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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Is Antichrist Art?

Lars von Trier is a fascinating filmmaker.  I can’t say that I always enjoy his work — in fact, it’s rare that I can emotionally connect to one of his films — but I like that he’s around.  He’s a unique talent indeed and while I don’t always think his movies hit the mark, I’m thankful for his presence in the cinematic world.  He always strives to create art and his work is instantly recognizable as belonging to him; there’s no question that he is one of a handful of modern auteurs.

My problem stems from the fact that I admire his intent more than I admire his execution most of the time.  I like that a lot of his work is centered around the idea of human anguish and the cruelty that we inflict upon one another for personal gain; he understands that love is not always beautifully, that sometimes love means doing terrible things for one another or to one another.  I enjoy immensely that he’s one of the few filmmakers that treats his movies like they are literature, heavy with subtext and allusion, hinging on existential questions of what it means to be human.

But von Trier does very little to make his films appealing to his audience.  By that, I don’t mean that his films are dark or depressing; there’s nothing wrong with that. But vonTrier doesn’t seem particularly motivated by what an audience might feel about his work. A filmmaker like Michael Haneke might not be trying to entertain us, but he is at least aware of our existence; von Trier, it seems, doesn’t care whether the audience exists or not. His films are not just personal, but insular. He reminds me a lot of Godard in a way; he’s more interested in playing with the form and making his point than creating something that an audience is attached to or cares about.

Dancer in the Dark – my favorite of von Trier’s films – is von Trier’s  Contempt.  Both films perfectly marry the director’s artistic sensibilities with characters and story that make us actually feel. Both films are the epitome of their creator’s vision: stranger than their earlier work yet also more empathetic than the work that follows. For both filmmakers, those particular movies were turning points that would eventually lead them to create more experimental work that was focused more on making grand political or personal points rather than creating an actual film.

Von Trier actually made two films in a row that were shot on a soundstage, eschewing things like “sets” or “production design.”  One would think that the focus of Dogville and Manderlay would thus be on the emotions of the characters, but nobody resembles an actual person in those movies.  It’s hard to see exactly why von Trier would insist upon a film that used chalk outlines to represent homes except, perhaps, for von Trier’s well-documented anxiety and depression; that perhaps he would prefer to work in a controlled environment rather than on actual locations.  Either way, the films were trying to make political points about the history of America but those points were either too on-the-nose or off the mark completely. Watching them often felt like watching a grainy filmed play — a shame because von Trier’s films are usually well-shot.

All of this brings us to Antichrist, a film I’ve been trying to make some sort of sense out of. I think it’s clear that von Trier was making this film for an audience of one: himself. It’s not a film that’s easy to shrug off or dismiss because of the artistry and voice behind it. It’s heavy with biblical allusion, which is fascinating but it also obfuscates the emotional center of the story a bit.  But when there are metaphors involving the Bible, it makes the audience intuit that this is not just the story of two people, but something much larger.

The story concerns a couple — played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (both are excellent) — who lose their young child. The child falls to his death by escaping his crib and walking out the window while his parents are having sex in the shower.  This scene is truly a tiny masterwork about life and death and the all-consuming nature of passion. The Biblical allusions start here as well, with the child potentially representing the fall of man and the sex between the naked man and woman potentially representing the loss of innocence.

After the death, the woman is overcome with grief and anxiety. Her husband is a therapist and insists on treating his wife himself, taking her out to their country house called “Eden,” in the middle of nowhere.  There, he subjects her to a series of exercises designed to help overcome her fears — most of which consist of standing on the earth, the grass.  Her nightmares are about being at their country house and being consumed by the earth — to die, essentially and be buried — and her husband decides that it would be best to confront that fear of death head on by taking her to the place she fears.  In other words, the husband is taking her to the land of the dead, hell, purgatory, etc.

Writing about the film and its themes and goals is infinitely more interesting than the process of sitting and watching it. The film is dense with ideas about religion, therapy, gender identity, and sex, making it ripe for discussion after viewing it. The film itself, however, is either maddening or disgusting; it alternates between nearly lulling you to sleep and then jolting you awake with a strange mutilation.  The difficulty is in trying to piece those sections together.

There is the much-talked-about scene of the dead fox, which comes alive when Willem Dafoeapproaches and then says, “Chaos reigns!” I don’t understand why such a fuss is made about this particular sequence; it’s odd to be sure, but it’s no more strange than anything else that occurs in the film.  I don’t really know what it means, per se, but then I don’t know what anything really means in the film; all I can do is offer up a guess.

And therein lies the ultimate problem: Antichrist is rife with imagery and dialogue that can potentially evoke any number of things, but there’s no connective tissue, no thread to bring it all together.  So, everybody can venture a guess, but it’s really just a shot in the dark and nothing I can think of can make complete sense of what I’ve seen.  A film like 2001 might also be unclear about its meaning, but at least I can come up with an explanation that helps the film make sense to me; with Antichrist, I find it impossible to do that.

As someone who has suffered from anxiety attacks in my past, I think von Trier deftly handles how that works.  And it’s a credit to Charlotte Gainsbourg for being able to bring that to life in a way that felt emotionally accurate.  But the last half hour of the film where the biblical allusions become overwhelming and there is genital mutilation completely obfuscates the point that I was most fascinated by: what it means to be depressed or anxious.

And that is where von Trier missteps, I think. It’s been well-documented that von Trier was in a deep depression during the making of Antichrist, that he was working out his own demons through the writing and directing of the film. He was in the unique position of making a film about depression while suffering from it himself, but rather than allowing us into the world where we could understand this affliction, it becomes too personal for us to get into.  I understand that this is what von Trier feels like inside his head when he’s depressed, but it feels more like art therapy than cinema. Rather than make a movie, he’s instead made the cinematic equivalent of finger-painting his feelings — beautifully, to be sure, as the photography is some of the most gorgeous you’ll see this year, credit to the wonderful Anthony Dod Mantle.

Despite my own misgivings, Antichrist is a film that I root for because it is truly “art cinema.”  And sadly, they really don’t make enough of that anymore.  I would never dream of telling a visionary like Lars von Trier what he should do as a filmmaker, but I do hope that his next film lets us in a little bit, rather than trying to push us away. He’s made a film that will have critics and cinephiles arguing for years about whether or not it’s brilliant or terrible, trying to decipher clues that might not necessarily be there. I’m comfortably somewhere in between and I can see both sides: part of me thinks its brilliant, part of me thinks it’s awful, but I’m excited to discuss it; that’s a pretty good compliment.

– Noah Forrest
October 26, 2009
Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writers and do not neccessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon