Wednesday, February 20, 2013

I am the Anitchrist... said Christopher Walken, Always

I can no longer hear the word "Antichrist" without immediately thinking about Christopher Walken's introduction in TRUE ROMANCE in one of my all time favourite scenes in all of cinematic history:

"I'm the Antichrist.  You got me in a vendetta kind of mood.  You tell the angels in heaven you never seen evil so singularly personified as you did in the face of the man who killed you."

This, of course, is the stuff of movie characters, with dialogue so beautifully composed that it flows like poetry and is delivered with flawless execution.  Almost anybody would sound cool spouting prose composed by a master like Quentin Tarantino.  On the big screen, anyway.  Real life pales in comparison.  Nobody sounds that fucking cool in real life.  Even delivering the exact same dialogue word for word in real life, you'd still probably sound like a fucking tool.  Maybe that's the problem.  People don't monologue as much as they should in real life.  I can't remember the last time a friend or family member gave a halfway decent monologue.

That's the thing about movies.  In order to be compelling or engaging they have to walk this fine line between realism and idealism.  We want a movie to feel "real" while at the same time we want it to show us some extremely cool or crazy shit that never happens in our day to day lives.  The fictional world in which the narrative takes place has to feel real in the sense that it has some weight behind it.  There must be enough quotidian detail and the rules of our world have to be bent just enough so that they do not fall below the horizon on the Scale of Possibility and we lose sight of them completely in order for our brains to accept the narrative world.  This sense of the real must also be tempered with contextuality, meaning that the events and characters comply with the internal logic established in the narrative by some authorial presence.

At the same time, we want to see some bad ass motherfuckers spouting uber-cool dialogue, getting away with shit that would have dire legal, physical, or mental consequences if even attempted in real life, and doing things that would have such an infinitesimally small chance of working in real life that you'd literally have to be certifiably insane to even think about attempting to do them.  In movies -just as in all art- it's not nearly as satisfying to witness the impossible as it is to witness the limits of what might be possible.

In cinema, that divide between the realistic and idealized has to come to be represented by the Hollywood/Indy Film spectrum.  Independent flicks strive to say something important, but usually just come off as pretentious (at least to some degree) and Hollywood has clearly adopted the philosophy of movies as spectacle for which they tend to sacrifice substance.  To me, a movie like ANTICHRIST represents a synthesis of sorts between the two camps, or at least a step towards synthesis as it clearly leans more towards the Indy school of thought.

ANTICHRIST was my initiation to the twisted method of Lars von Trier, which I learned is not an experience upon which one should embark without first being sufficiently warned.  Had somebody told me about the the nature of von Trier, I could have prepared myself at least somewhat for the kind of ride I had signed up for.  The plot follows a husband and wife (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who are never named dealing with the death of their infant son, which was depicted in fairly horrific detail in the opening scenes.  Turns out the husband is a therapist and wants to treat his wife who seems to be taking the death a lot harder than him.  As one might expect, providing psychiatric treatment to one's own spouse is an endeavor filled with numerous emotional and psychological pitfalls.  As one might not expect, the second half of the movie shifts gears in a massive way leaving the audience with some pretty provocative, pretty fucked up imagery.

ANTICHRIST was memorable to me for a number of reasons.  From the very first scene I knew I was watching something Different.  The stylistic composition of the movie was different from most Hollywood fare, what with strategic uses of black and white, slow motion, and quality of film which felt grainy sometimes, almost like a home movie.  None of these are particularly ground-breaking cinematic innovations, however the way they were used, the syntax, was very different than the typical Hollywood flick.

Second, there was some seriously fucked up shit in ANTICHRIST.  There was some seriously disturbing and provocative imagery that hit me a lot harder than I've been used to, having been greatly desensitized to onscreen depictions of violence and general fuckupery.  In the second half of the movie when the wife goes batshit crazy and starts fucking up both her husband and herself, there were a couple of What the Fuck moments, and one particular scene near the end that left me with my mouth agape for several minutes afterwards.  I don't know if it was the graphic depictions of genital mutilations (plural) in general, or the tone and context in which they were depicted.

Third, ANTICHRIST obviously had Something to Say.  What that something was, I still can't say for sure.  There was a depth to ANTICHRIST, but those depths were murky and dangerous.  The movie is obviously dealing with some heavy shit like depression, loss, and grief, but there is also an exploration of gender roles, elements of witchcraft and an overarching theme of reversal.

