We as a culture tend to abuse certain turns of phrase. For example, too many people interpret negative opinions as “hate” when “hate” is a visceral and descriptive word for the way a lot of middle American teenagers raised by conservative parents look at their gay classmates. “Awesome” is used to describe gaming and entertainment experiences better than average when they should be reserved for something like the experience of watching all three Lord of the Rings movies back to back in a single day. And then there’s the word “hipster”. The kid in the skinny jeans, unknown indy band t-shirt, thick black Ray-Ban spectacles and Converse high-tops in the back of corner of the trendy coffee shop may not necessarily be a hipster. You won’t know until you walk up to him and he starts talking about how a movie like Antichrist is a refreshing, original and rewarding pinnacle of cinema only unliked by idiots and poor people. This is when you take his large half-caf soy latte and dump it on his stupid hairdo because Antichrist is about as refreshing, original and rewarding as a psych evaluation that’s been framed like it’s to be hung in the Lourve.
On the surface, the plot and narrative has some potential. The story revolves around a married couple who lose a child and have to cope with the loss. The husband is initially emotional but quickly gains control of himself. The wife seems more together at first but slowly spirals through the stages of grief into ever increasing madness. What begins as a haunting and introspective character piece begins peeling away its mask until a horror bleeding from the eyeballs grabs you by the lapels and screams in your face. Talking animals and self-mutilations occur more and more frequently as the movie rumbles towards its climax, in which all hope is lost, reason crumbles in the face of despair and any sort of reliance upon man’s better nature or anything resembling faith is castrated, broken and left in the woods to slowly bleed to death alone and unloved. Did I mention Lars von Trier was going through a major depression when he made this thing?
There were a few scenes that reminded me of The Ring in that we have two people working together to uncover a deeper truth. While in the case of The Ring the threat was external, in both films the two must overcome emotional blocks betwen them to deal with it. What Antichrist lacks is a sense of chemistry and meaning between the leads. The presentation of their relationship feels less intimate and more analytical. Willem Dafoe’s husband quickly moves into the realm of therapy and psychoanalysis and the nature of mourning and fear, never really leaving that position even when things get weird and violent. Meanwhile, poor Charlotte Gainsbourg becomes more and more unhinged as the film trudges on. She begins to conclude that being female makes her the ‘evil’ half of the relationship and rails against that role and its implications before giving into her darker impulses which is when things get bloody and visceral. It’s the woman in the pair that mutilates herself, uses sex as a weapon and ultimately wants to kill her partner and herself. While I picked up on some tacky bits of misogyny in this portrayal of a couple, it was outweighed by the big neon sign hung over the whole affair reading “FUCKING FILM DIRECTOR AT WORK, YOU POSEURS”.
It takes a lot to put up with an auteur director. I give the actors props for sticking with this madness.
Lars von Trier uses interesting techniques and the cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle to present a unique aesthetic in places that really does blow your mind. It’s clear why a lot of people hold him up as the sort of auteur destined to stand with the likes of Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam when it comes to cinematic storytelling and mind-fuckery. And I have to admit, there are some powerful visuals in Antichrist. There are moments where this movie just looks fantastic. There are images that could be framed as works of art in and of themselves, and when put into motion there is a definite sense of composition involved. From the standpoint of pure technique, I have to say it’s close to perfect. Upon reflection, however, I can’t help but feel the artifice was being used to cover up a very cynical, very pandering intent that really leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
You see, Antichrist‘s intent is more manipulation than it is examination or even narration. The imagery, pace and dialog are all meant to come across as highbrow and introspective but at its core, the movie goes more for the shock value of Saw than any other form of headspacey horror. Rather than build up to a twist ending, even if we were to see it coming, from minute one the movie pushes our face in what is meant to be unnerving imagery and keeps us there without giving us much chance to breathe. It smothers viewers in its faux intensity. I don’t mind a movie setting out to do something unnerving or mentally intense, but usually that intensity comes with some form of depth. Antichrist only looks deep because a beautiful rendition of the ocean floor with really deceptive proportions has been painstakingly painted onto the bottom of the shot glass.
Oh yeah, and there’s a talking fox.
In the spirit of things, here’s a metaphor for you. Watching Antichrist is like seeing Frankenstien’s monster in a tuxedo rape and torture a live subject to death in the Sydney Opera House. The screams of the victim and the purr of motorized machines like chainsaws and vibrators would make an interesting counterpoint to the strains of Bach’s Komm Süsser Tot. The trappings of “true art” and earnestly brilliant shot composition barely distract us from what is essentially an act of dark and personal emotional masturbation. As I said at the opening of this diatribe, people misuse words all the time, and I try to avoid it. So when I say I find Antichrist pretentious, I do so not because of its foreign roots or its style or its sparse imagery. I do because it’s presumptuous, shallow and ultimately empty. It presumes that you can groove on its nihilistic atheist vibe, and if you can’t, be prepared to be considered a pitiable mass media junkie because “you just don’t get it.” I’m sure there will be people out there who will learn of this movie, hear who directed it, find out it’s themes include the destruction of religion, a woman’s growing self-hatred and the ultimate collapse of positivism in the face of the cruelest reality possible, and jump all over it like it’s made of chocolate and orgasms.
Maybe I’m just too much of an idealistic hope-fueled Christ-loving simpleton to key into this thing and feel it speaking to me, but Antichrist was simply not worth watching for me. Dichotomies of emotion and reason have been done better in movies like Inception. Mindfuckery has been done better in movies like End of Evangelion. Intense, unlikeable protagonists in a cynical world seemingly devoid of hope or good vibes has been done better in movies like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans. Elements of movies I’ve thoroughly enjoyed are in here, but like the aformentioned creature, they’ve been stitched together and brought to life by a mad genius blind to his creation’s grotesqueries because of how fulfilled it’s left him personally. You can give it a watch on Netflix Instant if you’re interested in this sort of thing, but when it’s all over, you ain’t exactly going to be singing “Putting on the Ritz” because you’ll probably be too busy throwing up.
Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.