Has Lars von Trier ever made an accomplished film? To be sure, the man who stated flat out in Cannes that he was “the best director in the world” has an impressive filmography. But “Dogville,” “Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark,” are any of these films actually good? One can argue, of course, that only the most pedestrian mind would expect art to be “good” when it can be so many other things.
And a von Trier film is always many other things. Thought-provoking and provoking, disturbing, original, starkly and knowingly shocking, etc. But to this reviewer at least, they fall flat. They start out with a compelling premise but, like the road to hell, soon run into trouble. The problems that plague the Danish director’s films come to the fore in “Antichrist,” shown to much heated argument at the recent Cannes film festival.
The film opens here this week. Did censorship prevail? Apparently not, but at what cost? The U.S. version received no cuts and will not have a rating. In a country where Janet Jackson’s breast is still infuriating censors several years after its brief exposure at the Super Bowl, the hardcore images and the harrowing scenes of sexual mutilation in “Antichrist” would not be allowed normally. So, “Antichrist.”
I will not fall into either of the two camps that practically came to blows in Cannes—the one shocked by the extreme gore and the one engaging into metaphysical or theological discussions about a fairly sophomoric exposé of the degradation suffered by women through the ages and the pacts they may or may not have entered into with Satan. What’s the story here? A couple loses a child, goes into decaying, dark, deserted woods to recuperate—not the most obvious choice, one would think, but appropriate for what follows—the woman goes mad, or may have been mad, or possessed, or plain evil, from before.
The film, divided into four chapters sandwiched between a prologue and an epilogue, doesn’t work as a horror film—too much suspension of disbelief and of rationality required—doesn’t work as the unraveling of a relation—we can’t bring ourselves to care about this odd couple, the husband a moronic therapist encouraging his wife to get over the awful death of her baby by taking deep breaths and counting to five—doesn’t work as a history lesson, even in the chapter glibly titled “gynocide,” and doesn’t work as a Hyeronimus Bosch-inspired vision of hell in the nature around us and within us.
Most unforgivably, the first part is rather boring and the second part rather grotesque. Anthony Mantle, the cinematographer behind “Slumdog Millionnaire” and “the Last King of Scotland,” does some nice work here but the slow-mo shots in a sea of ferns and dead trees grow repetitive as do too many jerky handheld images.
A few years back, “The Blair Witch Project” with its dreadful sense of doom and its scenes all the more terrifying for never spelling anything out was far more shattering than this ambiguous amalgam of various themes into a pompous film that never takes off. Von Trier remains a director to be reckoned with but, beside his unsatisfactory tackling of subjects too complex for a two-hour overview, will be remembered for his Dogme95 movement—lightweight, perhaps, as compared to the influence of Italian neo-realism and, later, of the French new wave, but still, unlike “Antichrist,” opening doors into a range of possibilities.