by Matt Fagerholm
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“Words cannot express a person’s emotions.”
During his Q&A after the Chicago International Film Festival screening of Antichrist, star Willem Dafoe said that one of the only things his formidable director, Lars von Trier, told him to do, in order to prepare for his role, was watch Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 feature Zerkalo (The Mirror). Viewers who leave Antichrist fascinated yet hopelessly baffled are advised to give The Mirror a look as well. The film was deeply autobiographical for Tarkovsky, who assembled a series of his own haunting and visually stunning memories within a subversive dream-like plot structure. Like all great works of abstract art, The Mirror is not a puzzle to decode. As David Lynch once advised his bewildered audience, it’s only important to concentrate on the “emotion” of the piece. Tarkovsky truly believed that images, not words, are the only tools capable of expressing a person’s emotions. In The Mirror, the emotions produced from nostalgic reflections (on childhood, divorce, war, etc.) are unforgettably conveyed by Tarkovsky’s poetic use of sound and imagery. No straightforward narrative could come close to matching this film’s power. And no straightforward horror film could come close to matching the power of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.
This is, undoubtedly, the most galvanizing film to travel the festival circuit since Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. Von Trier has created an uncompromising artistic vision that deserves to be discussed and debated. It’s troubling to see so many film scholars content in simply labeling the film “a joke” and its director “a fraud.” This is the kind of film that film criticism was made for. After analyzing the same flimsy Hollywood formulas, you’d think critics would jump at the chance to seriously confront a film like this. Instead, most have opted to laugh at it like frightened adolescents. I won’t even mention the particular sequences of violence that most writers seem breathless to reveal. I’d rather discuss why I was exhilarated by every minute of Antichrist, and why it deserves to be taken seriously.
The film’s plot structure has the von Trier trademark of chapter markers, beginning with a prologue that’s exquisitely filmed in black and white (like The Mirror, Antichrist shifts between color and b&w imagery with dreamlike ease). A couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) are engaged in passionate lovemaking while their infant son, dazzled by falling snowflakes, climbs atop a windowsill and plummets to his death. Gainsbourg becomes paralyzed with guilt and unease, while psychiatrist Dafoe treats her like one of his patients. Her fear of the woods inspires them to take a trip to their country home, cryptically named Eden. Once there, Dafoe begins having ominous visions, as Gainsbourg slowly descends into madness. The psychological torture he inflicts on her (however well-meaning it may be) proves to have physical repercussions.
The controversy surrounding the film has been so overpowering that it has threatened to drown out the film itself. Some have hurled at von Trier the tired claim that the abuse inflicted upon his female characters reflects his own “misogyny.” Though von Trier’s worldview may be dark and pessimistic, it is nothing if not humane. He has always identified with his female protagonists, who have valiantly struggled in the face of adversity in every one of his pictures, from Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves and Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, to Nicole Kidman and Bryce Dallas Howard in the “Land of Opportunities” trilogy. Yes, von Trier has always worn the title of “provocateur” like a badge of honor, but his films don’t aim to shock simply for the sake of stirring people up. His films are deeply serious, and Antichrist was spawned from the filmmaker’s own personal battle with depression.
The primary emotions conveyed in the picture even serve as chapter titles: grief, pain and despair. But the film is also viscerally thrilling, in the most filmic sense of the words. The moviegoers surrounding me at the Chicago premiere were either cowering in their chairs or jumping out of them. It goes without saying that the film is incredibly difficult to watch at times, yet von Trier’s spellbinding visual poetry (gorgeously lensed by Slumdog Millionaire cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle) makes it impossible for viewers to tear their eyes from the screen. Von Trier has always proven to have a gift for eliciting overwhelming performances from his actors, and the duo of Gainsbourg and Dafoe are no exception. Their scenes together, particularly in the film’s first hour, reminded me of the equally intense battles between Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ masterpiece A Woman Under the Influence. Like Falk, Dafoe attempts to understand his wife’s increasingly unhinged behavior, though he lacks awareness of how his methods for “helping” her are actually making matters worse.
I know I’ll need more than one viewing of this picture in order to acquire an equally rich interpretation of my own. For now, I see the film as a breathtaking and shattering meditation on the paralyzing grief that comes from devastating loss, and the destructive toll that guilt has on the body and soul. Just as Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are brilliantly delved into the psyche of a child, studying the loneliness and pain caused by his parents’ divorce through the structure of fantasy, von Trier’s Antichrist brilliantly delves into the psyche of grieving adults, studying their inner torment through the structure of deliberately heightened surrealism. Both Jonze and von Trier say more with their extraordinary images than any amount of expositional dialogue could possibly convey. That’s what cinema is all about.
Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.
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