Film Club: Antichrist
Lars Von Trier Gets Depressed
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Film Club Antichrist
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Lots of Halloween horror movies are heavy on the gore, but we have two serious films that are soaked in blood to present as part of the KPBS Film Club of the Air. The movies about a couple descending into madness and about a prisoner descending into primal violence are, whether you like them or not, not your average shock-schlock. Luckily, there's some relief on this bill, even comic relief, with Chris Rock's contemplation on the angst over African-American hair, and then, the film autobiography of a true 20th century bohemian. And, since it is Halloween, we'll suggest some traditional horror movies, although they may seem pretty tame after this Film Club. I’d like to introduce my guests for the Film Club of the Air. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando, the author of the blog Cinema Junkie. Beth, welcome.
BETH ACCOMANDO (KPBS Film Critic): Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And film critic Scott Marks, author of the blog EmulsionCompulsion.com. Scott.
SCOTT MARKS (Film Critic): Hi, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Hi. Well, we’ll start with the movie…
MARKS: She’s laughing uncomfortably already.
CAVANAUGH: Well, we start with a movie that made some people get up and walk out of its screening at Cannes and yet won a Best Actress award at the same festival. “Antichrist” is the sexually graphic story of a married couple whose grief over the loss of their son opens the door to acts of unspeakable violence, torture, and mutilation. In this short scene, Willem Dafoe, who plays the husband of French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, explains the unorthodox therapy he’s chosen to cure his wife’s grief.
(audio of clip from the film “Antichrist”)
CAVANAUGH: “Antichrist” is written and directed by Lars von Trier. And, Beth, well, the last time we met you said that you wanted something the opposite of the romantic film “Bright Star.” I think you’ve found it.
ACCOMANDO: Oh, yeah. “Antichrist” anti-romance, it’s…
CAVANAUGH: What happens to this couple over the course of the film?
ACCOMANDO: Don’t start. Well, you know, it’s difficult with a film like this because the plot is almost separate from what it’s about in a certain sense but basically it begins with this couple having sex and while they’re having sex their child, their son, ends up falling out of a window and dying. So the wife feels incredible guilt and then the husband, who’s a therapist, decides that he wants to treat her. He doesn’t want her on drugs, he doesn’t want her on this medication. So they go off to a place called Eden, how appropriate, where he decides that he wants to cure her, but the film is really about guilt…
MARKS: Yeah, go ahead.
ACCOMANDO: …guilt and…
MARKS: What is this film about?
ACCOMANDO: …guilt and loss and madness and wanting to shock the audience. And, you know, I think that’s – those are all things that are chief on his mind.
CAVANAUGH: So, Beth, some critics are calling this the most divisive film of the year. You know, there are some people who like it, others who are just half-crazy in their dislike of this film. So what is your take on this? Is this a form of pornography? Is it a film that should be viewed with some respect? What is your take on this film?
ACCOMANDO: In a way it’s both. I mean, in a way it’s kind of this art house torture porn, you know, the art house answer to “Hostel.” I mean, he is a talented filmmaker. I think the biggest problem I have with the film is I’m not – I have a hard time figuring out if he’s dead serious through the whole film or if the whole film is being put up as some kind of joke. And – and I don’t know if it should make any difference to me what – which of those possibly could’ve been his intent, or both. So, I mean, I did come out of this film with a sense of confusion. I liked the fact that he did go to some extremes. I mean, I like it when a filmmaker does provoke and shock. There’s a certain value to that, I think. And it does jolt people and it does get you out of a certain complacency but I do have a problem with him because I just don’t know when we’re laughing at him and when he’s encouraging that laughter.
CAVANAUGH: Scott, have you – do you have the same sort of problem with this film, “Antichrist?”
MARKS: No. I laughed all the way through it, and I don’t think I should’ve been. And that’s – You know, when you read interview with him, he said that he hit a peak of depression for the first time in his life a couple of years ago and this film was kind of born out of this, you know, wave of depression. And I – I’ll go along with a lot of things but when you see a disemboweled fox suddenly turning to the crowd and yelling ‘chaos reigns,’ I defy you to keep a straight face. And it’s moments like that throughout this film that make me wonder is this the emperor’s new clothes? Is this a guy who is really trying to make an artistic statement or is this this year’s equivalent of “Showgirls?” Because I laughed a lot during this film. And…
MARKS: …Beth, at the end of this film, she had a post-coital glow you couldn’t even believe. I wanted to offer her a cigarette. She had a look of contentment after this movie because it was so aggressively anti-romantic even though von Trier says he wanted to make a romantic horror film.
ACCOMANDO: Well, in a sense it is in a very perverse sort of way.
MARKS: I don’t…
ACCOMANDO: I mean, because the relationship stems from – I mean, the husband does want to help his wife. I mean, there is – he doesn’t want to lose her. He doesn’t want to lose her to madness forever.
