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Cannes '09 Day 5: Charlotte, don't

Posted by Wesley Morris  May 17, 2009 11:58 PM

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Let’s hear it for Lars von Trier. The anticipation going into “Antichrist” last night was stratospheric –- inside the Palais, outside, even a block up the street. What was he going to do to Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe? What was he going to do to us? The answer, to the horror of some, the delight of others, and the horrified delight of everyone else, was everything. “Antichrist” is the most hilarious anti-entertainment movie at the festival so far –- whether von Trier means it to be is another matter. Either way, the night was fun.

We laugh to keep from slashing the screen. What else can you do about a movie that includes a credit for a misogyny consultant? (Finally, a filmmaker willing to do his research first!) The movie is meant as an unambiguous provocation from the first brightly, manically painted title card, which slams, smeared, onto the screen with an exclamatory slasher-movie thwap: “Lars Trier Antichrist.” The audience laughed.

What follows is the story of humankind (work with me) masquerading as the story of a marriage dissolving in a forest home. A prologue shot in pristine black and white and luscious slow motion shows Dafoe and Gainsbourg making explicit love, although the reduced speed and operatic music suggests a kind of Calvin Klein nature special. While their bodies move from shower to bed, a child, theirs we assume, makes his way from crib to window where a traumatizing defenestration occurs (the baby more or less floating to his death).

The loss does more than upset Gainsbourg. It sends her into an increasingly insane depression. She starts to doubt the quality of her womanhood, says she’s scared of the woods, and finds genitalia disgusting, while Dafoe tries some therapy on her. That usually involves his penis. (Not all wood frightens her.) We hear about good and evil and that Freud is dead (read: this movie is not open to interpretation.) Then Gainsbourg begins to bang her head on the bathroom sink, and the movie’s hell breaks loose: scary music over running shots of the trees, a talking fox (“Chaos reigns”), then the stuff von Trier thinks we came for. Gainsbourg applying part of a grindstone to Dafoe’s leg. Gainsbourg applying a pair of scissors to herself. Gainsbourg screaming hysterically in the forest over and over ("Where are you?"). An erect penis that ejaculates blood.

I don’t think I breathed for the last half. My seatmate and I took turns grabbing each other –- out of shock, out of stress, out of disbelief. (Oh, Charlotte, no. Don’t snip that, sweetie.) At some point, I found myself reaching around the edges of my chair. I was looking for a seatbelt.

This is to say that von Trier had us all. Unlike Brillante Mendoza’s “Kinatay,” which inspired a lot of walkouts the night before, the audience for "Antichrist" was rapt. Many squirmed; but, by my count, only one person fled. Von Trier is a consummate filmmaker – someone whose work you want to see, if only for the experience of its effect on an audience. But he has a grand sense of scale and proportion. He has ideas and vision and some humor. He can get an actor to do anything and do it well (you’ll never see Gainsbourg the same way; neither, I suspect, will her gynecologist).

Von Trier is also the movies' great deranged joker. From one movie to the next, it's tough to tell whether we’re being had (seriously: a misogyny consultant?). Should we take his bait and express shock or outrage or disgust. Do you pick the wailing baby up or let him cry himself to sleep? With von Trier you're talking as much about him and dysfunction as you are the movies themselves. The difference between this new movie and something like "The Kingdom," "Breaking the Waves," "Dancer in the Dark," or even "Dogville" is that for all its formal excellence, it's a work of depression that's missing a hint of even diabolical joy.

Incidentally, "Antichrist" is dedicated to the later Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, a director concerned with the inner life of the natural world and with personifying space and time. Where Tarkovsky's films are imbued with religious or spiritual wonder, von Trier thinks he has all the answers and refuses to impart them. His certainty feel arrogant. He's not searching for anything, no voyage. Is it possible for him to mean all of this movie and none of it at the same time? Is this is a kind of self-therapy (which, if it's true, leads one to ask who's the women's studies major who broke his heart)?

In any case, the boos drowned out the applause, and, afterward, the crowded lobby was electric with a certain, I don’t know, “WTF”? We had all just been through something and were trying to figure out what it was. But I think I know what von Trier is trying to tell us through Gainsbourg and her terrible tortures: Nature is a bitch. But you don’t need a misogyny consultant for that.

On the street, a friend and I ran into Roger Ebert. We asked if he’d just been inside, and he squeezed my hand hard in affirmation. (Roger’s cancer has made speaking impossible, for the time being.) He looked like the rest of us, as if he’d survived the movie, and when my friend started singing “That’s Entertainment,” he did a little dance, complete with cancan kick and jazz hands.

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3 comments so far...
  1. "defenestration"?
    who says this?

    (Someone who's literate and finds words fun -- TB)

    Posted by kxs999 May 18, 09 11:31 AM
  1. Wesley, thanks for mentioning Mr. Ebert. I hope he's doing well.

    Von Trier thumbing his nose at everyone comes as no surprise.

    If he really wanted to mess with our heads, he's put out a family movie with a redeeming social message starring some of the actors from his porno company.

    The films, so far, seem to be pretty disappointing. Too bad.
    Thanks for the update.
    Thanks for the yupdate

    Posted by Peter May 18, 09 12:27 PM
  1. 'Defenestration' is a word you use whenever you have the opportunity.

    Posted by Matt May 18, 09 02:48 PM

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