Monday, October 26, 2009

Antichrist

It's hard to know exactly what to say about Lars von Trier - people seem to have been writing him off lately. I've been writing him off lately - his 00's films have been generally disappointing - he seems to have been wandering in a wilderness this decade, making films that sound terrible clever, and play like pure cleverness. Antichrist has all the makings of a "provocation" - and delivers, as provocation, I admit it. But also, delivers - something - as a film. It looks fantastic - as all his films do - and it has a decided power.... It has the power to make you want to argue about it, try to come to grips with it - make me argue about it anyway. So here goes...

In some ways, it's a programmatic horror film, though one with the subtexts laid out on the surface. Fear of sex - of birth, of children - death - time, nature - fear of women, of men, the cruelty of men (and women), the ravages of implacable nature, etc. The horror film elements are themselves almost all surface - the cabin in the woods, where the educated folks from the city are assaulted by monsters - the explicit externalization of a theme of the conscious, rational world (self, civilization) under attack by fears, anxieties, the id, all given concrete form. Here, the monster is nature itself - which launches an immediate attack on the characters and never relents. Acorns dropping on the roof like bombs, rain, the grass swallowing them up, animals, dying and rotting, threatening, invading... Of course, the monsters outside soon prove to be inside. The inside/outside dichotomy (which is played out in both the plot itself, in the cabin and out of it, and symbolically) is broken - barriers are permeable - the Other becomes a Double, turns into us. (No one has to sell their soul - it’s already in them, most assuredly.) Of course that - the breaking of barriers between what we are and what we fear, the invasion of our selves, our bodies, minds, everything, by outside forces - and the discovery that what we fear outside is, in fact, already in us - that is another of the horror movie's great themes.... You can add to this great dollops of Tarkovsky’s nature - the elements, water, air, fire, earth - plants and animals, the sky, you name it.... I don’t find the dedication unjustified - the film's absolute reliance on natural imagery, combined with its dedication to the use of nature as a sign of inner states of mind - seems right.

But what really makes the film fascinating is something else. The story itself is, after all, silly - way too obvious, too overdetermined... But it’s Lars von Trier - and he is always thinking about more than the story - not just the inside, but the outside, the form, the way it’s told - and the mechanics of telling - and he makes these things integral to the thematics of the piece. Take the shots of the actors looking directly at the camera - and how often these are linked to reverse shots of those totemic animals. We, the audience - and LVT and crew, the camera, the filmmakers - are in the story - we are like the animals: silent observers, who seem passive but end up driving the story. The characters look out of the screen at us - we are cut back in to the shots, as the animals - who, like us and like Von Trier, are outside the story, outside the world - but somehow drive it.

So - the story is nonsense - though I think that’s quite intentional too. The obviousness of the story, as well as its incoherence, the self-conscious appropriation of every standard horror movie trope, is integral to how it works. None of the story (“real” or even symbolic) really grabs you - but that’s not what von Trier is after. Horror films proper do depend on identification - you are pulled in, to sympathize with someone - though they then manipulate it, the best ones. Indeed, the fluidity of sympathy in horror films is usually central to the best horror films - that permeability of inside and outside, Others and Doubles, that makes the best ones great. Here, that stuff is laid out with the emotional investment of a blog post - the film is completely critical, identification is beside the point.

What it does, though, is invest rather intense energy in its form, as form. What grabs you isn’t the characters or their situations, or even exactly their symbolic significance, their pain, the themes - what grabs you are the images, what you see - the specific details of the actors, their bodies, faces, their voices, the way they move... what you hear... and maybe most of all, how all this is seen, how the film sees it, shows it. The camera work, the angles, the effects - the editing, which as always in von Trier's films is strange, surprising, utterly intriguing.... It’s in the moving camera, say, how von Trier makes sense of it. The wobbly, hand-held style, the look, clearly means to show us a wobbly, indistinct, unstable world - and not exactly in a “metaphorical” way - it gives you the impression that this is what the world looks like. It’s heightened by the effects used - the distorted images, the color manipulation and so on. It creates a world, the world of this film, that is unstable, distorted, unformed, chaotic. It is like a subjective POV (and you can call it that), but it’s separated from the characters - it is invested in the camera, not the characters. It's Von Trier's world - or our world - not the character's world: they are part of the world, they move in it - but they don't generate it, the way characters seem to generate the world in most subjective films...

Another thing I like about Von Trier's use of the moving camera is how he makes you feel the presence of the camera itself - of the camera operator as a person, carrying this thing, moving with it, pointing it at things, taking up space. It makes the physical presence of the camera, the camera crew, etc. part of the content of the film. This is true in almost all his films - even when the camera is put in odd, impersonal places (as in Boss of It All). It is hard to forget about the physical presence of the machines, and the people who operate them, or put them there...

In the end - that interest in the act of telling stories, even in their mechanics, is one of the things that makes von Trier such a compelling figure. He still is, really - not just for the shock value, either. His films are, I suppose, more like critical essays about themselves, than real films - I don't know if that's really a good thing. At his best - Breaking the Waves, the Kingdom - he makes the surface, the story, characters and so on, as interesting and engaging as the critical ideas behind the films (and those films are also very critical.) But everything he does explores the process of making films, telling stories, making sense of the world.... Antichrist, I think, might be his best film in a decade...

1 comment:

Joseph B. said...

Mentioning his use of the camera and its awareness: one of the most striking shots in the entire film is the subtle moment as the camera virtually sits atop the casket of their dead son, peering out the back window as man and woman walk in grief behind it. Gainsbourg falls to the ground and the camera makes a wild little verge to catch her, then rests back atop the casket. In a film chock full of wanna-be-horrific images, this small moment has stuck with me the most.