We know what to expect when realist filmmakers take on abuse and hardship: screaming dads in wifebeater tees, caring but overwrought mothers, brothers and sisters who are felled by the homelife or have escaped it. David Lynch had another answer: take the conscious memories and digest them through the imagery of nightmare. Thus was born his feature-length debut, “Eraserhead,” which essentially relates how much it sucks to have another mouth to feed. As creepy and unforgettable as this film is, his earlier short, “The Grandmother,” is even more nightmarish. Begotten as a seed beneath two rutting canine-humans, a young boy wakes to consciousness in a blackened household. There, his bedwetting creates a cycle of physical abuse. Many of us can only wonder, but my guess is that Lynch’s expressionist film style plays truer to the experience than an angry Deniro-type in an early 60s kitchen.
“The Grandmother” shows mastery of surrealism – only through this style could such a sentiment appear. Lars von Trier, who at Cannes 2009 anointed himself as the greatest director alive, felt himself up to the task. His new, much discussed “Antichrist” takes the turmoil of a child’s death as the premise for Lynchian surreal fear-processing. As fun surrealism can be, taking it to the dark side doubles the joy – after all, a dream is only a leap away from night terror. “Antichrist’s” poster art whets our appetite for gothic phantasmagoria, with bodies in coitus upon a spider’s-grasp of exposed roots, hands reaching through from the beyond. As a still piece, the photo suggests rupture, movement, and descent while remaining sublimely still.
If only von Trier could work beyond the poster art concept. “Antichrist” stubbornly fails as a gothic nightmare and meanders as a misanthropic two-character drama. The two mourn, fight, f**k, and one abuses the life out of the other. The film settles for these actions without the filmmaker finding a greater purpose for his content.
The two characters, cryptically named He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), retreat to the woods to escape their mourning. Brutal as he can be, von Trier delivers the death scene in a finely tuned black-and-white sequence. In a retread of the sex-equals-guilt motif, He and She copulate in the shower while their blond child moves from the earth to the heavens, in a deep fall from of a snowy window. This content would be unwatchable if von Trier didn’t use an almost-still slo-mo to film it – it’s as if a series of still photos are just about to wake to life.
But here’s the only case where style trumps a lack of substance, and all that remains is overstylized and without purpose. When He, an analyst, tries to help his wife move on, she blocks out the pain with sex, a motif with which von Trier runs like a rabid dog. A scene or two of this rough succor is plenty to sell the idea. But the filmmaker repeats it as if he were a fetishist or thinks his “highbrow” audience to be dullards. After the two head to the woods, the narrative remains just as redundant, repeating his insistence and her resentment and regression. Enthusiasts will argue that von Trier is expanding narrative possibilities, but he’s really running them into the sewers.
There’s been much talk of von Trier’s relationship to this film. It was essentially therapy to break out of a funk over his ill-received “The Boss of It All” (he makes this clear in the film’s press notes). Granted, some therapeutic creative works have artistic merit – much of the outsider art movement serves as an example. But “Antichrist” is so grounded in its creator’s logic that this film should have remained in his personal collection. Some business relating to constellations is meant to create intrigue, but remains a dead lead. Lars von Trier is too interested in dying animals and the ritualistic pain that She will inflict upon her intrusive husband-cum-therapist.
Calling it ritualistic pain will redefine the term. I’d suggest that everyone view “In the Realm of the Senses” to the end and be sure you remain well before watching this. For von Trier has genital violence on order, but just as bad is a large grinding stone that She pierces into He’s leg. The film synthesizes this violence with repeated scenes of Dafoe boffing on Gainsbourg. I’m sure the latter performer – who earned an award at Cannes – needs therapy right about now. Roget Ebert thought Lynch to be sadistically exploiting Isabella Rossellini in “Blue Velvet.” I wonder what the critic will write about Gainsbourg getting herself off in full view upon von Trier’s soiled forest.
The press materials also note that von Trier scripted and filmed without enthusiasm, and that he included some scenes randomly. We’d think that content as heavy as this would take all he could muster – and I believe his “Manderlay” to be an example of him doing just that. Then again, the “greatest living director” may think himself capable of making masterworks in his sleep. This wretched thing – now haunting the NYFF after screening at Toronto – should have been snuffed out at the drawing board.