May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
October 6, 2009
A guest review by Peter Norman. Includes spoilers.
Right up to the moment the fox opened his mouth to speak, things were going pretty well.
At the very least, Antichrist was one of the most effective horror movies I’d seen. At most, it was something more significant than that, with rewarding layers yet to be unearthed. A good movie, at any rate, even if I hadn’t really paid much attention to whether the weightier bits of dialogue were pretentious or not. For atmosphere, cinematography and truly unsettling dread, this thing was working on all cylinders. And it achieved its effects in some of its simplest touches: the unpinpointable crying baby, for example, was totally effective and distressing.
From that point, three elements entered the movie which would prove distracting from the effect and would mar the experience.
The first of these, ushered in by the voice of the fox, was silliness. Whereas the first animal appearance, the deer, was very effective, it was now going to be hard not to chuckle when the animals were onscreen. Other silly touches now became more prominent. When an audience is so bludgeoned by upsetting content, any opportunity for a chuckle will be gratefully received. The silliness detection apparatus is thus calibrated very fine, and material is likelier to seem silly.
The second element is, of course, the most notorious: gross-out moments, the Big Two in particular. (And if it’s not clear which the Big Two are, I’m talking about the bloody ejaculation & the auto-clitorectomy. Don’t know if I spelled that right, but don’t feel inclined to look it up). Whatever merits or faults may be inherent to those sequences, they jumped out from the rest of the film in a way that detracted from the overall effect. Much of the other disgusting violence was a little better blended; it was a bit more mundane (at least as horror movies go), and didn’t have the same feeling of pure stunt.
By contrast, the two arguably biggest shock moments in The Idiots (“Idioterne” von Trier, 1998)- one involves triple-X content, the other humiliating handling of male genitalia – seemed more integral to the movie: culminations of its tone and mission, rather than digressions.
The third element was the sort-of revelation about what this movie may or may not be about. I got that annoying feeling that something was being revealed, but either lazily or coyly, so grasping it was very difficult but felt necessary. Contrast this to a movie like The Sacrifice (“Offret” Tarkovsky, 1986), where one doesn’t get the sense that there’s necessarily a clef to this roman: it seems quite possible that the ending is supposed to be this mystifying (and mystical). Antichrist put just enough pieces on the table that it seemed one was now meant to “get it.”
So what was to “get”? I don’t know, but none of the possibilities I came up with were particularly satisfying, or enlightening, or explanatory of the rest of the film. The most satisfying (but not very) would be a kind of grim paranoia punchline: yes, it IS that bad. It’s not that your wife is the innocent victim of psychological trauma or supernatural incursion or the forces of society: she’s simply a crazy bitch, and she’s going to kill your son and torture and murder you! This would be the most satisfying option (but, again, not very) because it’s not too pretentious, it’s easily grasped, and the degree to which the movie faithfully serves it is comically over the top.
Less satisfying possibilities include a horror equivalent of action film humour, when a less than threatening foe is easily dispatched by the powerful hero: Indiana Jones shooting the guy who does all the fancy moves with his sword. Ho ho ho, little dude with your manly psychiatric arsenal: you’re no match for The Craziness! The Craziness is gonna win every time!
Near the bottom of the possibility barrel: pointless mucking about with various elements to jerk the audience around and make them cringe / scream / vomit / what have you, with gratuitous plot twists thrown in (she arranged the death of the kid!). This kind of thing can be quite fun if it’s bubbly, or artless, or relatively innocent. But not when it’s very artful, dripping with apparent significance, and impactful in its effects.
At the very bottom of the barrel: some kind of wallowing in misogyny, or misanthropy, or sadism, or something sick and self-indulgent.
I have no idea where in the barrel the truth actually lies (or floats?). It would be nice if there turned out to be a brilliant meaning that I simply hadn’t thought of. But the fact remains that while and after watching, these questions definitely detracted from the overall viewing experience.
Incidentally, there are some interesting metaphorical layers to the premise. For example, I’m pretty sure that the two characters represent two forces that contend in Von Trier himself when he makes his art: rational atheism vs. religious and/or superstitious mysticism. That adds richness to the stew, but it doesn’t explain much about the ending, nor does it stand on its own two legs as a sufficient thing for the story to be “about.” (If the story were simpler and less laden with apparent significance, maybe that clef would be sufficient.)
So, overall, for me this stands as a movie I liked a lot – in an unpleasant way, a la Repulsion (Polanski, 1965) or Humanity (“L’humanité” Dumont, 1999) – but which disappointed in its conclusion and didn’t seem to deliver on its promise. File alongside many others in the same boat. Including, of course, a lot of mysterious horror films. Sometimes a really, really cool and mysterious set-up raises the expectations too high; the conclusion is not going to deliver.
Finally: the scariest thing about this movie for me was that, with its rather overt nastiness and possible hollowness, it made me wonder if the Von Trier movies I love are not in fact equally nasty and hollow, but dress themselves a little nicer. Maybe I’ve been hoodwinked by the nice garb.