A Nutty Nightmare From Lars von Trier

Five days into the festival, it would appear the nuttiest entry has arrived. I doubt anyone can top the sheer madness and graphic absurdity of Lars Von Trier‘s "Antichrist." At first, it’s an elegant grief drama. Then it transforms into "The Shining" meets "Evil Dead" with green politics, torture porn and a fair amount of […]

Five days into the festival, it would appear the nuttiest entry has arrived.

I doubt anyone can top the sheer madness and graphic absurdity of Lars Von Trier‘s "Antichrist."

At first, it’s an elegant grief drama. Then it transforms into "The Shining" meets "Evil Dead" with green politics, torture porn and a fair amount of Lynchian abstractions.

It’s also supremely misogynistic, or maybe it twists misogyny around to mock the very concept. Catherine Breillat could have a field day figuring that one out.

The movie begins with the apparent suicide of a young child, seen in the stylish black-and-white prologue jumping out of a window while his parents (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) screw in the next room.

The rest of the story unfolds in chapters, starting with "Grief," where the child’s mother (never given a name) endures an intense period of mourning while her husband (also anonymous) relies on his training as a psychotherapist to help her cope.

Von Trier ("Dancer in the Dark") is known for his versatility and inventive techniques, such as the the low-tech Dogma Manifesto. And his depth of storytelling has ranged from offbeat comedies ("The Boss of It All") to Brechtian critiques ("Dogville" and "Manderlay") and self-reflexive social commentary ("Epidemic").

But nothing on his filmography approaches the mayhem of "Antichrist," an utterly strange and deeply perverted take on the horror genre.

In the credits, Von Trier dedicates the movie to the late Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, a pretentious move to be sure — but also something of a key to understanding Von Trier’s intentions.

Like Tarkovsky’s "Solaris," the thrust of "Antichrist" comes out of a familiar narrative backdrop, which Von Trier subtly intellectualizes, struggling against all odds to transcend the boundaries of the form or at least create a spectacular failure in the process.

In the case of "Solaris," this meant turning a basic science fiction concept into high art; with "Antichrist," Von Trier intends to broaden the thematic potential of cinematically-induced fear.

Following the logic that she must confront her greatest fears, Dafoe takes Gainsbourg on a trip to Eden, their tiny cabin in the woods. And that’s where the movie rapidly accelerates into a barrage of psychotic
episodes.

Without revealing too much, let’s just say that somebody goes crazy, and somebody else endures a lot of pain. Vividly.

There are several movies with elements of the horror genre competing at Cannes this year, including Park Chan-wook‘s vampire tale "Thirst," Johnny To’s comic action romp "Vengeance" and Brillante Mendoza’s largely detestable kidnapping thriller "Kinatay."

However, "Antichrist" goes further than all of them with moments keenly designed to make you cringe, including a couple of genitalia gags worthy of Jack Smith. Kudos to the American distributor with the guts to pick it up. Von Trier’s name will sell the movie to an arthouse crowd, but some may hate him for it.

Digesting the Cannes buzz from afar, many must be wondering: Beyond the grotesque imagery, is it any good? One sign: the audience of journalists booed the screening, and again at the press conference on Monday.

 

"Would you please, for my benefit, explain and justify why you made this film?" demanded Baz Bamigboye of the Daily Mail. "Please," he added, "give more than a one word answer." Von Trier, his hands visibly shaking, looked stunned. "I don’t think I have to justify — " he began before Bamigboye  abruptly interrupted. "Yes you do!" he shouted.

 

Von Trier paused. "Yes I do?" he asked.

 

"Yes, you do," the reporter continued. "This is the Cannes Film Festival, you brought your film here and you have to explain why you made it."  (Read the Indiewire account for more from Von Trier: "I’m the best director in the world.")

Back to the actual movie: Gripped by the calculation of the design, I think I loved it, but might have been blindsighted by the sheer audacity of its twisted conception. Like many audience members from tonight’s crowd, I need to let it sit for awhile — in my nightmares, most likely.