Antichrist - TIFF 2009 Day 3

dir. Lars von Trier

Nothing like some good genital mutilation to get you going first thing in the morning. Yesterday was spent touring the city, drinking good Ontario brewed beer and savoring the experience that is The Black Hoof restaurant. This morning started off bright and early with Lars von Trier's latest provocation, Antichrist. It's a fascinating trudge through emotional nail pulling that, aside from one or two scenes, exclusively features Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as an unnamed couple coping with the loss of their young son. It's clear early on that the two have different grieving processes -- Defoe cries at the funeral while Gainsbourg passes out and spends the next month in the hospital doped up and depressed. But as Defoe drags her back home and off the meds, things don't get any better for Gainsbourg. She's jittery, hyperventilating and only seems to forget about the child when Defoe, against his better judgement, succumbs to her sexual advances. He's a therapist, you see, and once he gets her home he tries to figure out how best to get her through the grieving stages and work through her fears.

The film is broken up into 5 chapters: a prologue, Grief, Pain, Despair, the Three Beggars and an epilogue. There really doesn't seem to be much to define the Grief, Pain and Despair transitions. I'm certainly inclined to suggest that a lot more pain takes place in the Despair chapter, when things take a turn towards the ultra-violent. But during the Grief chapter, after a particularly harmful breakdown, Defoe is able to get Gainsbourg to tell him that she fears Eden, the woody area where the couple have a cabin and she had spent the past summer with their lost child working on her thesis (called "Gynocide"). They of course quickly head to Eden to get Gainsbourg to confront and overcome her fears. But if anything, Eden overcomes the couple as Gainsbourg becomes more and more convinced that, as a woman, she has no defenses against nature and its evils.

It's a sketchy scapegoat the movie offers up surrounding the thesis project Gainsbourg was working on when up at the cabin with her son last summer. She began the project as a critical look at the horrors inflicted upon women in the past under the guise of destroying the evil that lurks in women but instead she's become convinced these horrible practices have a truth to them -- that there is an inherent evil within nature and therefore within women who are so in tune with nature that they are defenseless against it. That Gainsbourg would come to this conclusion is quite the shock to Defoe and it would seem that Gainsbourg has begun to loose her mind, if it wasn't for these weird visions that he keeps having out in those woods culminating in a fox telling him that "chaos reigns".

There's a number of ways to look at Antichrist, and I'm sure that's the way von Trier designed it. You can buy into the misogynistic angle, and there's plenty of ammo for that, or you could easily flip it on it's head and say it's a look at what horrors can happen when the anxieties of old rear their head. Right now, I'm leading toward the later. It's far too easy to succumb to the straight-up misogynistic point-of-view. Lars von Trier can be labeled many things but he isn't lazy. Either way, it's immensely fascinating and I couldn't take my eyes off it even as the most outrageous of scenarios played out.  

It doesn't hurt that the visuals are some of the most striking he's ever crafted. In the Despair and Three Beggars sections the film begins to play out like The Shining gender-reversed (Gainsbourg bears more than a little resemblance to Shelly Duval), and you could say it devolves but the violence is clearly what the film has been leading to all along, for better or worse I suppose. The images, from the get-go, but really at the end, are confrontational, sometimes pornographic, outrageous and play up everything you might expect from this film. His desire to shock is part of the "fun" and part of the repulsion you might feel towards it afterward. For a 9am film, it takes a lot out of you, like you were just put through a grueling interrogation, you feel a bit dazed. I'll be digesting this one in the days to come -- the film gives you volumes of ideas to kick around (and that's part of the film's pleasure), and in the meantime, I'll be standing in the pro-Antichrist section.