Thursday, December 3, 2009

Antichrist (Rhoades)

“Antichrist” Tortures Audiences As Well as Its Co-Stars
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

“Abandon hope all ye who enter here” warned Dante in his allegorical epic poem about visiting the realms of the dead. The first cantica describes a journey to the Inferno (Hell). In college I read the brilliant translation by John Ciardi, a longtime Key West resident. Later, I spoke with Ciardi when producing a record album of poets and writers reading their own works.

You might ask what this has to do with “Antichrist” – the startling new horror film that’s playing at the Tropic Cinema? Because this admonition might easily be applied to the characters in Lars von Trier’s bleak cinematic poem.

Essentially a two-person passion play, “Antichrist” begins with a black-and-white prologue that graphically depicts its stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg having sex in slow motion, an act that’s juxtaposed with images of a child falling out of a window into a snowy courtyard.

The death of a child. Tragic, huh? That’s just the beginning.

Told in four chapters, sandwiched between the prologue and epilogue, the film details acts of “lustful cruelty.”

Switching to muted color, Chapter 1 of “Antichrist” introduces us to the grieving mother (Gainsbourg) and her therapist husband (Dafoe). Inconsolable over her dead child, she wants to die too.

“Grief, it’s not a disease,” Dafoe’s character says. “It’s a natural healthy reaction.”

He adds, “Nothing hurts more than to see the one that you love subjected to mistakes and wrongs. No therapist can know as much about you as I do.”

So he takes over his wife’s treatment, weaning her off medication and subjecting her to his own ministrations. They make a list of things she’s afraid of. He takes her through mental journeys. Melting into the grass. Letting fear come.

Intent on treating her himself, he takes her to a rundown cabin in the woods. “Eden,” he calls this sylvan retreat. However, in the end it’s the landscape of their destruction.

Painfully, we watch her wrestle with the anguish. Dreams, nightmares, recriminations, memories. Dry mouth, distorted hearing, trembling, heavy breathing, fast pulse, nausea – these are the symptoms.

“Help me,” she pleads.

“That’s what I’m doing,” he replies.

Attempting a role-playing game, her husband becomes Mr. Nature, who wants “to hurt you as much as I can.” Later, when they are making love, she begs for him to hit her.

One must give credit to the actors, undertaking a film of such challenging violence, full nudity, explicit sex, and mental anguish.

Willem Dafoe has always been a fearless actor, with career highs like “Platoon” (the 1986 Oliver Stone masterpiece) and lows like “Body of Evidence” (the 1993 eroticism with Madonna). And you may remember Charlotte Gainsbourg from “21 Grams” (the 2003 Sean Penn film) or “I’m Not There” (the 2007 Bob Dylan biopic).

With “Antichrist,” writer and director Lars von Trier cements his rep as the “the most ambitious and visually distinctive filmmaker to emerge from Denmark.” You’ll recall his film “Dancer in the Dark,” starring singer Björk. Or “Breaking the Waves.” However, in Denmark he’s best known for “Riget” (translation: “The Kingdom”), a TV soap opera that blended hospital drama, ghost stories, and surrealism. Good practice for “Antichrist,” a surrealistic film that cannot be shown on television.

The “von” in his name is phony, an artifice adopted while in film school. He described it as an homage to director Josef von Sternberg.

“A film should be like a rock in the shoe,” Von Trier has said of his craft. If irritant is his goal, “Antichrist” comes close. He gives us gory images and fearful thoughts that will unsettle your mind for days to come.

You will debate whether the film is overtly misogynistic or subtly feminist. Despite all the violence involving scissors, pliers, and drills, this isn’t quite the “torture porn” you find in current splatter films like “Saw” or “Hostel.” But close. “Antichrist” intentionally tortures the audience.

Bloggers are heatedly debating the film’s merits. “Without a doubt the most unpleasant and despairing movie I’ve ever watched,” rants one viewer. Another begs, “PLZ help me understand this movie.” Yet others rave, “It’s beautiful, sad, poetic, horrific and in the end, oddly uplifting. A genre masterpiece. A must see.”

Early on in “Antichrist,” Willem Dafoe says, “This place leads nowhere.” Decide for yourself. Maybe it’s one of the realms of Dante’s Inferno.

[from Solares Hill]

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