Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Talking Foxes I Have Known: This Year In Chaos

Punishment is a tricky thing in filmmaking. Often times, especially since the late 70s when films started being consciously ‘about’ things rather than simply featuring them, filmmakers will construct their movies so as to be consciously hard to enjoy. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Michael Haneke and Gaspar Noe are all perpetuators of this form of artistic thought and believe in the un-immersion of an audience in a story to make them aware just how foolish they are in sitting down and taking it in. Needless to say film critics (to say nothing of audiences) don’t always go for it. The man who has, more than anyone else in his field, made sure you cannot sit through his films idly is Lars Von Trier. From his sweltering reference-laden debut The Element of Crime on through his trilogy about the subjugation of women to a role as a fool or sacrificial lamb (Breaking The Waves, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark) and finally to his theatrical ‘fuck you’ to America (Dogville, Manderlay, and the as-yet unmade Wasington), Lars Von Trier has made sure you do not have an easy couple of hours at the cinema. The Idiots has the distinction of being one of the most offensive and difficult movies I’ve ever sat through. So when I heard he’d be making another horror film oh how I wondered. What on earth could Lars do in a horror film that he hadn’t already done in his dramatic pieces? He had in fact already made a “horror” movie called Epidemic, though it was about the horror genre more than it was about anything actually horrible. The first thing to understand is that Antichrist is not exactly a horror film; critics and distributors needed a signifier and horror is as close to anything else as this gets but it’s no scarier (though I admit one of its scenes rivals even the Italian master’s most eccentric mutilations) than anything Dario Argento ever did (and I do not use this comparison randomly). As in Epidemic, which I’ll touch on briefly, it is in the minds of the protagonists that the horror exists and little by little it becomes real. I should warn you, I’m going to take my time talking about this one.

by Lars Von Trier
Crucial in understanding Antichrist is understanding Epidemic. Epidemic’s plot is about as threadbare as they get. A writer and director (played by Lars Von Trier and his screenwriter Niels Vørsel) lose the contents of a floppy disk (ah, the 80s....) which held the final copy of a script they were due to hand over to an executive in a number of days. So they decide instead to write a horror film; they concoct an obligatory formula about where to inject the drama and so forth while they occasionally traipse around the city looking for inspiration and meeting people like Udo Kier (who incidentally gives the most human and personal performance of his career). We occasionally get to see snippets of the film they’re writing about a doctor (also played by Von Trier) who thumbs his nose at his superiors and decides to go combat a plague that has been ravaging the world. He leaves the confines of a walled-off city and goes to fight the disease where it’s doing the most damage. And that’s it really. The plot, as such, is most unimportant. Like the two films that surround this in Von Trier’s “Europa” or Genre Trilogy, it is about the way these kinds of stories are told. Like (500) Days of Summer with open sores, it seeks to replicate the tropes of a kind of story (which it does occasionally in the flashes of drama) rather than to actually tell such a story. Largely we’re with Von Trier and Vørsel as they bullshit their way through a script, which they don’t actually end up finishing; instead they hand a 12-page outline (a similar episode takes place in The Idiots involving a pun on the Danish word for “baby food”). As proof of Von Trier’s irreverent treatment of horror films and filmmaking in general (not that I think he doesn't love the hell out of his job; he clearly does), the word “Epidemic®” (imagine the 'r' is an 'e' if you will) is visible in the upper left hand corner of the screen whenever the segments concerning the writing of the film are shown.

As a comment on horror films, its point is well-taken. The scenes of Von Trier’s Dr. Mesmer are largely pretty funny in their stylized slog through ludicrous dialogue and overwrought premises; the image of Von Trier sailing through a marsh on a red cross flag while Wagner blasts heroically is pretty great but it’s one I associate more with the idea of melodrama and medical television shows than with horror. The dramatic segments are the best part of the film and they are few and far between. For much of the running time it’s the two writers, writing, eating, walking, asking their friends questions and then finally meeting with their agent. The film’s sense of irony is two-fold, first in that as the two men write about a plague with their high-falutin ideas about writing and such, an actual plague is unfolding and makes an appearance in the finale; it’s mirrored in the climax of the fake story when Dr. Mesmer discovers he’s been carrying the plague. So, as you can see, it isn’t a proper horror film, it’s about making horror films and why so many of the genre fall flat. That doesn’t make for particularly exciting viewing and considering that Epidemic is sandwiched between The Element of Crime and Europa, I was mighty disappointed by its utter refusal to do anything or look exciting. The story goes that Lars made Epidemic on a bet, that he could make a film for a million kronor, so its slackerish execution and insolent premise aren’t just the plot, they’re the point. They're what got the film started in the first place. So really Epidemic was the story of two men trying to write a film about two men trying to write a film, both trying to prove they needed only to play with the conventions of genre filmmaking to succeed; they only half succeed. Like their cinematic counterparts Von Trier and Vørsel fail to come up with anything compelling and Epidemic feels like Von Trier playing a prank on his benefactor (which it was). Not enough happens for this to be a truly effective satire or horror film.
So you see the respect Von Trier has for conventional filmmaking and especially genre filmmaking. It begins to make sense that Antichrist, far from fitting into a horror film mould, simply dances around the conventions of it, simultaneously hitting a number of quite chilling chords that place it squarely inside the genre.

