Sunday, 17 January 2010

Chaos Reigns.

Lars von Trier is very, very well known for his misogyny. In Breaking The Waves his female protagonist is under the direction of her husband, with horrible consequences for her. In The Idiots his female protagonist is subjected to the whims of the group she is surrounded by, against her better nature, and with a tragic emotional impact. In Dancer In The Dark his female protagonist is afflicted by illness and forced to submit to the darker side of society and her landlord in order to provide for her child. In Dogville his female protagonist is set upon by an initially welcoming village, and while she does get her revenge it is provided for her by a powerful father. In Manderlay his female protagonist becomes frustrated and ultimately horribly disillusioned both with herself and the other characters.

Generally, the female characters have very little power of their own. Often, their power is gifted to them by outside forces - Grace's father in Dogville, her gunmen in Manderlay, the otherness of Selma in Dancer In The Dark. With his female protagonist in Antichrist (fittingly given no name), however, he provides power and yet still creates a situation whereabouts she is completely destroyed, degraded, castrated (if you will), subdued. Despite her power, obtained through grief and a husband who refuses to give up for many reasons, von Trier's misogyny will have its way.

But this is a singular von Trier film in many ways. From the opening scene you know to throw out all of your preconceptions of how this film will run. Dogme 95 this certainly isn't. Gone are the Brechtian stylisations of Dogville and Manderlay. This film isn't gritty, there is no reality here, the film exists entirely in the mind. 

The Man (Willem Dafoe) and the Woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lose child to a tragic accident. The Woman is particularly struck by the trauma of the incident, spending a month in hospital, medicated and receiving therapy. The Man, also a therapist, takes her out of hospital, believing her to be overmedicated and of the belief that his closeness and knowledge of his wife will enable him to better help her recover. She tries to distract herself from her trauma using sex - she repeatedly throws herself on top of him during heated arguments and screaming matches, crying and both physically and verbally abusing him in the process.As he delves into her mind and the causes behind her frequent panic attacks, he discovers that the source of much of her fear is the woods around their holiday cabin, Eden.

The two hike to the woods with the Woman panicking towards the end, running towards the house. As the Man sets about creating exercises to try and break through the wall of her distress, the woods and surrounds begin to affect them both. As she seems to be getting better (a false hope) he starts to lose it, communicating with animals and reading into her work on gynocide. Finally, in her psychosis, she beats him in a very delicate area with a hunk of wood, hobbles him and wanders off. He escapes and she comes looking, burying him alive. Wracked with remorse she digs him free and the two return to the cabin where she infamously cuts off her clitoris. Finally, he frees himself and exacts his revenge.

As mentioned, the Woman has the power throughout. The Man is entirely focused on regenerating his wife's mental state, whether for selfish reasons of self-aggrandisement or for more charitable reasons doesn't matter, and so is at her beck and call, constantly doing her bidding. Her grief is the driving force behind this power, crippling her husband and herself with its veracity. Her hallucinations and self-blame for the death of their young son drive the narrative relentlessly forward, and the viewer is never allowed a moment to breath.

This film looks like no other von Trier film. As I said. The opening scene, detailing the death of young Nic (the only character here to get a name, and he's dead...), plays like an incredibly expensive extended advertisement for a luxury goods brand. The black and white, uber-slow motion, crystal clear cinematography and operatic soundtrack accompanying shots of the Man and the Woman passionately making love around the house as Nic wakes up, lets himself out of his crib and ultimately dies are beautiful and moving, serving to distance this moment of happiness followed by the horrible catalyst for the remainder of the film from the remainder of the picture set in their house and in and around Eden. In fact, while the shots move from the stylisation of the black and white slo-mo advertisement feel to more realistic visions, the film never loses that glossy feel of expensive cinema, rich, textured and beautiful. This effect (something I've never seen von Trier do outside, perhaps, the musical sequences in Dancer In The Dark) heightens the psychosis of the characters, giving the environment a character and mood, making the film that much scarier.

The performances from both are fantastic, especially from Gainsbourg, who won Best Actress at Cannes and has probably delivered one of the best performances of the last few years to go almost entirely unnoticed. I mean, even Björk got a Golden Globe nod. (I don't mean that to sound like I don't think she deserved it - I think her performance is one of the best and most heartbreaking I've ever seen. I meant it as, if they're willing to recognise the power of the performance of one of the strangest pop artifacts in the world, surely they'd recognise that by the daughter of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, right?) And the photography from Anthony Dod Mantle is incredible, again criminally overlooked this year. He won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire last year, but that doesn't mean he can't win another this year! Plus, if I remember the credits correctly and my knowledge of previous von Trier films is correct, Mantle managed to wrestle the camera away from von Trier for this film - he was the camera operator, where I've almost always seen von Trier handling it himself.

All this having been said, the film is a struggle. It is dark, it is hard. These are two words I always associate with von Trier films, but here, possibly due to the heightened realism and impressionist influences, the character of nature and the sheer audacity of the graphic nature of the violence, it is very, very trying. Not necessarily in a bad way. I find myself in a similar frame of mind to after seeing Irreversible however many years ago. I came out of the film shell-shocked, barely able to breath. I call it a five star film that I never want to see it again and would never recommend anyone ever see - I can't fault it for many reasons, but dear god. Antichrist hasn't quite hit me in that way, but if I ever see it again (which will take a hell of a lot of courage on my part) I'm going to make damn sure there's someone sitting next to me that I can hide behind and take comfort in. As a grotesque and confronting horror film without any monsters outside of the minds of these two tragic and intelligent figures, Antichrist takes the cake. I will, as ever, hang out waiting for the next masterpiece (and yes, I'd say this is a masterpiece in many ways, whether or not you love it or despise it) from this auteur of auteurs, but will have to work through much therapy to bring myself to go through that again in a hurry. 5 stars.

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