I've always been a defender of Lars von Trier, even if I readily admit that a lot of times he doesn't deserve it. Love him or hate him (and there is room to experience both emotions at the same time), the man has crafted some of the most viscerally powerful film experiences of the last two decades. Europa is haunting and beautiful and vividly powerful. Breaking the Waves endures as one of the most painfully emotional experiences of the modern cinema. Dancer in the Dark is one of the most ambitiously surreal musicals ever created. And Dogville used a distinct lack of realism to expose the falsities of both American life and traditional filmmaking. There are many others, too, all reflecting the artistic preoccupations of their inimitable creator; von Trier lives on the line between provocation and inspiration, between manipulation and truth, between beauty and ugliness.
Antichrist, von Trier's latest descent into the horrors of the human psyche, is perhaps his most beautiful film...and his most infuriating. The most interesting aspect of the film is its extraordinary style; von Trier is always devising new stylistic strategies to challenge himself as a storyteller (in the very entertaining documentary, The Five Obstructions, von Trier challenged his favorite filmmaker, Jorgen Leth, to remake the same film five different times, each with a different stylistic obstacle standing in his way), and in Antichrist he seems to be exploring a glorious mish-mash of all styles. This is a far cry from von Trier's Dogma 95 days, when he vowed to eliminate all manner of artifice and deliver only "the real." Here he is combining vivid black-and-white photography with gorgeous color, using vivid HD cameras to create images of astonishing beauty. His cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, coming fresh off his Oscar win for Slumdog Millionaire, once again delivers some of the most beautiful filmic images of the year. As a director, von Trier has never been more interesting.
Content-wise, the film is an infuriating mess of horror and psychodrama, sometimes truly haunting, others off-putting and confounding. Much controversy has surrounded the film since its debut at Cannes, where jaws dropped over the film's graphic sexuality, grisly violence, and -- yes -- genital mutilation. A few clarifyers: the sexuality, save one 3-second penetration shot in the film's prologue, is barely graphic. The violence doesn't hit until near the end of the film, when it does get fairly nasty. The mutilation is obviously disconcerting, but it makes total sense in the context of the film's story. Most disturbing for me is the film's confounding internal logic, which touches on some powerful ideas but muddies them with purposely confusing tangents that speak more to von Trier's own psychological struggle than to the film's. Von Trier is an artist capable of putting audiences through the emotional wringer and leaving them feeling the profoundly disturbing pulses of the human soul. Antichrist doesn't wear you out as much as some of von Trier's other works, and that's primarily because when it veers closely to bearing its soul, it pulls back in a fit of pretense.
The story for the uninitiated: a married couple (Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg) make love in the shower while their young son escapes his crib and falls out their high-rise window. The mother goes into shock; the father, a counselor, remains cold and sets out to take his wife on as a patient in an attempt to "heal her." Big mistake. They retreat to a cabin in the woods, where the husband puts his wife through many psychological exercises meant to exorcise her inner demons...and in the process he awakens a real demon. Much torment ensues. And yes, there is one brief moment where a wolf speaks (it's one line: "Chaos reigns").
Pretentious? Absolutely. Allegorical? Almost entirely, I think, though von Trier always likes to toe the line between reality and artifice. Effective? Sometimes, yes; there are moment when the film is as viscerally and psychologically frightening as the best of Ingmar Bergman, and also just as emotionally wrenching. Then, at others, it becomes a jumbled mess of twisted exposition and labyrinthine backstory. Horror works best when there is no real explanation, and von Trier for the first time in his career seems at great pains to explain his story when it would be more effective to simply let it unfold naturally, no matter how wacky it may become.
The performances are fabulous, especially Gainsbourg's, who like most von Trier heroines is put through a torture chamber of emotions and makes every one of them feel horrifyingly real. And as a filmmaker, von Trier is moving in a direction in which he is openly discussing gender issues in his work. Female tribulation (and subjugation) has long been a primary theme in von Trier films, but in Antichrist it is right their on the surface, being discussed by the characters as a crucial element to the story. The film's final judgment seems to indict both sexes as being evil in certain ways; the husband is constantly viewed as a clinical bastard who is primarily responsible for his wife's deterioration, but the wife assumes sole responsibility for her son's death, and maybe she harbors more than one burdensome secret...etc.
As von Trier inches further towards fully disclosing his ideas about gender, sex, love, violence, and how they all intertwine, he himself seems a little lost, and we get lost with him. Antichrist is very intriguing but ultimately unsuccessful, worth ample discussion but not glowing accolades. Praise, after all, is not what von Trier is searching for anyway...but whatever he's searching for, I hope he discovers it, and that his discovery will be reflected in his future work.