by Lars Von Trier
In an opening sequence that proves Anthony Dod Mantle deserves his Oscar, two unnamed people make love. They are played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg and they are married with a child. While they make what would probably be raucous love if we could hear it, their son Nic drops out of a window to his death. The action proper begins with Willem Dafoe’s therapist husband trying to explain to his wife that all that grieving she’s doing is natural and cannot, as her doctor has suggested, be suppressed by drugs if she hopes to get over Nic’s death. We chart the course of their relationship over a number of days, how her guilt turns to anger at his seeming indifference. We see his clinical approach to their marriage anger her, rightly, but we also see the caring man beneath his icy theory every now and again. One night he suggests an exercise where she tells him what she’s most afraid of so they can confront it. After much deliberation and side-stepping the question she comes up with Eden, the name of their cabin in the woods. It was the last place she and Nic spent time alone and where she went to work on her thesis. It holds a good deal of significance for both of them and he believes it might hold the key to her happiness returning.

On the train ride to Eden, he asks her to envision the forest and for the first time we get the sense that the natural world terrifies her. When they actually arrive, she runs headlong through the woods not stopping or slowing despite the massive amount of luggage she carries. His first bit of treatment involves trying to conquer this fear. He asks her to walk from one rock to another on the grass, maybe a length of ten feet and she behaves like as if he were leading to the gas chamber. They perform a few exercises and then gets several glimpses into his wife’s psyche both before and after the accident. The most worrying discovery is the collection of notes and pictures she kept in the attic about her thesis “Gynocide”. But of course, this is only the start. His exercises do seem to get places in her psyche, but the tricky thing about their relationship is that he’s not really respectful of the notion that he’s both her husband and her therapist. He wants to wield all the power but every gesture she makes will effect him two-fold. She’s understandably upset because when she wants to drown out her pain by having sex with him, which she does quite frequently, his clinical answer may just sound cold and unfeeling. So while he may think he’s doing the right thing, to her he’s doing the wrong thing. Before long she loses her patience with him, which coincides with her sanity giving way to the thoughts and suspicions she’s harbored for a long while. She essentially has bought into the things she was researching about the ways in which women were treated in ancient times and comes to believe that womankind is the most evil thing of all, second or perhaps equal to the natural world that surrounds them. After she confessing this to him he wanders off to think, the biggest mistake he’s ever made. She accuses him of running off and when he refuses to have sex with her, she crushes his genitals with a bit of firewood, drills a hole in his leg and screws in a stone tablet used for sharpening tools. He wakes up alone realizing that his wife and the woman who has done this to him are no longer the same person and he flees, but how far can one get with a giant stone on their leg? She’s got to find him eventually after all who knows the place better than she does? If she does what punishment awaits him?

