Wednesday, September 23, 2009

von trier: antichrist

Nature is Satan's Church

The work of Lars von Trier breaks roughly into three periods.

In the first, Trier makes extensive use of cinematic tricks to create an overall aesthetic effect. This is the period of The Element of Crime, Epidemic, and Europa. Rear projection, filters, slow motion, and self referential production effects shape the look of these films. They address the very abstract topic of Europe, its history and decay.

Following his mother's deathbed revelation about his true parentage, von Trier's style shifted dramatically to a focus on naturalistic acting and a handheld, pseudo-documentary style. Breaking the Waves initiated this trend, though it also maintained some of Trier's earlier, self-conscious stylings—the lush chapter headings, for example. The style was pushed to a new extreme in Trier's legitimate (The Idiots) and bastardized musical (Dancer in the Dark) installments in the Dogme95 genre.

Although the U.S. trilogy appears a break with the Dogme style (artificial lighting, sets, etc. are reintroduced with a vengeance), the verite camerawork and sparse style remain. In fact, the strict aesthetic of Dogville and Manderlay represents an even more rigid discipline than the 10 punishing rules of the Dogme "vow of chastity." This third style, then, though distinct is, if anything, a claustrophobic extension of the second.

With Antichrist, however, Trier seems to finally stumble towards a reconciliation between the stylistic indulgence of his early period and the harsh austerity of more recent works. The acting is intense, personal, and claustrophobic; the theme is again the do-gooder whose best intentions produce only pain and evil—the hallmarks of post-Waves Trier. No longer, however, does Trier's aesthetic discipline force itself on the viewer. The use of film tricks—color adjustment, slow motion, animatronics—returns. Unlike Trier's early period, however, these tricks serve and enhance the story and the acting, rather than simply overshadowing them.

The film ends with a dedication to Tarkovsky, whose influence clearly dominates the lush and beautiful nature photography (not to mention the extreme slow motion shots). The attitude towards nature in Antichrist is nothing like that of Tarkovsky, however, whose indulgent and worshipful attitude towards nature and the wild famously warped his version of Lem's Solaris from a story of discovery and wonder into one of nostalgia and romance. No, Trier's attitude is much more akin to that of Herzog, as expressed in Burden of Dreams:

Full of obscenity . . . nature here is vile and base. I wouldn't see anything erotical here, I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away . . . The trees here are in misery and the birds are in misery; I don't think they sing, they just screech in pain.

Ultimately, though, Antichrist is about people and the evil that they do—nature reflects and symbolizes that evil but, much as we desperately wish it to be the case, nature is not the cause. It is only us who are to blame for our sins.

Ever since Breaking the Waves, Trier has been accused of misogyny. Waves, Dancer, Dogville, and Manderlay all revolve around naive and well-meaning female characters who are forced to endure a sequence of cruel and degrading public punishments and indignities—in some cases climaxing with the character's death—all toward the supposed end of their pristine intentions. Usually, the perpetrators of these public cruelties were men, and the interpretation of Trier as misogynist on the basis of these stories seemed reactionary and misguided. Yet, with Antichrist, these concerns emerge more strikingly than ever before. Once again suffering and pain are inflicted, but no longer is the female victim innocent and virtuous. Of course, she's also no longer a mere victim either, but an active participant in the games of torture and degradation.

Still, it would be foolish to judge Antichrist as merely the product of misogyny and a simple-minded hatred of psychiatrists. For the evil that men do is that much more evil when its source is ambiguous and not mere misguided virtue, even if virtue for von Trier is always revealed as the mere semblance of virtue in any but the disabled. Furthermore, adding complexity and moral ambiguity to the motivations of the female protagonist deepens and enriches the role of the male protagonist. The recurring "Golden Heart" motif in Trier's work reaches a new level of sophistication (and moral gray) in Antichrist for precisely these reasons.

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