Thursday, 19 August 2010

Antichrist, Lars von Trier, Denmark/ Germany/ France/ Italy/ Sweden/ Poland, 2009

Apparently, director Lars von Trier cooked up this cryptic, abstruse mess of a film while conquering depression.

And it shows.

Antichrist does come across as highly personal and esoteric if incomprehensible, and I can only marvel at the European film funding bodies, willing to shell out millions to pay for what amounts to a cure for a director to combat his depression.

Really, only in Europe!

But don't get me wrong. That is not meant to be a criticism. Not at all. After all, some of the greatest works of art - be that literature, painting, or film - originated as a result of their creator's depression or emotional breakdown. Just think of the poems of Sylvia Plath, the paintings by van Gogh or the sculptures of Camille Claudel. And, who knows, a hundred years from now, there might actually be someone able to decipher and make sense of von Trier's bizarre, yet admittedly visually stunning, concoction. Though the least he should have done - or his distributor - is providing spectators with a sort of manual, elucidating on the significance behind the film's numerous inscrutable details such as The Three Beggars, which defy explanation to the casual viewer by inviting a profusion of possible interpretations. While that can be interesting in some films - leaving things open and not spelling out every single detail - it requires the viewer to be inspired to do that. It requires the viewer to care for the film's characters. And Antichrist never quite achieves that. Not with me, anyway.

What Antichrist did do, though, is calling to mind another film with a similar topic: Nicholas Roeg's Don't Look Now. And without intending to elaborate on the brilliance, not to mention superiority of that film, it must be said that Roeg succeeds precisely where von Trier fails. Don't Look Now is a master-class in enigmatic story-telling for Roeg, too, refrains from giving too much away. His is a film with a story that has as many interpretations as there are viewers. However, in his case it works because we care for the characters and Don't Look Now has a story to hold it together - for without it, every film falls apart. It doesn't matter how you tell the story - backwards, forward, linear or non-linear - but a story has to be there somewhere. Antichrist, on the other hand, with all its arcane suggestions and hidden meanings, which seem merely self-serving and too esoteric to be understood by anyone than von Trier himself, is a film in search of a story.

Much has been made of Antichrist's explicitness, notably the sex scenes and scenes of genital mutilation which caused quite a stir at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Again, it brings to mind Don't Look Now, which also has a sex scene which, apart from being beautifully filmed and edited, was very daring for its time. Somehow, the scene of Donald Sutherland making love with Julie Christie seems much less gratuitous than similar scenes in von Trier's film. Similarly, the scene of genital mutilation. I don't think there was a single critic accusing Ingmar Bergman of misogyny and using explicitness for explicitness' sake when Cries and Whispers came out in 1972, interestingly the same year Don't Look Now was being produced and filmed. Von Trier didn't do or show anything in Antichrist that Roeg and Bergman hadn't already done almost thirty years before.

However, they did what von Trier in his - egomania? - failed to do: They actually told a story.