Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
December 2009

Von Trier's garden of good and evil

Try as it might, Von Trier's bold but shallow philosophical allegory can't provoke the reaction it wants

IFC Films
Director: Lars von Trier
Screenplay: Lars von Trier
Starring: Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg
Not rated / 1 hour, 49 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

As a provocateur, Lars von Trier has always fallen short. He certainly relishes the distinction and takes great care to incite his audience. But maybe it's because of that seemingly singular desire that his work - that is, especially recently - fails to challenge us nearly as much as he thinks it does.

I won't dispute that he's a tremendously talented filmmaker - only that he's prone to stepping on his own feet. Too often he mistakes transparency for boldness, foolishness for wit. Take his recent attempts at sociopolitical relevance, for example - the first two legs of his oh-so-cleverly titled "USA: Land of Opportunities Trilogy," Dogville and Manderlay, as well as Thomas Vinterberg's Dear Wendy, which von Trier wrote.

In all cases, he attempted to deliver a broadside to the American point of view - which isn't a problem in its own right, except that he offered nothing more than infantile social commentary masquerading as profundity. His stabs at meaningful irony were laughable at best.

Dogville was his most ambitious work to that point, as he subverted the very conventions of cinematic language by setting the entire film on a nearly-bare sound stage. Chalk outlines stood in for buildings; set decorations were sparse; the stage was surrounded only by blackness.

That kind of Brechtian technique - which, admittedly, was used brilliantly in certain sequences - seemed like such a shot in the arm that I wanted to love Dogville. But von Trier proved to be so tedious and so simplistic in his point of view that the film quickly devolved into a rather pathetic misfire. His follow-up, Manderlay, wasn't much better. Heavy-handed is one thing - empty-handed is quite another.

But where am I going with all this? Those movies are all in the past, right? My point is only that von Trier clearly has the talent and ambition to do interesting work, if only he had the thought and/or discipline to match. He's a major talent making minor films.

Which brings us to Antichrist, a film that von Trier himself called the "most important" of his career as it was causing a furor at this year's Cannes Film Festival - earning harsh rebuke not only from some critics, but from the ecumenical jury on grounds of misogyny and brutality. But once again, he seems as interested in trying to invoke anger from those turned off by his methods as anything else.

The film is a parable about a couple grieving over the loss of their child - an accidental death depicted during an operatic, black-and-white prologue. We can understand the parents' grief, since they were in the midst of lovemaking when their son climbed out of his crib, onto a desk and fell from an open window.

From there proceeds an allegorical chamber drama in which He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) - who not only remain unnamed but are the only two characters in the film - indulge their fear and agony in an exercise of psychological torment. He is a psychiatrist and, despite the rules against it, is treating his own wife in the wake of the child's death. Much of the film focuses on the way He and She negotiate each other's emotions, with behaviors and attitudes wavering from one scene to the next. At any moment, She could be passionate, furious, paranoid, hysterical, docile, depressed, violent - while He remains perpetually calm, dispassionate and cruelly passive-aggressive.

I admire the performances by Dafoe and Gainsbourg, but the dialogue between them is often dreadfully stilted, diminishing moments that might otherwise be potent. Similarly, von Trier makes great use of "The Three Beggars" - a deer, a [talking] fox and a crow that serve as harbingers of death - but their presence (particularly at the end) gets diluted by the accompaniment of scenes of pure shock value.

Von Trier is clearly going after something meaningful about the nature of evil - a topic he also tackled in Dogville and Manderlay - but his most shocking scenes in Antichrist seem to undercut rather than enhance. Collectively, at least. The most curious realization I had after seeing the film was my very lack of a strong reaction one way or the other. I'd imagine that's not uncommon for viewers of Antichrist. I doubt ambivalence is what von Trier was looking for.

His oft-shallow attempts to provoke us end up coming across as puerile more than anything else. Consider this gem: A garden surrounds the cabin where the film takes place, and several key sequences are set there. The location of the cabin is called Eden. (Garden of Eden! Get it?!) That is the very definition of ham-fisted, if not downright hokey - and it's that kind of gesture that has continually brought von Trier's recent films down.

That's ultimately where the problem with Antichrist lies. It has attracted controversy since it first premiered, but a film this banal isn't worthy of it. Von Trier thinks he's made a love-it-or-hate-it movie, when all he's really given us is an intermittently intriguing but forgettable curiosity. There are too many striking images and scenes for it to be dismissed, so in that sense he's succeeded in some small way. But he is capable of better, if less instigative, work than this.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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