Had I been in the instantly infamous premiere of Antichrist at Cannes this year, I’d have picked the pro side and clapped as loud as I could, with all my might, done my best to drown out the boos and the derisive laughter. Indeed, when I was still fresh out of the Antichrist wringer in the early hours of Saturday morning, I was immediately ready to get fed through again. Having said that, there was definitely a lot in this film that, under different circumstances, I would have hurled popcorn at myself. In fact, in one respect, this picture is an abject failure…
The narrative is outwardly simple: a couple are bereaved of their son and the wife experiences some unusually deep and pervasive grief, they retreat to a quiet place so that he (Willem Defoe) might help her (Charlotte Gainsbourg) heal, but instead she has the control and the opposite of healing occurs, and dramatically so. No subplots, no side characters, no strange twists, just one direct story.
I was not at all surprised that conceptually, it’s stunning stuff because slap-in-the-face concepts are what Trier excels with. The writer-director has here taken his understanding and experience of grief and dark black sadness and filtered it through folklore and horror film imagery, both at the same time, closely woven. There’s no sense that he is holding back at any moment, and everything is allowed to be as explicit, confrontational or difficult as it needs to be. For example, towards the beginning of the film, one shot inserted into a sequence of our two main characters having sex is fully explicit. And why not? Why not cut to what amounts to, essentially, a key part of the action? It is conventional, coy and supposedly tasteful to not do this, but if you take sexually explicit imagery down off of a pedestal, as you should, there’s no reason to not feature it. In a sense, the typical movie sex scene is like showing a car crash without ever featuring the moment of impact.
If you know something of Von Trier and his work you will likely be able to identify how personal a movie this is. Von Trier directly confronts the (unfounded) allegations of misogyny that have followed him for at least the latter half of his career, and he dives deep into a very raw, emotional exploration of his own depression. But contrary to expectation, this isn’t just a meandering stream of consciousness, instead possessing the same well-structured shape and persuasive arguing ability of his other films. The attentive viewer of Antichrist will be engaged in a debate as subtle and intriguing as any you are likely to see on the big screen this year.
It isn’t all good, though. The failings, unfortunately, are all technical and some of them are considerable.
The protracted opening scene is an example of how this film sometimes echoes aesthetic ideas Von Trier has shunned for some considerable time now. This approach is more in keeping with his early, very worked, very stylised pictures and less like the technique he has favored since Breaking the Waves, which is typically ‘pointing the camera’ at his subjects, rather than ‘framing’ the images. Between these very much framed, almost sculpted moments, however, the meat-and-potatoes scenes of the picture are served up with handheld shots of the kind he’s lately been best known for.
Both aesthetics should work very well, if applied and executed appropriately. In this case, the application is solid, with each approach selected sensibly and, in theory, effectively, with relevance and meaning. It is that the actual execution of the handheld camera work is so destructive that the film suffers so much.
[Be wary of vague spoiler material in this paragraph] For example, the film features a close up of extreme self harm on the part of one of the characters. The effect is created in a close-up of a prosthetic and, yes, it looks convincing enough to knock you back in your seat. Unfortunately, the edit into the shot is an awful one, and the unfortunate reason for this is that the previous shot is badly executed. Essentially, the previous shot ends up framed in too similar a way to the close-up we are then taken to, and the shot size so close that it feels like a jump cut, and this has an immediate distracting, distancing effect. This bad edit, forced on the film by the handling of the previous cut, is like a parachute on the back of a race car.
Many of the shots are so ill-suited to transparent, continuity editing that much of the film retains an artificial quality, forever a film on a screen when it wants to be, and works hard to be, an experience that you are drawn entirely into. Cinematographer and camera operator Anthony Dod Mantle has regularly disregarded the practicalities of screen geography and geometry and instead thrown the images together with insufficient service to the viewing experience. Further to this, in fact, it is worth noticing that the film’s overall look in terms of colour, contrast and texture was manipulated extensively in post production, denying Dod Mantle both the responsibility and, to a very large extent, the credit. (The end result, by the way, is an often breathtaking surface to the images).
Von Trier would argue that the continuity-edited film with ‘polite’ observation of the rules of screen geography is a thing of the past. He’s standing too close to the screen, however. These foundation stones of the language of narrative, diegetic film haven’t become an indulgence but remain as crucial as ever because audiences retain the same psychology. These are still the most efficient ways to work an audience because the underlying nature of the audience is the same as it ever was.
With Antichrist, Von Trier asks us to dive head first into a thousand foot pit of screaming flame. If only he’d cleared the way of obstructions for us to fall fast and free and totally afraid, instead of grinding us to a halt with every technical misfire.
In the final evaluation, however, Antichrist remains as essential as Von Trier’s other work, and while the debate rages and opinions are eagerly sought on the film, very possibly more so.
The fully uncut Antichrist launches in the UK cinemas on July 24th, but visitors to the Curzon chain throughout London will have some early chances to see the film, or a weblink Q&A with Von Trier, or even, at Curzon Soho, an art installation that takes images and themes from the film and transforms the bar and waiting areas into part of the experience. They even have Antichrist cocktails on the menu…
The English premiere of the film was hosted as part of the Curzon’s Midnight Movies strand, a series of monthly cinema events. Their next engagement is a dual screening of Blue Velvet and Pretty in Pink, with the audience given the option of which film to see before reconvening for big-screen 80′s karaoke.
US audiences will find it harder to see the film on the big screen, though IFC will be giving it limited theatrical engagements from October 23rd after releasing it to VOD on October 21st.