Apparently, on at least one occasion during the publicity blitz for his latest film, “Antichrist,” Lars von Trier has referred to himself as the world’s greatest living director. Really. Not only is this a mistaken opinion, it’s just plain factually inaccurate, and “Antichrist” is ample proof of this, because the world’s greatest living director would, presumably, have at least something to say, and von Trier quite clearly does not.
This is not to say that the film doesn’t have some things going for it. It’s almost painfully beautiful to look at at times, and almost each and every shot is worth framing as a museum piece. Unfortunately, it’s exquisite craftsmanship in service of nothing, as the “deep” and “meaningful” themes that von Trier spends the entire film announcing at top volume that he’s purportedly exploring are, in fact, nowhere to be found. von Trier has pretentiously dedicated this film to Tarkovsky, but has apparently only absorbed the techniques of surface visual majesty mastered by the Russian great while learning nothing from him of the art of truly exploring dark and harrowing subject matter. It’s rather like tracing an outline of the Mona Lisa and having the temerity to “dedicate” the finished “product” to da Vinci.
The most consistent criticism of von Trier’s previous work is that he’s used shock value to cover for the fact that his material is actually painfully superficial and half-understood, and while that’s an accurate enough summation of the inherent weaknesses of films like “Dancer in the Dark” and “Breaking the Waves,” it’s double, triply, quadruply true for the masturbatory, self-indulgent mess that is “Antichrist.” Never, in this reviewer’s memory, has so little been insistently and vociferously packaged as being so much. von Trier’s stilted and hackneyed dialogue, so wretched it makes Ed Wood’s worst excesses seem naturalistic, literally screams “Look at me! I’m important!” from start to finish, but announcing one’s importance and actually having any are far from being the same thing, a lesson that von Trier has, painfully and obviously, not yet learned.
And truth be told, that’s the damned thing not only about film, but about all art in this fallen world of ours — yes, cinema, novels, poetry, painting, all forms of artistic self-expression are important — unfortunately, in this day and age, the overwhelming majority of people with the free time, financial resources, and wherewithal to produce it aren’t. It’s wonderful that folks have something to say and a well-nigh endless variety of mediums in which to say it, but that doesn’t mean that most of those who are doing so are worth listening to. Self-absorbed, self-indulgent, overwrought pretentiousness is crap no matter how skillfully it’s communicated or how boisterously it declares its own perceived greatness. von Trier has a definite gift at the art of visual communication, but to date the messages he’s conveyed have bordered on complete worthlessness, and with “Antichrist” he finally crosses that border without trepidation. It’s a giant headfirst leap into complete and utter pointlessness, a madman laughing with abandon as he pisses in his audience’s face for no other reason than he can, and then has the temerity to tell them they’re not worthy to drink it.
von Trier’s trajectory is clear from the get-go, as first we get his name splashed across the screen (not “a film by Lars von Trier,” or “a Lars von Trier film,” just “Lars von Trier”), then we get the movie’s title card, then we get thrust into the “epilogue,” a scene of black-and-white operatic beauty as the lead characters, He and She (they’re never given names, and frankly don’t do anything in the film to deserve them, although both roles are tackled with consummate professionalism by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, respectively, who both deserve far better material than they’re given here), fuck in the shower while their toddler-age son, Nic, tumbles out an open window to his death. Yes, we see some quick full-on sexual penetration here, but the real “pornography” here is von Trier choosing to film a child’s death in slow-motion elegance. It’s the first of countless instances of him trying to be “shocking” and “transgressive” that completely miss the mark and end up being more cheap and exploitative than even Shaun Costello or Zebedy Colt on their worst days.
Quickly we learn that He is a therapist, though not a Ph.D., and She is, or was, a graduate student working (when she does) on her thesis, the topic of which is, I kid you not, “gynocide.” And like the filmmaker himself, their trajectory is also painfully plain to see from the outset, as they are trapped in a downward — hell, a doomward — spiral right out of the gate. She can’t cope with the loss of their son while He, at least on the surface, is coping all to well and seeks to “cure” her not only as her husband/lover (whether or not they’re actually married is never spelled out), but also as her therapist. They try to work through things at their posh artist loft-type home, but when that doesn’t work out, it’s off to the wilderness and isolation when they retreat to a cabin they presumably own in a deep, dense forest called — yawn — Eden.
Let’s be honest, we don’t need von Trier to hit us over the head with the idea that city folk who head out to the woods are fucked, it’s been a constant theme in horror cinema for years, and von Trier, for all his visual aplomb, doesn’t do the concept nearly as much as justice as, say, James Bryan did in “Don’t Go In The Woods,” to pick just one example out of literally hundreds.
Oh, but von Trier has so much more to say here than just that. Doesn’t he? Why, just ask him. And therein lies the problem. Underneath all the overstated psychodrama — is He really looking to help She, or is He seeking to draw her more deeply into his web of manipulation and control? Is She really imbalanced, or does She merely accurately sense the threat He poses to her freedom? Does He even really care about She, or is He merely seeking to gratify his own ego by “curing” her? Are both of them merely stand-ins for the silent tyranny that underscores all male-female interpersonal relationships? — there just isn’t much there. It’s as if von Trier thinks the act of stating that he’s “delving into” these larger themes is tantamount to actually doing so. Sorry, Lars, bot no amount of grandiloquence can disguise the fact that the median temperature of this film is ice cold and that the “passions” at its core are pure plastic.