I’ve been waiting for Von Trier to make a horror film because he has the distinction of being one of my favorite directors who has never made anything I could ever see watching twice. I’ve seen everything he’s done, including both seasons of his Twin Peaks-esque television series Kingdom (pointlessly remade as Kingdom Hospital by Stephen King a few years ago) and as with most of his movies it’s not without reservations that I enjoyed Antichrist. With the exception of The Element of Crime and its stylistic follow up Europa, I’ve never been able to see past the inherent darkness and violence of his stories and characters to revel in the craft and subtext in quite the way many of critics have – I enjoy the distance I keep from Von Trier’s work but still love thinking about the films years after I’ve watched them (with the exception of The Idiots, which I almost wish I had never seen). He’s revolutionized cinema more than once and he’s incredibly important even if I don’t always enjoy the films he’s most famous for. If you know him, it’s probably for Bjork’s be-swanned performance of one of the songs from his Dancer in the Dark (his neo-realist musical) at the 2002 Academy Awards or you may know him for the aforementioned cinematic play Dogville starring Nicole Kidman. I really didn’t enjoy what happens in either film and had extraordinarily difficult times with both, yet those are the two that inspire the most debate (outside of strictly critical circles). Von Trier, like Alejandro Jodorowski, Pasolini and Derek Jarman before him, is a punk, a masochist who relishes in the hyperbole thrown on him like gasoline by critics just aching to set him on fire. The more he prods his critics by presenting with increasingly difficult material the more they rally against him and the more fun he seems to have planning his next move. He’s notorious for issuing statements about himself and his films and has managed to remain in the press for nearly thirty years without ever having done anything remotely commercial. Of his 11 feature films, 10 have debuted at the Cannes Film Festival (a record if I’m not mistaken) and despite his claims to the contrary I don’t think he has any intention of ceasing because it seems as though he’s having too much fun.

I was excited for a proper Von Trier horror film because his view of humanity is so dark and so cruel and this promised a most ghastly punishment for his favorite prey. His style is something I really do love and to be fair, much of it has to due with whichever cinematographer he’s employed. What I love and remember most about his films is the look; he pioneered the shaky hand-held camera to get a more intimate look at a couple, he loves colours and lights (Element of Crime was shot entirely in a sickly amber hue with bright flashes of blue every so often), often changes the colour of a landscape as we gaze upon it and can be said to love the capabilities of his cameraman. The opening is a testament to this; in slow-motion, absolutely flawless black and white, even the sight of the genitalia of the body doubles thrusting rudely is hard not to admire. Von Trier treats the death of the child and the wild fornication with the same beauty, both set to a piece of classical music (that I think is by Hayden but I’m not 100% on this). Death and sex are a part of life (here, they're inextricable), it is only when we think about them or use them that they become unnatural. He uses his role as a therapist and the effect of their son’s death in order to manipulate his wife, no matter how altruistic he maintains his position is; She uses sex as a way to deal with their son’s death which is an improper and selfish way to treat her husband and ignore her grief. Neither is innocent. It’s not hard to link her use of sex and constant attempts at roughly overpowering him in a place called Eden to the biblical point that woman is the downfall of man. Von Trier has had a troublesome relationship with women in films, inciting more charges of misogyny than even David Lynch. Charlotte Gainsbourg is thus the embodiment of a woman pushed by thousands of years of male thought regarding the ‘place’ of women. Her grief becomes a deeper wound and she misplaces her guilt into a sense that because she was Nic’s mother and birthed him, she is even more evil. It makes sense that she fixates on genitalia in the wake of the tragedy, as that was how the problem’s originated both in the birthing of their son and in the sex act that distracted them from his death. She castrates both of them when she can no longer find solace in sex and she drains his ruined penis of blood and semen showing both the destructive and life-giving power of the organ. It’s hard to think about and even harder to watch.
Amidst the male female relationship, there are other forces at work as well namely religion and nature. Aside from the obvious biblical context of the setting and relationship dymanic, there is the cryptic nature of her research. She offers hints, like “Nature is Satan’s church” and switches between natural and supernatural explanations for simple things. In essence, all of her hysteria about nature is no different than Bill Paxton slaughtering people because an angel told him to in Frailty. She goes on and on about the Three Beggars, a fox, a deer and a crow, each of whom make an appearance (in the film’s eye-rollingest moment, the fox says “Chaos Reigns”, the subheading of Chapter 2, in a low drawn-out voice). In a stylistic device Von Trier has evidently gotten used to the film is told in chapters but it adds nothing to the film, so I won’t elaborate. When he realizes that she believes in the nonsense about the three beggars and that they are not, as her research asserts, a constellation, he gets a look of the utmost horror on his face and this is after she’s put a bolt and grinding wheel through his leg. He realizes that she’s been taken in and that her naïve belief in otherworldly forces now takes precedence over their relationship and her humanity. Though interestingly the beggars only ever appear or mean anything to Dafoe; her paranoia manifests itself in front of his eyes and he has to confront it. I think what I like most about the film (genius cinematography aside) is that Von Trier posits that the most terrifying thing in the world is looking at your spouse and seeing a stranger. He gives us the whole film to think about it because their most beautiful act is to make love in the beginning of the film. Following Nic’s death, nothing of that passion remains, sex is impersonal, a tool, and his love is rationed like the medicine he refuses her. They no longer see each other, they see an enemy, thus the final act can be seen as either buying or rejecting religion, but their love is no longer in evidence.

