Sunday, May 15, 2011

2011 Cannes Marathon: Antichrist (Expanded Criterion DVD Review)


Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 11/7/09 w/ Additional Edits & Additional Content.

(Best Actress Prize to Charlotte Gainsbourg at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival)


Throughout his career in filmmaking, Lars von Trier has been an individual interested in pushing the envelope whether it's on filmmaking techniques or in themes. From his melodramatic depiction of women in his Golden Hearts trilogy of films like Breaking the Waves, Idioterne, and Dancer in the Dark to troubled world of Europe in his Europa trilogy. The Danish-born director is considered to be one of the finest directors of his generation and in the international film scene. Then came 2003's Dogville that was the first of a three-part trilogy about America, a place that von Trier hasn't visited due to his phobias of traveling. The film was set during the depression as it discussed themes about American foreign policy that received mixed reviews. The follow-up film Manderlay released two years later received similar controversy but both films didn't do well commercially.

In 2006, following the disappointing reception of Dogville and Manderlay that forced the third film Wasington to be shelved along with the lukewarm response to the von Trier-scribed film Dear Wendy by Thomas Vinterberg. Lars von Trier went ahead and did a small film in the Danish comedy The Boss of It All to a degree of acclaim but was relegated to limited screening in art house theaters. During this time, von Trier was working on a project that was different from his other films but was dealing with depression during development and pre-production for the project. Yet, a period of psychoanalysis and work during filming despite some problems finally got von Trier to release what is probably his most controversial film to date entitled Antichrist.

Written and directed by Lars von Trier, Antichrist tells the story of a couple in mourning following the tragic death of their child. Retreating to the woods, the couple encounter strange occurrences where the husband tries to delve into his troubled wife's state of mind as she is working on a thesis about gynocide. Inspired by the films of the late, great Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky whom he dedicated the film to.  The film is definitely von Trier's most confrontational film to date. Starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Antichrist is a shocking, mesmerizing, and haunting film from Lars von Trier.

Following the death of their infant child, a man (Willem Dafoe) and a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are grieving as the woman is in a state of shock as she feels guilty over what had happened. After a month in the hospital, the woman returns home still feeling guilty as she tries to destroy herself as her husband, a therapist, tries to deal with her troubled behavior. Even as he gets her to reveal her deepest fears which turns out to be the forest of Eden where she had previously spent her summer with the baby while working on a thesis on gynocide. The couple goes to Eden to continue the therapy as the man encounters a deer while the wife is haunted by everything that is going on in the forest.

After arriving into the cabin, the therapy continues as the woman remains troubled as he gets her to confront her fears of the forest by walking on the grass that she claims burn her feet. Yet, the environment proves to be troubling as the man encounters a fox who says the words "chaos reigns". While the wife is seemingly better, the man is troubled by what he had encountered while he finds material of his wife's thesis on gynocide that troubles him. An autopsy report from the man's coat was found as some revelations over the baby was revealed. Even photographs of the child showed further proof as the woman becomes troubled to the point of a manic state where she attacks him. Things become more troubled as the man finds a crow in a hole as the woman claims that it was her fault their baby died as the two await for the three beggars to arrive for someone to die.

The film is about a lot of things that swirl around the mind of Lars von Trier. Particularly the theme of death as it revolves around two people dealing with the death of their baby. Yet, the film also explores the idea of psychotherapy, misogyny, witchcraft, and all sorts of things as it is all taken into the dark mind of von Trier. The film is structured into four chapters plus a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue is about the tragedy of what happened during which the couple is having passionate sex in graphic detail. Then the story happens for the next four chapters that are titled Grief, Pain (Chaos Reigns), Despair (Gynocide), and The Three Beggars.

While it is known that von Trier is a prankster, he's also a man that will delve into his own phobias and troubled mind into a story. In the two characters he created, there's a man trying to get into his wife's mind and help her despite the fact that she's not a fan of psychotherapy. Yet, what he finds out isn't just the fact that his wife is troubled but he himself, is someone that might have taken on a role where he's gone too far. The woman is an extremely grief-stricken person who feels responsible for the death of their child as well as the belief from her thesis that all women are evil that has caused her to become psychotic.

While it is a known fact that the death of a child will drive emotions wild, when someone feels responsible for causing the death. It can lead to reactions that are shocking. When the story develops as it turns into a surreal, psychological horror film with some graphic depictions of sexual images. It becomes something way intense in terms of its presentation and thematic tones. While people might question on whether von Trier is a misogynist, it only diminishes what von Trier is trying to say about sexuality, gender, and gynocide. During the scenes in the third chapter of Despair (Gynocide), the man is shocked to what his wife's thesis is saying about the witch burnings and such of the past. There's a lot of things audience might disagree with von Trier is saying on the film but how it works for the story is unquestionably mesmerizing.

The direction of von Trier shows him breaking the rules of his previous Dogme 95 style of no artificial lighting, no visual effects, and no genre. For this film, he goes for a entrancing visual style where the film's prologue and epilogue are in black-and-white, in slow-motion, and to the aria/score piece of Lascia ch'io piagna from Handel's opera Rinaldo. For the rest of the film, it's done in color with scenes shot in a fog, swirling camera images, and striking compositions to reveal the mysterious world of Eden. While some of it is presented in a hand-held style, the zoom shots and visual effects scenes are quite enchanting in its beauty amidst this ugliness that is surrounding the characters.

