges to his death. Gainsbourg is destroyed as a result, and Dafoe begins to fear for her health, both physical and mental. When she's unable to shake the grief, he decides to take her to a cabin in the woods so they can work through it together. He's a professional therapist, and although they say you should never work on your own family, he sees this as an act of love on his part. Or is it ego?
Whatever the case, the rest of the movie is a battle of wills between these two. Gradually, it becomes clear that Gainsbourg's reaction is more complicated than mere sorrow, and that she is more damaged than her husband ever realized. More than that, though, the film looks at the idea that self-punishment is one of the things that we all do, and the degree is all that's different from person to person. We punish ourselves for a million different reasons, almost every day. We fail privately, and we tell ourselves no one knows how horrible we truly are. It is not just the reason we believe the story of Adam and Eve on some primal level, but the reason we retell it. We are damaged goods, each of us, in some way. And for some people, the punishments are subtle, little ways we hasten our rush to the grave, overeating or other indulgence. For other people, those punishments are grander gestures, suicide or even hurting others so that they can share their pain.
Von Trier is not a stupid man. I'm amazed how virulent and personal some of the writing about him is in response to his films, but I guess that's the nature of his work. I think he is punishing himself. I think you don't make a movie like this unless you are planning to burn your career to the ground. You don't release a movie that reaches the crescendo of madness that this one does if you're concerned with what you're doing next. This is a purge.
It's also the best looking film Von Trier has made in a long, long time. Anthony Dod Mantle is a cinematographer who was one of the guys who helped define the Dogme style, so it's nice to see the two of them work together on something as burnished and hallucinatory as this. The sound design work is just amazing, and the film has a tone that gets on top of you about five minutes in and never lets up. It is, in every sense of the word, horrifying, and I admire its ability to stare directly at the subject matter, never blinking. I don't think it's exploitation, because there's too much raw emotion caught up in it. It's not for all audiences, but it's also not a film I feel you can ignore.
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