Do I really have any interest in discussing the symbolic use of firewood as a weapon? ... No. No, I don’t.
Directed by Lars von Trier
Cast: WIllem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Sometimes, I think Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier is a genius (The Kingdom, for example). Other times, I think he’s just an asshole (let’s go with Dogville). His newest film, the controversy-baiting horror whatsit Antichrist, is a coin toss.
Basically every film von Trier has shot since 1996’s Breaking the Waves has been an unapologetic exercise in misanthropy, punctuated by the occasional specialized concentration in misogyny. Antichrist definitely follows the trend; but like most of von Trier’s work, it’s not so easy to dismiss. Antichrist is the work of a brilliant filmmaker. When it wants to be gorgeous, it is gorgeous beyond words. When it wants to be horrible, it is horrible beyond belief. At the end of the day, however, you have to ask yourself: Is a great piece of art still a great piece of art if it’s completely unwatchable?
Through von Trier’s spare story, stark visual canvas and minimalist cast, we are introduced to He and She (a typical von Trier pretension). He is Willem Dafoe. She is Charlotte Gainsbourg. He is a psychotherapist. She is a would-be writer. They are married. They have a child. Distracted one day in the very coital sense, they fail to notice their toddler go tumbling out the third-story window of their trendy urban apartment. Now drowning in a sea of grief, guilt and sexual confusion, He and She struggle to fix their broken relationship. After trying out a bunch of psychobabble, role playing and trust exercises, He suggests they work through their troubles by heading to an isolated cabin in the middle of a vast, primordial forest known as (wait for it) ... Eden.
Aaaaand the symbolism begins. Amid some portentous banging on the low end of a piano and the gloomiest fairy tale atmosphere this side of the Brothers Grimm, von Trier starts throwing out iconic, innuendo-laden images like the Dead Oak Tree and the Abandoned Fox Hole. (Gee, I wonder what an erect pole and a tight cave could possibly be standing in for?) By the time the animals start talking, you know you’re in for a long, strange trip down the rabbit hole.
Then the genital mutilation begins.
Obviously not responding well to her hubby’s earnest (if insufferably long-winded) treatment, She up and decides to go slasher on him. Now it’s fun for the whole family! Organs are crushed with hunks of firewood. Holes are drilled. Unspeakable things are inserted you don’t want to know where. But what does it all mean? Are women evil servants of Satan or just crazy bitches?, asks von Trier. What’s wrong with a little from column A and a little from column B?, is his answer. ... Ah, you’ve done it again, Lars. Your mama must be so proud.
Yeah. So basically, Antichrist is torture porn designed to shock art house audiences who’ve never heard of torture porn. Those already numb to the trend thanks to films like Saw, Hostel, The Devil’s Rejects, Wolf Creek, Turistas and Captivity, or those who witnessed it a generation ago with the release of The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, are likely to spend a lot of Antichrist’s run time bored out of their skulls. Despite the occasional nasty (very nasty, mind you) bit of Grand Guignol-style gore, von Trier is more interested in unloading his backhoe full of Freudian condensation, displacement, representation and symbolism. If you’re not up on The Interpretation of Dreams, don’t worry, the film offers a helpful written key to it all. (The fox stands for “despair.”)
I’m pretty sure the filmmaker thought he was being extremely transgressive about all the icky carnality on display here. But beyond the art house crowd, torture porn is a played-out genre. Even convincing his kinda famous actors to engage in full-contact sexual penetration is old hat. Virginie Despentes talked her actors into doing that in 2000’s brutal Baise-Moi. Vincent Gallo tried the same thing in 2004’s The Brown Bunny. (Hell, French freakazoid Jean Rollin all but pioneered it back in the ’70s.) Sure, sure, sex and violence are the two things guaranteed to push people’s buttons. But you’re not exactly the first person to realize that, Lars. Is that all you got? Really?
Look, Antichrist is a well-made piece of art. I can’t deny it. A select few audience members will respond well to it and delight in dissecting its moody visual language and screwed-up sexual politics. But it’s essentially a slow, pretentious version of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now crossed with Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs!—two great tastes that don’t really taste that good together.