My summer with Lars: A weekend at the cabin

I’ll confess to having seen Antichrist three times now—theatrically in October 2009, on video September 2011, and now again last week—and each time I’ve found myself confounded by its vividness, its rawness, and its at-times colossal stupidity.  I’m convinced that it’s one of those films that ends up getting pulled in half by its own extremes, which is perhaps appropriate, considering that Antichrist itself is about being pulled apart, mutilated, scarred.  The problem, so far as one sees it as a problem (I do, though as far as failures go at least Antichrist is an interesting one), is that the film has fallen victim to its own philosophy.  It is governed by an aesthetic of mutilation.  Halfway through, it seems to sloppily fit a supernatural horror film onto what had previously been a moody psychodrama.  Characters incongruently reverse polarities, moralities, sexual positions.  Even the title card and chapter headings are rendered messily, as if finger-painted by a feral child (see below).   

Messiness, disorder and confusion are written into the film’s very texture.  To borrow a phrase from one of the film’s “characters” (to wit: a talking fox), chaos reigns.  It’s as if the film is itself as self-destructive as its female protagonist (Charlotte Gainsbourg).  Part of me wants to like that about it.  But another part of me suspects that it shows lazy craftsmanship on vT’s part.  (He has admitted that the film was conceived with “about half of my physical and intellectual capacity.”)  Inspired by von Trier’s own bouts with clinical depression, the film is both finely attuned to the realities of psychic distress (as well as hostile toward those, like Willem Dafoe’s paternalistic therapist-husband, who presume to be able to understand or cure it) and irritatingly willful in its lack of aesthetic control.  The film feels like it was spewed forth from von Trier’s creative unconscious: visceral, but unprocessed.  (For an impeccably groomed take on many of the same themes—depression, the violence of nature, etc.—we must go to von Trier’s next film, Melancholia.) 
Still, Antichrist contains more striking images than I remember.  I wrote last year about my favorite shot in the film, in which the naked bodies of Dafoe and Gainsbourg are pressed against the trunk of a tree, the branches of which are tangled with ghostly arms and legs (see top).  But there are other moments of sublime beauty here, many of which recall Tarkovsky: a burst of rain that suddenly descends on Dafoe, standing in the middle of a fern bed, looking like Donatas Banionis in Solaris, or a slow-motion dream vision of Gainsbourg running through a misty clearing toward their cabin in the woods, von Trier’s version of one of Tarkovsky’s dachas.

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