MARKS: And how does he want to help her? By taking her, at this horrible point in her life, let’s go to a cabin in the middle of nowhere and just talk about everything that frightens you and things that terrify you. This is not help. But what’s amazing about this movie, artistically speaking, is the shift in character sympathy because at the beginning of the film you hate him. I hated him for what he was doing to her. He was like, you know, Marcus Welby on crack, I mean, the most meddling, just mean…
ACCOMANDO: Pretentious and so smug and…
MARKS: Yeah, pretentious. And by the time it’s over you feel sorry for him and you hate her.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I have heard that there are almost like two different movies. There’s the bulk of the movie and then there’s the last bit of it. And some critics – some critics say when you see the toolbox come out, it’s time to…
CAVANAUGH: …leave the theater. Now I wonder, does that feel – does the end of it feel sort of like it doesn’t belong in the same movie?
ACCOMANDO: No, no, I think it’s…
MARKS: Oh, that’s not the end.
ACCOMANDO: Yeah, at the ending…
MARKS: That’s about halfway through the ending…
ACCOMANDO: It’s even weirder.
MARKS: …is when he really tries to turn it into a horror film by bringing in a bunch of witches, and then it lost me.
ACCOMANDO: I don’t know if I’d call them witches.
MARKS: Well, what are they?
ACCOMANDO: I thought they were more like specters or something, like these ghosts of these women past or something.
MARKS: But she is studying witchcraft…
MARKS: …throughout the film, so that’s…
MARKS: …why I kind of assumed that they were witches.
ACCOMANDO: I don’t know. We were confused.
CAVANAUGH: Well, the director, von Trier, he is known for making provocative films…
CAVANAUGH: …and tell us a little bit, Scott, about the other films he’s made and how “Antichrist” fits in, if it does.
MARKS: Well, “Breaking the Waves” is probably my favorite of his films and it’s a film about a man who winds up in the hospital and he can’t move and he tells his wife to go out and have sex with other men and come and describe it to me. There’s a lot of misogyny running throughout his films. This, “Antichrist,” has a credit at the end was it misogynist researcher? There’s a woman who’s giving credit to research misogyny and, first of all, you just should’ve called Brian De Palma. I don’t know why he didn’t – I think he puts stuff like that in there and all these references to Handel and Strindberg to kind of – to confuse the audience and take away some of the blame from himself because in a lot of ways…
ACCOMANDO: But is he taking away the blame or is he just kind of trying to tweak our sensibilities on this? Because, I mean, that’s why I think that some of the stuff that you laugh at is intentional because I think he does try to like go to you like that person who baits you into an argument and wants you to get all riled up and annoyed, and he’s sitting there kind of chuckling to himself going, like, see, I knew if I dropped that in there that you guys would be all riled up. I mean, there’s a part of me that thinks that’s in him.
MARKS: There’s this great Charles Addams cartoon that I think of every time I go to a movie like this where everyone in the audience is weeping and shocked and has – they have the most horrified look on their face and there in the center of the frame is Uncle Fester laughing. This was me watching “Antichrist.”
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, though, Beth, when I was reading about it because I don’t like horror movies of any kind, okay?
CAVANAUGH: I don’t like a lot of blood on the screen, never have. And so – But I’m wondering what is the difference then between this movie and, let’s say…
ACCOMANDO: “Saw VI.”
CAVANAUGH: …”Saw,” yeah.
ACCOMANDO: Well, at some points, probably people would say not much. But, I mean, I think there’s – Well, first of all I think Lars von Trier is a much better filmmaker.
MARKS: Yeah, he’s an artist.
ACCOMANDO: He’s an artist.
ACCOMANDO: And, I mean, the film looks amazing.
MARKS: Gorgeous to look at.
MARKS: The photography and the lighting are just sumptuous.
ACCOMANDO: And it’s compelling. I mean, you – you – For me, I found it hard to take my eyes away from the screen even when it was brutal and painful just because he did create this amazing – and it wasn’t just the images, too, I mean, it was the use of sound and music. I mean, it was…
MARKS: And slow motion.
ACCOMANDO: …the slow motion. And it just sucks you in. And it is very much like this weird sort of dream realism where you get stuck in there and it’s like when you’re in a dream, too, and you want to wake yourself up and you want to get out of the dream but you can’t quite but you’re still kind of riveted to it because it does feel kind of very visceral. I don’t know. Like, it’s a – I’m wondering if I can like hate and appreciate a film at the same time.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. And the performers, Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg. It sounds as if – I mean, these people went as – just about as far as actors can go in a movie.
ACCOMANDO: This is what they always call brave performances.
