Cannes '09: Day Five

 

AN OPEN LETTER TO LARS VON TRIER

Dear Lars,

I love you, man. Not in a lame, hokey Rudd-and-Segal bromance way, but deeply and profoundly. If our paths cross over the next couple of days while you’re in town, don’t be surprised if I walk up unannounced and give you a giant bear hug. I’m pretty sure I kind of despised your new movie, Antichrist, but that doesn’t remotely matter. Thank you. Thank you for having the guts to make something as insane and offensive and wholly uncompromising as this. Thank you for not caring whether people laugh at you, and for smacking the international press corps with a much-needed dose of cognitive dissonance. Most of all, thank you for lighting a bomb underneath the perfectly respectable, largely forgettable efforts of your fellow Competition entries. You may have whiffed huge this time, but movies like yours are what the Festival de Cannes should ideally be about.

I do wish I had a better sense of whether you’re really a misogynist or are just deliberately tweaking the widespread public perception that you’re a misogynist. To put it another way, I can’t be sure whether Antichrist is deadly serious or a jolly put-on. The most intriguing possibility is that it might be both at once. On the one hand, only a born prankster would fashion the final ‘T’ in Antichrist into the female Venus symbol. But the hushed, somber tone throughout felt like a sincere attempt to emulate a Bergmanesque chamber drama, and the anguished conversations between Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s unnamed grieving parents didn’t come across as jokey to me, even if Dafoe frequently speaks in the vacuous language of personal therapy. I think you’re in deadly earnest about the nature of grief and its relation to madness. And yet you take it so far over the top, in so many different ways, that it’s almost impossible not to laugh.

What do you think you’re saying with this movie, exactly? In the operatic prologue, which you shoot in slow motion and austere black-and-white and accompany with a keening boys’ choir singing Handel, it’s the man and woman’s sexual ecstasy that results in the death of their infant son. That she blames herself is understandable, but how does that guilt manifest itself in her sudden fear of the woods? Are you equating sex and nature, suggesting that both are uncontrollable and destructive? (Presumably that same sexual ecstasy was responsible for the kid in the first place.) And when they arrive at their private cabin, which you ostentatiously call Eden, and the woman gradually goes totally bonkers and starts re-enacting her favorite deleted scenes from Hostel Part II—in a section of the film you subtitle “Gynocide,” no less!—are we meant to see her actions as the only conceivable response to the psychic burden she bears coupled with her husband’s maddening therapeutic syllabus? Or is she just the crazy irrational vicious controlling nymphomaniacal insecure unpredictable self-hating maniacal pseudo-Wiccan harridan that, I gotta say, she does in fact appear to suddenly and disturbingly become?

And then there’s the gore. I’m trying really hard to rationalize your most extreme fillips here as somehow dramatically necessary, but deep down I suspect you’re mostly just interested in goosing the audience. And while it might seem from my opening profession of love and gratitude that I approve of such shock tactics, there’s still a part of me that recoils. I’m thinking of one shot in particular, and you know exactly which one I mean. It’s too much, dude. Not because we can’t bear to look (though there are people I’m gonna have to warn not to see Antichrist, or at least to close their eyes at that point), but because it distracts from whatever real issues you’re trying to grapple with here. We’re not thinking about her unbearable grief or speculating about the cause of her total mental breakdown in that moment. We’re just thinking No. No. Even Von Trier wouldn’t fucking dare. Okay, so you would fucking dare. But were those choked gasps really worth putting a torch to the film’s emotional credibility? Or did you never mean for it to have any?

I just don’t know. Especially after your terrific previous film, The Boss of It All, in which you appeared onscreen multiple times to assure us that was it was strictly a meaningless light comedy with no conceivable real-world resonance or import. That was clearly a lie, which makes me fear that the statement of grandiose purpose implicit in Antichrist may also be a lie. If this movie is a joke, it rivals Andy Kaufman at his most perversely determined. But if you’re in any way serious, then you failed miserably, because the film plays from start to finish like ludicrous self-parody. The whole point of something like, say, Autumn Sonata or Scenes From a Marriage is that the characters’ words make power tools and cutting implements redundant. And if you think your depiction of man in nature resembles anything Tarkovsky ever did, you really need to take another look at his films, which tend not to feature hot naked actresses masturbating among the roots of trees. This is one terrible movie, Lars. I’m genuinely glad I crossed the Atlantic to see it. Grade: D+

P.S. Did you happen to see Johnnie To’s latest film, Vengeance? That was the only other movie I managed to get to yesterday, partly because I fell behind with these blog posts and partly because I had to be in line ridiculously early for yours. Despite the presence of waxen French star Johnny Hallyday alongside regulars like Anthony Wong and Simon Yam, it’s pretty much the same Triad action flick To always makes, albeit with more of a light comic tone than he’s shown in a while. I was having a grand old time with the instantaneous masculine camaraderie and the portentous slow builds to various gun battles, but then To suddenly introduced an absurd brain injury that caused Hallyday to turn into Leonard Shelby from Memento, taking Polaroids of his friends and enemies so that he’ll know which are which when next he encounters them, and I was reminded of how empty To’s movies always turn out to be underneath the elegant slo-mo camera moves. Still, it’s never less than diverting, and sometimes hilarious. Grade: B-