Tuesday 31 May 2011

Antichrist (2009)

ANTICHRIST is a psychological drama that was written and directed by Lars von Trier in 2009.  It is a co-production involving finance from a number of countries but can be regarded, for sake of argument, as a Danish film.  It stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as couple who, after the accidental death of their infant son, retreat to their holiday cottage in a remote forest.  They attempt to deal with her all-consuming grief but she becomes increasingly erratic and eventually violent in her behaviour.

I'll come right out and admit to a considerable dislike of Lars von Trier.  To me he is the cinema equivalent of Banksy: a prankster rather than an artist, whose attention-grabbing style masks a lack of substance, and who is feted by the self-consciously hip.  He seems incapable of making a film without some sort of gimmick: the empty soundstage of DOGVILLE (2003) and MANDERLAY (2005), the artificial Dogme 'purity' of THE IDIOTS (1998), the stunt casting of DANCER IN THE DARK (2000) and the explicit sex and violence of ANTICHRIST.  Worse still, he seems unable to work without deliberately drawing attention to himself: if he's not proclaiming himself to be the "best director in the world" in one press conference, he's declaring himself to be a Nazi in another.

What I dislike about such things is that they lead me to believe von Trier isn't really interested in film at all but is solely interested in causing a stir, ruffling feathers and generally making a nuisance of himself.  I would find such behaviour intensely annoying in an adolescent child; in a grown man I find it bewildering and dispiriting.  He is quoted as having said "Film should be like a stone in shoe".  Quite why he believes that I have no idea.  I personally have no wish to have a stone in my shoe, literally or metaphorically.  I'm all in favour of films that challenge the viewer but not for it's own sake; if I'm to be challenged then the rewards of accepting that challenge must be significant and, for me, the substance of von Trier's films simply is not.

ANTICHRIST is a case in point.  It is unsettling, sombre and oppressive - and that's before the wanking, violence, talking foxes and mutilation begin.  What is von Trier challenging us to do?  To sit unblinking through some very tough scenes?  If so, to what end?  It surely can't be to make the facile point that sex and death are inextricably linked.  It surely can't be to reinforce the message that grief, pain and despair are powerful feelings and that therapy is ineffective in treating them.  It surely can't be that men and women are destined to be forever locked into a simultaneously love-hate relationship?
Who knows, because von Trier has chosen to make his film as impenetrable as possible.  The irony is that the film's explicit imagery is matched only by the vagueness of its message.

That said, some of the imagery and cinematography is undeniably beautiful.  I also appreciated the depiction of mental frailty and attempts to treat it, although I disagree with the implication that therapy is ineffective and perhaps even damaging.  The acting is a game of two halves: Dafoe is good but Gainsbourg just doesn't have the same acting chops.  She's game - totally committed - I'll give her that but I didn't find her convincing.

So another instance then of a von Trier film which generates enormous amounts of coverage, comment and controversy and yet has less to it than meets the eye.

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