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Antichrist (Blu-ray)

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Actors: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg / Director: Lars Von Trier / Classification: 18 / Studio: Artificial Eye / Release Date: 11 Jan 2010 / Run Time: 104 minutes

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      03.10.2013 09:29
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      Art house horror that doesn't satisfy

      A review of the Blu-ray, which can be had for about a fiver on amazon.

      Lars von Trier, eh? A Danish arthouse director who gets to work with Hollywood A-list talent and whose films are somehow 'events' in a way that the films of, say, Michael Haneke or Paolo Sorrentino just aren't. I kind of liked his early film The Idiots, even though it had the feel of a small child trying to shock a tableful of adults by showing off a mouthful of partly chewed food. And I still dearly love his TV miniseries The Kingdom, which was sadly unfinished.

      But since then I've drifted further and further away from old Lars, as his budgets have got bigger and his casts starrier. While the stories of him being horrid to Nicole Kidman are kind of funny, they're not much incentive to sit through his films. While I feel like I should admire a director who is so dedicated to deliberately alienating his audience, I kind of feel towards von Trier like I do towards Banksy. Yes, very clever mate; now go and show it to people outside your arthouse bubble and see how they react. His films feel provocative in a way that's designed to push the buttons of the bourgeoisie, to seem daring only to people who don't really understand what 'daring' actually means.

      Basically, I was going in to Antichrist expecting to dislike it. So in a sense I wasn't disappointed.

      A couple are devastated by the death of their toddler, who falls out of a window while they're having sex. The mother (neither character is named) takes it particularly hard, suffering a series of anxiety attacks. Her husband, a therapist, decides that taking her to their remote holiday home in some really forbidding looking woods will help with the healing process. And then things get weird...

      Although probably not weird enough, sadly. It's a little difficult to know how to approach spoilers here, since most reviews at the time mentioned the most extreme thing that happens, whether in a tone of faux-outrage or of hushed awe, depending on the prejudices of their readers. But while I was assured by a friend that I'd see things in Antichrist that I'd never see anywhere else, I wasn't terribly convinced. Explicit nudity? Actual, for-real sex? Well, it was shocking when Lars did it in The Idiots, but since then every arthouse film worth its salt has thrown in a for-real erection somewhere. You'll have to do better than that. Extreme violence? Well, no... modern horror films (of the 'torture porn' variety) feature far more gruelling violence than anything in here, and even a hoary old giallo like The New York Ripper gives that most famous of atrocities a run for its money. The bit where someone ejaculates blood just reminded me of a Blue Jam sketch. And a talking fox? Come on, even if we ignore Fantastic Mr Fox, Summer of Sam did the same thing, only better.

      This doesn't have to be a problem, of course. Originality is not necessarily a virtue in and of itself. But so many people tried to convince me that this film was startlingly original that I was a bit miffed to learn that it wasn't. If it's done anything 'new', it's transplant perennial exploitation moments into an arthouse setting. And that's not enough.

      And it's a shame, because there aren'tmany genuine arthouse horror movies (Don't Look Now is probably the most famous, and has a similar set-up). A couple descending into violent chaos while under the stress of intense grief could really work well as any horror plot. And in truth, if he'd cut the portentous stuff about talking animals, this could have worked well as a story - there's even a reasonable plot twist just before the violence kicks off, although it's hard to tell how 'real' anything we see at that point is.

      There are good things in the film. The performances are superb. Willem Dafoe is the over-analytical husband, trying to subsume his own grief into analysing his wife back to health. As an arch-rationalist in a horror movie you can tell things won't go his way, and he starts to fall apart when exposed to nature in all its seething glory. But he probably deserves it, as he seems to see his wife more as a professional challenge, someone to 'cure' rather than someone to love.

      Charlotte Gainsbourg gives a flawless performance as the devastated mother, playing the almost sinister side of her unpredictability very well. She, of course, has most of the emotional heavy lifting to do (and the most nudity of the two. There's a remarkable frank masturbation scene). The problem is, watching a woman going through the hell of grief for a dead child is in no way enjoyable or even particularly enlightening. I felt no empathy with the character because she was so perfectly trapped in her own grief. That was sold brilliantly by Gainsbourg, but she couldn't make me care what happened to her. And neither she nor Dafoe seemed to be interested in being likable. God knows what kind of vile middle-class monster their hapless son would have grown into with such hideous, self-absorbed parents.

      Porn actors were substituted for the regular stars for the most explicit moments. This is something that used to happen in old European schlock movies like Joe D'Amato's Emanuelle in America or Jesus Franco's 99 Women. Perhaps that's a reason I didn't find it shocking here - I've seen films that do this for real, not for some arty affectation. I don't see the explicit inserts (ha ha. 'Inserts') as serving any purpose other than trying to shock for the sake of it. Perhaps I'm wrong.

      It's shot very well for the most part. There are a handful of shots of immense beauty. There are also some horribly artificial looking things in the film, though - I know we weren't really going to see a small child plummet to his death on film, but the shot where he's falling towards the ground looks pretty bad. Some of the distorted effects are good, and some are less so. Von Trier's view of nature as a savage and primal world of perpetual death and conflict makes Werner Herzog look like Walt Disney, and he conveys that very effectively. Never have acorns falling on a tin roof seemed so sinister.

      Ultimately, though, it uses a load of psychological symbolism as window dressing and presents things as radical that really don't feel like they are. I think the hardest thing to take about this is that it's so damn po-faced. The black and white opening, in extreme slow-mo with opera playing, in which we watch Dafoe (gurning like a gnome) and Gainsbourg screwing while their son wanders idly to his death, is inadvertently hilarious. Oh look, in their cavorting they've knocked the kiddie's toothbrush off the shelf in a bit of clumsy symbolism (not like he'll need it again, though. And I hope they sued the makers of the baby gate). The film has been accused of appalling misogyny, and it is strong stuff that is designed to divide its audience. I didn't find any of the shocking bits all that shocking, though. I kind of wish I had.

      Occasionally you have to wonder if maybe some of this isn't meant to be funny. A scene where Dafoe, trapped underground, is trying to kill a crow that won't stop squawking, is perhaps evidence of an unusual sense of humour at work. But it doesn't feel like there's much intentional jollity to be found here. von Trier was reportedly suffering from severe depression when he made it. Perhaps the film was a kind of therapy for him; it certainly has that feel, of a man exorcising his demons in a way that could be seen as wilfully self-destructive. Unfortunately, rather than working all this out in the privacy of his own psychiatrist's office, he's been given money to make it into a multi-million dollar movie. I'm afraid I need more reason than that for it to exist.

      It looks fine on Blu-ray, as you'd expect a modern film to do. I wonder if the high definition doesn't make some of the digital effects look more fake than they otherwise would, and it could perhaps be better. But there's nothing really to complain about. The fine textures and detail in the woods sequences is very impressive.

      There's a collection of short films (most around 6 or 7 minutes) about the making of the film, which are mildly interesting. They focus on one aspect each, like the animals that were used, or the old witchcraft pictures that make an appearance. There are also short interviews with each of the stars, filmed at Cannes just after the film's premier. They're a bit slight, and neither actor is terribly interesting out of character. And there's a slightly pretentious director's commentary which I struggled with.

      All in all, while the film is very well made and acted, I didn't find that it justified its own existence. Its attempts to be shocking and transgressive feel adolescent, and while I'm happy if it helped von Trier recover from his depression, I don't see that as a reason to sit through it again myself.

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