It’s good to see that Lars von Trier still has it in him. To create a controversy, that is. Regardless of the qualities of his recent films, what seems to have been uppermost in the mind of the director when they each premiered at Cannes, was how much he could cause shock and outrage, if not through the films, then through some pretty outspoken interviews. American critics have always taken the bait, but even they could hardly be bothered to react to the second part of Lars von Trier’s ‘USA – Land of Opportunities’ trilogy, Manderlay, despite some provocative statements made there on the traditional role of women and black people in American society, and some early controversy over the killing of a donkey on the set. Even the formal experiment of the open stage setting had been done before in Dogville and barely raised an eyebrow. Both films were powerful pieces of work, successfully achieving their aims, but that clearly wasn’t enough for the director and his disappointment at not creating a bigger stir was evident in his appearances at Cannes. Clearly a re-think was in order before he moved on to the third part of the trilogy.
After stepping back for the minor interlude of The Boss Of It All with its rather random ‘Automavision’ concept, Trier is back in full-blown provocateur style with Antichrist. Even the title, derived from Nietzsche, is meant to raise eyebrows. And, my goodness, Trier has certainly managed to push a few buttons, not only predictably stirring up the Daily Mail even before they had seen the film (“You do not need to see Lars von Trier's Antichrist to know how revolting it is”) – hardly a coup – but having every other newspaper in Europe sending correspondents to sit judgement on the film, and interview the director, who obliged their sense of moral outrage by proclaiming himself the best director in the world and, somewhat reminiscent of Maradona, suggesting that he was guided by the “hand of God”.
Inevitably, it’s a lot of fuss over nothing. Trier is a talented director, who certainly can lay claim to being one of the best directors in the world, but when it comes down to it, there’s nothing in Antichrist that we haven’t seen from him before. Rather, it’s a retrograde step for a director who has always been progressive and challenging in his films, Trier going back to the roots of his Europe Trilogy (Element of Crime, Epidemic and Europa), to the evident stylisations and themes influenced by Bergman and Tarkovsky (Trier’s dedication of the film to the Russian director was greeted by howls of derision at Cannes, but Tarkovsky was clearly the primary reason for Trier becoming a filmmaker), with a portentous and ludicrous classically scored, black-and-white opening scene showing the two principal actors making love in stylised slow motion and graphic close-up, while their young child falls from their apartment window to his dramatic death on a snow-covered pavement. The grief of the loss of the child is felt deeply, particularly by the mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is in danger of being consumed by despair and guilt. Her husband (Willem Dafoe) is a therapist, and despite recommendations about treating a member of your own family, tries to help her through the bereavement, following the necessary steps, setting exercises to help her to understand and control her feelings. Discovering that her feelings for her child are closely related to the last summer they spent together in their country cabin in a place called Eden, he takes his wife back there to work through the issues that threaten to overwhelm them both.
One can always question Trier’s motives for making his films and cast doubt on his methods, but the premise behind Antichrist is at least sincere. It does seem to have come out of a severe period of depression that the director himself had recently been afflicted with, and the making of the film can in some ways be seen as a kind of therapy. Many of the Trier obsessions of old are here, particularly his complex, oft-criticised views on women, their suffering and martyrdom (something that his actresses also seem to go through in his films), his interest in the evil that lies at the heart of human beings and supernatural forces that can bring them out into the world. The world created by Trier to express the inner mind of Gainsbourg’s character and her breakdown is however rather overwrought and unimaginative, taking concepts that are traditionally seen as positive – motherhood, nature, religion, psychotherapy – and subverting them into something rather more menacing. It’s a valid method – even Gainsbourg’s character’s research into the historical treatment of women becomes twisted in her deranged mind and turned against herself – but Trier’s means of expressing it are at best laboured and obvious, and at worst, hopelessly muddled and meaningless – much as they were in his Europe Trilogy.
There is a feeling that Antichrist is very much a personal film – arguably, the perspective here is a male one, with Willem Dafoe’s character perhaps just as deranged and misguided in his attempt to comprehend and deal the nature of not just women, but the workings of the mind – but that doesn’t prevent it from also being a very bad film. It may have been a means of (shock) therapy for the director, a necessary step to try to deal with personal issues and rethink his creative impulses, but the resultant film is a dull mess of half-baked ideas, poorly expressed, tediously drawn out and dressed up with empty stylisations, leaving the director with no option but to talk it up to the press, otherwise, there would be no reason why you would want to see this at all.