Lars Von Trier has always had a canny way of indulging his critics by playing into their vision of him as a technically accomplished, but emotionally manipulative, misogynistic boor. Von Trier knows how to provoke the audience but it isn’t clear if he knows why he’s doing it (much like Vincent Gallo), other than to fulfill his own need to act out like a petulant child, such as when, upset that his film Europa lost the Palme D’or to Barton Fink, he accepted the Special Jury Prize by thanking “the midget,” jury chair Roman Polanski.
Von Trier’s latest film, Antichrist, got the reaction he always wanted at Cannes, a special award created to celebrate his hateful nature, “Best Misogynist.” The funny thing about Von Trier’s antics is that there’s almost no chance that he’ll ever break through to the American audience he both mocks and covets in films like Dogville and Manderlay. Only those filmgoers who know what they’re getting into are likely to go to Von Trier’s films, one can’t imagine a situation where a sheltered viewer wandered up to the box office because he wanted to see a mix of a depressingly photographed Bjork video mixed with a Joan Crawford potboiler, but to describe Dancer in the Dark in more detail would only put the potential party off.
Antichrist is also quite difficult to summarize story-wise, but Von Trier once again throws every controversial topic and random bit of symbolism into the pot to the point where the film plays like a parable about the foolishness of reading into parables. If you want to engage with Antichrist, you’ll find one literalization of notable bible phrases and ideas after another, from crucifixion, to making the baby Jesus cry, to a naked babe in the woods, to talking animals, and even a garden of temptation named Eden. If you want Antichrist to be a straight horror film, there’s genital mutilation, decaying animals, children dying, an imitation funeral pyre, Willem Dafoe’s teeth, and enough unsettling music and imagery taken from David Lynch to justify a lawsuit.
Even if you just want to laugh at Antichrist, you can start with the opening sequence, shot like a Calvin Klein perfume commercial, in slow-motion and black and white, only this time we get penetration inserts and a child falling to his death for ironic juxtaposition. You also get the benefit of a very shrill performance from Charlotte Gainsbourg as the mourning mother, who looks and acts like a slightly less mannered version of David Mamet’s wife, Rebecca Pidgeon. Her emotional outbursts are frequent and random enough to rival Elizabeth Berkley’s in Showgirls. The humor in a Lars Von Trier film is that he’s not funny, but that the arrogance of his perceived control over the material spills over into absurdity. You may not be laughing at Antichrist, but you’re not laughing with Von Trier.
Whether you take to Von Trier’s hammering over the head, what he’s best at, is also entirely subjective. Gainsbourg is taken by Dafoe to a cabin in the woods to recover from and face her loss and pain, but we already know why she should be punished, in a Von Trier film, enjoying sex (as her orgasmic expressions in the opening scene reveal) is to be rewarded with heavy punishment, as if he were making a moralistic slasher film. Not that Antichrist is potentially fun like a slasher film (Von Trier’s cold, glum style and his pretentious insistence on breaking up the action into chapters with ominous titles prevents any of that possibility), but it does contain the requisite schlock, the occasionally striking images that revel in the carnality of destruction, and the illogical sequences only thrown in to give us a jump, such as the scene where Dafoe falls asleep with only his hand outside the cabin’s window, and awakens to find it covered in what appears to be ticks. How would someone not notice that their hand was hanging out of a window, exposed to the elements? The answer isn’t important, only that we understand such messages as humans can only express happiness in the most shallow ways possible. This, of course renders our sympathies and interest in the characters moot, which may have been Von Trier’s trick all along.
Does that mean Antichrist is a mess or a masterpiece? I’m not sure it matters. Surely Von Trier doesn’t care whether you think he’s an enfant terrible or just terrible.