He is never shown to be anything more than a two-dimensional manipulative bastard and She is a raw, emotionally imbalanced basket case who only feels alive when being fucked, being hurt, or both at once. He is pure calculation, She pure emotion, and both are out of control in their own respective fashion. Of course, She is the one we’re supposed to have some modicum of sympathy for, being that von Trier is an enlightened type of guy, and even when She’s screwing a 20-pound wight through the flesh and bond of He’s ankle in order to hold him down, the message is that She is fighting back, asserting her control and independence through the only avenue He has left her, namely by imprisoning him physically in the same manner he has imprisoned her psychically and emotionally. There’s this supposedly bold, anti- misogynist (wow, talk about going out on a limb — misogyny is bad? Why, I had no idea. What tough stand will he take next? Is genocide evil, too? Murder? Rape? Torture? Damn, talk about gutsy!) statement at the heart of the proceedings here, you see.
Or maybe you don’t. You could be forgiven for missing it, certainly, since the overall tone of the film is, in fact, relentlessly misogynistic and even downright sadistic. Not that your reviewer is necessarily averse to the idea that hitting an audience over the head with an idea, and indeed even incorporating the worst excesses of said idea, is often the best way to expose that idea and to subvert its power. On the contrary, one of my favorite films of all time is “Cannibal Holocaust,” which deftly and expertly incorporates the techniques of “mondo” or “shockumentary” filmmaking in order to to lay bare its grotesque excesses (incidentally, this is a movie that has only gained power and resonance over the years with the advent of “reality” television and DIY, “YouTube”/handheld-style filmmaking, but I digress), but Deodato was willing to throw caution to the wind and to cross the very lines he was condemning in order to communicate his point — to make himself a hypocrite in order to make his film both honest and genuinely harrowing. It’s shocking not only for what it shows but for the power with which it shows it, power that can only come from absolute authenticity. von Trier hasn’t even got the guts to give his “deep and resonant” themes anything more than the most cursory glance. He gives us a story of two bourgeois characters “inflicted” with shallow bourgeois problems and thinks he’s addressing universal themes when, in truth, we actively want both of these people to die, and the sooner the better, their “inner turmoil” be damned. And therein lies another missed opportunity — in order to give a fuck about these people’s problems, we’ve got to give a fuck about these people in the first place, and we’re never given a reason to do so. Two upper-class, self-absorbed slimebags have tragedy visited upon them? Too bad for the kid,absolutely, but given that von Trier himself chose to film his death in such an artistically prurient and, yes, pretentious manner, we never feel too much heartache or loss there — in fact, the child and his death are just a tool to be used for the filmmaker to get at the “meat” of the purported psychodrama that plays out between the couple themelves, a means to an end, nothing more. But that end is nothing but the cinematic equivalent of a lifeless suburban cul-de-sac — traveled to in style, I’ll grant you that, but it still doesn’t mask the barren worthlessness of the destination itself. Sure, von Trier’s knock-out punches connect on occasion ( the talking fox, for instance, actually works), but they’re delivered with weighted gloves — his actual fists themselves have no power.
And so “Antichrist” is testament to nothing more than the power of artifice. It’s pretense declared as meaning, gutlessness self-proclaimed as bravery, the US invading Grenada in order to declare the world “safe for democracy,” all delivered by a filmmaker who’s gotten in deep over his head without ever leaving the shallow end of the pool. The stated intent of “Antichrist” is to challenge the viewer every single fucking step of the way, but in the end the only challenge is to sit through the whole thing to the end.
There’s symbolism aplenty, delivered time and time again, in the form of a pregnant doe and the aforementioned talking fox and the fictional “three beggars” constellation, and acorns falling on the roof of the cabin, but in order to interpret it successfully, or even unsuccessfully, first you have to actually actively care about what it all might mean. “Antichrist” never gives you reason to. It’s just two solid hours of celluloid navel-gazing for its own sake. Apparently von Trier was emerging from a — yawn — long, deep depression (oh, the unique existential pain that must come from being a wealthy, self-obsessed “indie” filmmaker) when he conceived of this flick, and is attempting to engage some of the issues he dealt with while in said — yawn again — depression without crossing the line into full-blown on-screen therapeutic release. I dunnno, if I were him, I’d be a hell of a lot more depressed now, if I had faced the “long, dark night” of my soul and this was the best I could come up with.
There’s a scene in the film that could effectively stand in for the entirety of “Antichrist” as a whole : He, knocked unconscious by She, is lying on the floor with a monster erection, and She takes takes said hard-on in her hands and yanks on it until it ejaculates blood all over her. That’s all von Trier is doing here — jerking us all off, collectively, until we cum more as a means of registering our disgust than anything else.
Perversely, the inherently nihilstic undertones sledgehammered away at throughout “Antichrist” are proven to be true not by anything said by the film itself, but by its mere existence. Yes, we are a hopelessly fucked lot in general, and yes, all is lost, and yes, existence itself is quite likely pointless — any species that can produce even one member as shallowly self-absorbed as von Trier proves himself to be with “Antichrist” is well beyond any hope of redemption. All of our efforts at nobility, altruism, generosity, and kindness aside, the fact that even one human being could come up with anything this wretchedly egotistical is, I’m afraid, enough to damn us all. So if there is indeed any higher power at work in the universe who sits in judgment over all of creation, I’d like to apologize on behalf of the entire human race for the fact that one of us made this film. I hope you won’t hold it against us as a whole, but really, if you decide to do so, I can’t say that I’d blame you.