Von Trier dedicated the film to Andrei Tarkovsky, which I can see, what with its grey-green landscape, bickering protagonists’ fixation on the past even as they careen toward the future and of course its biblical punishment. Tarkovsky never made a horror film, but he used many genres to examine human nature including the sci-fi epic, which brings us to really the most important point to be made in examining a horror film: how well does it do its job? How frightening is it? It is quite frightening, even if the biggest scare is one you consider after the film has ended. The torment Charlotte Gainsbourg inflicts on Willem Dafoe is just as abrasive as anything Eli Roth or Takashi Miike ever dreamt up, except it doesn’t look away when others might (well I guess Miike wouldn't, would he? Has he ever shown a penis before?). The sound design is wonderful and the music exquisitely evocative and frightening. Von Trier plays with, but doesn’t lampoon, the conventions of the genre in a nicely underhanded way, like by setting the film in the ubiquitous cabin in the woods. When Dafoe’s character discovers the notes up in the attic, it carries the same weight as the typewriter in The Shining or the stomach writing in The Exorcist, two films that Antichrist owes a significant debt to. Willem Dafoe’s growing fear of the woman he shares a bed with rings true and the paranoia that envelops her mirrors the distrust he tries to keep hidden. Their performances are equally tremendous. My biggest grievance is that so much of the film is spent in conversation and that the examination of their marriage is fairly ordinary (the performances help this not ever get truly boring). The atmosphere takes a bit too long to build and the castration cuts the subtlety in twain anyway. The ending carries little dramatic weight as we’ve considered it for the past thirty minutes. The imagery gets amazing (the press still of the tree with hands is really quite stunning, as is anything shot in slow-motion. Dod Mantle is really and truly a gifted cinematographer and if I don’t stop praising him soon I’ll have to ask him to marry me). The problems arise because this isn’t a proper horror film, it’s an outside job.

I rather think that Von Trier should have dedicated his film to another Scandinavian auteur, Ingmar Bergman. Bergman’s conflicts are much in line thematically with both Tarkovsky and Von Trier but unlike the late Russian trailblazer, Bergman did try his hand at a horror film. The result, Hour of the Wolf, is incredibly like Antichrist. Both feature striking and unique imagery, both feature at their core a marriage fallen to ruins with one spouse trying to understand the descent into insanity the other has taken, both build a looming sense of dread that becomes inescapable, both deal with the others manifestations of their tortured psyche (in both cases in the form of animals and people) and both spend much more time on the marriage than their ostensible horror. I think Antichrist is a lot easier to understand and is more engaging than Hour of the Wolf, but they are remarkably similar films that tread similar paths that it’s nearly impossible not to place them side by side and see that their failings and successes are identical. Hour of the Wolf and Antichrist simply got attention in fields and areas that horror films don’t ordinarily get, so of course they jar with expectations and forge their own path even as they fall on the tried and true. Just as when William Friedkin and Stanley Kubrick, two directors who made dramatic pictures almost exclusively, made their genre masterpieces they had their own ideas about adapting and conventions, they just happened to allot more time to the frightening than Von Trier or Bergman. When a film calls itself Antichrist, I expect a bit more fright than I got here, even if his point is that people are the most evil things in the world. His point is, once again, well taken, however, and his movie quite well made.
It’s certainly ambitious a film where your villain is everyone on earth given the physical presence of two people; the onslaught of harmless women marching up a hill in the epilogue filling in half of the missing pieces. But in an age where Torture Porn is not just shorthand but an established genre with people trying to fit into it, I’m willing to play the game of any film with ideas. Von Trier does not coddle his audience and he does not sink to the level that genital mutilation might imply. He has made a film to be watched and judged by adults and students with a growing appreciation for technique. It is not for the faint of heart nor for the critic who has grown tired of Von Trier’s tricksy persona and sleight-of-hand. I don’t think it’s perfect nor do I think, as one angry journalist for Cinema Scope opined following its Cannes premiere, that it’s stupid. It’s difficult and full of anger and violence but Von Trier, whatever else may be said of him, clearly cared and threw himself into crafting the film and I can’t help but admire him and Antichrist both, even as I relive its worst moments. As horror films go it is unnerving and unique and gorgeous and hideous and it makes perfect sense in the context of Lars Von Trier’s filmography and ideas. I rather hope he does this again sometime.

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