MARKS: Yeah. Yeah. Poor Willem Dafoe, first Marty crucifies him in “Last Temptation,” and now he gets a millstone screwed onto his leg. Oh, the poor man. And Charlotte Gainsbourg is asked to do a lot of things that I don’t think a lot of actresses would be up for. I was talking to Chris, the guy who runs Landmark, and I said, you should have ushers posted at the door because you’re going to get people walking out and asking for their money back because they are – I think 10 minutes into this film they’re going to be so shocked and offended they’re going to walk out. Or put a sign on the box office saying, you know, this does have scenes – it’s not pornography, though, because pornography is there to titillate and I don’t think this film is supposed to titillate. I think it’s there to shock and that’s – that’s where I have a problem because, I mean, a film like “Death Wish” is there to shock and…
MARKS: …I think those are terrible films. So I don’t know if shocking is enough but I do think…
ACCOMANDO: But I don’t think it’s the only thing that’s in there.
MARKS: No, and this film does have a certain pedigree, a certain degree of artistry involved in it and it’s a very handsomely made film, and the acting is terrific.
MARKS: It’s just – it’s so aggressively depressing and off putting that I like it. I mean, I like films like that. I like films that can do that to me, and, really, you know, alienate 80% of the audience and for once I’m in the minority and I like being in the minority. This pleases me.
ACCOMANDO: But I think when you have a film called “Antichrist,” I think people should be fairly aware that there’s the potential to be offended.
CAVANAUGH: What is the meaning of the title of the movie? Does anyone know?
MARKS: I don’t know. I have no idea. No idea.
ACCOMANDO: I mean, all I can say is that I think because it does have a charge to it and, you know, the film is kind of the, I don’t know, the antidote to the Hollywood film on so many levels that I think, again, it’s to push some buttons.
MARKS: They should’ve made it plural though.
MARKS: Yeah, because they’re both – they both adopt that role throughout the course of the film.
ACCOMANDO: But, I mean, yeah, this did remind me of a film that we both appreciated, which was “Irreversible,” which, again, is a film that really puts you through a grinder and most people walked out on that film. But I think – I mean, I appreciated “Irreversible” more than “Antichrist” but both those films, I think, do have an artistic vision behind them that make them more worthy of some consideration. I mean, you can talk about ideas in these films. You can’t really do that with “Saw VI” to a great degree. Except that you want to kill both pair.
CAVANAUGH: Are there ideas that stick in your head a long time after the movie is over, though? I read a review with Willem Dafoe and he said, you know, I had a hard time getting this movie out of my head. And I wonder if it’s – For the sake of the people listening, are these things you want in your head…
CAVANAUGH: …for a long time afterwards?
ACCOMANDO: …as one of my teen critics said after going to “Zombie Strippers,” you know once you see something, you can’t unsee it.
CAVANAUGH: Amen to that.
ACCOMANDO: So – so, yeah, you might want to consider, you know, whether or not you want to go to this film and have some images stuck in your head but I think if you do appreciate filmmaking and you want to be challenged and you want to be provoked to see how you can push those boundaries and push them pretty far and just to see a film where you do have something to talk about, well, this one definitely will give that to you.
CAVANAUGH: And, Scott, you seem – you seem as if you’re surprised by your reaction to this film.
MARKS: Oh, no. Oh, forgive me. Oh, no, no, no, I’m not surprised at all. I know me when it comes to films like this. No, I’m not surprised at all. I mean, I was – Oh, boy. I gotta tell you when I see a film where they kill a kid in the first five minutes, I’m delighted because so many films just try – they use children and they’ll kill a child on screen to really pull cheap sentiment out of an audience. I was talking to someone in the green room before the show. I said at the end of “Men of Boys Town” when they throw the dog underneath the wheels of the truck, that is the worst thing. I mean, it is so hokey and you’re killing a dog just so everybody’ll go, ohhh, you know, to make that sound. This is not that film. This is not that type of film. He really – the reason I like this is because von Trier really enjoyed showing you these things. He really had a good time taking you through this. And that’s why – Maybe his tongue is in his cheek but when you read the interviews, I don’t know because no one else in the audience was laughing.
ACCOMANDO: Oh, no, there were a few people laughing.
MARKS: Everybody laughed at the – at the…
ACCOMANDO: At the fox.
MARKS: …disemboweled fox. That got a huge laugh. But other things, I don’t think people were laughing. And then I think of the texture of this film, the slow motion objects of nature falling throughout the entire film. I mean, that’s just sumptuous to look at. And it is a recurring motif and, therefore, in many ways it does advance the narrative. But this is a film that was I able to – it’s not a question was I able to shake it, was I able to come to terms with it for what it is, and I still haven’t been able to do that and I want to see it again.
CAVANAUGH: Well, for those who are prepared and who want to come to their own conclusion about it, “Antichrist” opens at Landmark’s Ken Cinema on November sixth.