I think the defining point of the movie for me was the phrase "Chaos reigns", which appeared on a title card for one section of the movie, and was spoken aloud to Willem Dafoe by a fox who was either eating his own intestines or the intestines of his child, I can't really remember now.  Either way, it pretty much sums up von Trier's work here.  The context of the world he has created is this reversal of pastoral norms of constructing nature as somehow good and pure and instead depicting it as something inherently chaotic and destructive.  Which is kind of fucked up because, really, nature is more like the latter than the former.  It also kind of speaks to the title, because despite the name of the film ANTICHRIST there is no mention of a literal, physically personified being known as the Antichrist.  And no, the kid who dies at the beginning does not turn out to be the Antichrist.  There's no twist ending or any of that kind of bullshit.  This ain't no M. Night Shaymaialsoidnaonn show.  The title obviously harkens back to the Judeo-Christian tradition where the counterpoint to God and Jesus was Satan and the Antichrist.  According to that mythology, god creates the world as an inherently "good" place.  The world Lars von Trier has constructed is a world created by Lucifer et al, a place where "chaos" inherently "reigns."  The wife says essentially this when at one point she refers to nature as "Satan's church."  

With this in mind it's easier to comprehend the subversion of the "natural" order of things.  From the motherly instinct to protect to the urge to kill her offspring.  From sexuality to asexuality and fertility to infertility via genital mutilation (eg. cutting off of one's own clitoris with a pair of rusty old scissors or smashing a penis with a giant block of wood).    A penis ejaculating blood instead of semen, which is also a reversal of typical sexual roles as blood in the context of sexual maturity is typically associated with the female genitalia and the menstrual cycle.  All of which are great talking points at your wife's office Christmas party.  Trust me.  This shit will start conversations.
Chaos reigns... in my pants!

All of this is bound up in the witchcraft stuff, and not like your friendly-neighbourhood-wiccan-type witchcraft, but the Salem-witch-trials-burn-them-at-the-stake-sort.  That is to say, all of these reversals are tied up in some form of practical magic, quite unlike the paradoxically-titled movie of the same name.  Turns out the wife had previously begun work on a thesis about witchcraft and gender relations which she gives up after coming to the conclusion that for all the horrors wrought upon innocent women by mobs of superstitious villagers in those funny hats that the pilgrims always wore, that maybe the mobs had a point and maybe those women -while not necessarily witches in the traditional sense- were, by nature, evil because they were born of an evil world, a world created by the Antichrist.  Even the arrogant and condescending husband is taken aback by this and tries to convince her that that's some really fucked up shit to believe, although she will have none of it.

Shortly after the wife works some magic on her husband's dick with a block of wood, transmuting semen to blood, then jerking him off so he ejaculates blood all over her.  If you can pull it off, it's a great little trick for weddings or bar-mitzvahs.  She then hobbles the husband by drilling a hole through his leg and bolting the wheel of a lathe to it.  Turns out, she had engaged in the same practice with her son (although in a much less gruesome manner) by repeatedly forcing his shoes on the wrong feet.  Later revelation also show that when the wife was describing all of the elements that led to their son's death (baby gate not working, baby monitor off, open window, etc.) that it was not the guilt-ridden musings of a grieving, traumatized mother, but rather a dark confession and play by play of the grizzly (and strangely elaborate) plan she put in motion.  A flashback even shows her watching as her son climbs out of the window of their really-high up apartment building.    

I've read a lot of discussion about the misogynistic undertones (and overtones) in ANTICHRIST, but I don't think that's a fair critical assessment.  Neither sex really comes across all that great here.  For all the infanticidal tendencies, severe psychological issues, and self-loathing that the wife displays, the husband doesn't come across much better.  He's arrogant sometimes to the point of being patronizing, seems very emotionally detached to the point of denial (he's counselling his wife on the same traumatic experience he is also dealing with while showing no real signs of grieving himself) and ethically dubious (the clinical treatment of his own wife which puts him in an obvious position of power over her).  I didn't feel that there was any particular finger-pointing at either sex, but rather an exaggeration of sorts to play with the reversal of gender roles.  The woman who seems disempowered is actually a high priestess in "Satan's church" who wields a great deal of power while the arrogant man suffers for his hubris.    

ANTICHRIST is a movie that surprised me in a lot of ways and that I particularly enjoyed, but that I won't necessarily be rushing to watch again any time soon.  It provided a great deal of food for thought, however it's also a huge fucking downer, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  It's just hard to process that much raw, dark shit all at once.  Though now that I have become one of the Initiated I am, however, going to track down some more of Lars von Trier's work.  And also take a lot better care of my dick and show him how much he means to me every day, because I never know when he might get attacked with a log by some crazy witch in the middle of the woods.  Definitely not for the weak of spirit, but I highly recommend ANTICHRIST to anybody with sufficient intestinal fortitude and intellectual gravitas and give it a 9/10 = One Partially-Birthed Deer's Head Protruding From It's Mother's Vagina