All the sound and fury that greeted Lars von Trier’s return to Cannes last week – anger, walkouts, and disgust from some, while from others a grudging, half apologetic admiration – recalled the furore there fover his violent and explicit Antichrist in 2009. Here’s what I wrote after an outdoor screening in the unlikely surroundings of a moonlit university courtyard at the Transilvania Film Festival in Cluj just after Cannes that year:
So much ha been written that it’s now impossible to see this film truly, with innocent eyes – the sting is gone, every transgressive horror is anticipated, the ‘too daft to laugh at’ moments impatiently awaited. Everyone knows about the genital mutilation, the penetrative sex, the ludicrous talking fox, so it’s almost impossible to see the film as an organic whole, but merely as movement between these anticipated points. But for what it’s worth, here’s what happens.
A toddler, fascinated by the falling snow, falls to his death through a window, at the very moment at which his parents are experiencing orgasm. The mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is afterwards so guilt- and grief-ridden that she spends weeks in hospital. The father (Willem Dafoe) is a therapist and eventually takes her home to treat her himself. This involves making her do what she dreads most, which is returning to the forest cabin where she spent time the previous year alone with her son. Ominously it’s called Eden. The couple’s relationship begins to unravel. On being apparently cured of her guilt, she embarks upon first a ravenous sexuality then a physical assault on it, in him and in herself. The nature around them is revealed as a hostile force ( ‘Nature is Satan’s church’) and Eden becomes Hell.
Sadly Von Trier’s prediliction to epater les bourgeois and les critiques alike has given many of the latter fine reasons to rejoice in a waning of his powers, and the more ludicrous elements of the film have been joyfully scorned. It’s the unfortunate fate of the prankster to be ridiculed when he decides for once to be sincere, which I think this time he does. And the presence of a ‘misogyny researcher’ in the credits, in addition to his reputation for hating and/or fearing women, has led many critics to home in on this as the central flavour of the film. But for once I think it’s a mistake. Rather than condoning misogyny he’s looking at it as a subject for investigation, and the film seems to be rather locating sex itself as the root of evil (which is why the mother, seeing the truth of this in her experience, mutilates both her husband and herself).
This is a hard-line Christian view that sees the pre-lapsarian, exquisitely beautiful prologue torn apart by carnality. (A ‘fall’, literally.) He’s also invoking the old Apollonian/rationality – Dionysian/passion dichotomy, traditionally viewed as a male/female divide. While much has been made, for obvious reasons, of the wife’s impassioned descent into madness and evil, the husband’s emotional cruelty and devastating inability to recognise his own need for (or lack of) grieving has gone mostly unremarked. Like Pentheus in The Bacchae, arrogantly full of rational wisdom and with an answer for everything, he goes off into the woods full of self-belief and is torn apart by the irrational forces historically and mythically associated with the female. What happens in truth is that the couple both fall apart in their different ways.
But however much this may be the rationale, the real question is, how well done is it? And the answer has to be, ultimately, not very. I was completely beguiled by the gorgeous black and white prologue, with its lyrical montage of domestic images in perfect counterpoint to Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga (from his opera RINALDO, whose chief baddy, as it happens, is an enchantress). Dafoe and Gainsbourg’s performances are intense and heroic. The cinematography throughout is very fine, with many stunning images. But the film fails to convince on so many fronts – the famous talking fox goes without saying, along with most of the dodgy animal content, there’s too much muddle and darkness, and the mood is, despite the extreme images, never truly horrific.
Extremely gruesome, certainly, but it’s devoid of any real spiritual dread or actual physical feelings of fear that true horror films, even the cheap and nasty ones, deliver. In fact the moment that made me shudder (rather than wince!) most was, surprisingly, the subtle creepiness of shoes on the wrong feet. It just isn’t enough to show appalling violence, something is missing, and strangely it may be that very male rationality that the film seems to be a critique of that is holding something back – going through the motions without engagement, believing that if you do this, then this, then this, according to the rules, a certain result will happen, a certain effect be made. Just as the husband’s therapy exercises are useless and barren, Von Trier’s horror by rote is flat and too cerebral and doesn’t touch our core. And so it fails to be potent enough to support the big ideas that he is, presumably, wanting to express. If, as Von Trier has claimed, he is exorcising his own demons here, then he must be at the beginning of a very dark road, which doesn’t allow him to take a step back and be creatively critical of his own work.