The way von Trier presents his camera in more intimate scenes is that he goes deep into the fragile relationship of the characters inside this small cabin. Yet, there's a lot of graphic sex scenes in which there is one shot of penetration that is performed by body doubles. Yet, a lot of it isn't exactly for fun but rather in a disturbing context as it revolves into the emotional troubles of the couple. There's also some graphic, violent material that involves genitalia that pushes the extremes of what is obscene. While it may not reach into the world of American torture-porn horror films, it's presentation and what it does to serve the story is extreme in itself. What von Trier does with this film isn't just this haunting, metaphysical tale of death, horror, violence, and gynocide. It's a film that reaches into the dark soul of humanity as von Trier creates in what is probably his most extreme and provocative film of his career.

Longtime von Trier collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle does amazing work in the film's cinematography. Mantle's photography for the prologue and epilogue scenes are beautiful in its black and white look with elements of gray as it is very striking and powerful. For the rest of the film, the color is a mixture of grey, green, and blue to emphasize on the film's bleak, dreamy tone as it also features wonderful hand-held work as a lot of the forest scenes were shot in Germany. Mantle, who had just won an Oscar for his work in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, truly brings a haunting yet surreal visual style to the film that outdoes all of his previous work with Boyle and von Trier.

Editor Anders Refn and co-editor Asa Mossberg does excellent work with the film's rhythmic, stylized editing with the use of slow-motion speeds and jump-cuts to create an atmosphere for the film. Production designer Karl Juliusson and art director Tim Pannen do fine work with the look of the cabin and apartment that the couple lives in while finding some great locations around the woods of Germany. Sound editor Kristian Eidnes Andersen does great work in the sound of winds, falling acorns, and such to create a chilling, stark atmosphere of Eden as it surrounds the characters. The visual effects by editor Anders Refn and Peter Hjorth is phenomenal in the look for Eden plus the visual face of the fox and other images in the film as it works for the dark tone of the film.

The performances of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg is truly powerful in their individual roles while the two together, are one hell of a combo as they have great chemistry and tension with one another. While Dafoe is mostly calm throughout the film as he plays the role of a therapist, his facial expressions of a man haunted by his surroundings and his grief-stricken wife is definitely one of his finest roles to date. Yet, it's Charlotte Gainsbourg that is the real heart and soul of the film as troubled woman becoming unraveled by guilt as she becomes psychotic and violent. While it's a showy, over-the-top role that has her nude for nearly half of the film. It's definitely a performance for the ages as Charlotte Gainsbourg definitely creates an unforgettable impression.

***Additional DVD Content Written From 4/26/11-5/7/11***

The 2010 Region 1 2-disc DVD (1 disc on Blu-Ray) from the Criterion Collection presents Antichrist in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2:35:1 for widescreen television plus 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound as it’s approved by its writer/director Lars von Trier and supervised by its cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. The look of the film is richer in its ethereal presentation from Mantle’s camera work while Kristian Eidnes Andersen’s sound design is broader for its mix on the DVD.

The first disc of the DVD includes the film in its entirety along with a couple of special features. The first special feature are three theatrical trailers all of which play to the film’s chaos while the third from IFC Films feature quotes from critics who saw the film at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. The other big special feature in the first disc of the DVD is a feature-length audio commentary track from writer/director Lars von Trier and film scholar Murray Smith.

The commentary has von Trier and Smith talking about the film in its entirety as von Trier talks about his inspiration for the film and such. Some of which dealt with his own state of depression he was going through before the film was going to be made. The director also talked about how working was able to get him to deal with it though at times, it was a huge struggle. When the subject of Andrei Tarkovsky was discussed, von Trier admits that there’s a lot of his influence prevalent in several of the compositions along with some of the dramatic elements of the film. Notably Solaris and The Mirror, the latter of which is von Trier’s favorite, as von Trier reveals that some the images were definitely taken from Tarkovsky.

Smith also talks about von Trier about some of the explicit elements in the film such as the violence as he mentioned von Trier about the horror sub-genre known as “torture porn” which found von Trier amused. Smith also talks about some of the criticism the film received though von Trier was really indifferent to it as both mused on the performances of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Overall, it’s an entertaining and often humorous commentary from Lars von Trier and Murray Smith.

The second disc of the DVD is filled with loads of special feature relating to the production film, its notorious screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and interviews with Lars von Trier, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Willem Dafoe. The first section are the interviews starting with Lars von Trier’s five-minute interview about anxiety. Featuring a brief interview with visual effects supervisor Peter Hjorth and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, von Trier talks about the anxieties he’s had all of his life as he uses it as inspiration for Antichrist along with his years being in therapy. Even as von Trier talked about his own state of depression in the years before he was to make the film.

Charlotte Gainsbourg’s 44-minute interview has the actress talking about wanting to work with von Trier and getting the chance when another actress dropped out of the production. She talked about meeting the director despite not knowing what he looked like as they chatted that led to her being cast. Even as she knew what was to expect in the film which she did though she didn’t mind that porno actors were to do a lot of the explicit content in the film. Gainsbourg also talked about von Trier and his directing style where she compared him to Michel Gondry in terms of letting things go while having the actors be in character.

Gainsbourg also talks about the premiere at Cannes where she prepared herself in case she was to be skewered at the festival. Instead, she was relieved by the reception it got as well as winning the Best Actress prize that year. Gainsbourg also talks about working with Willem Dafoe where at first, she was intimidated only to be relieved that he was new to what von Trier was doing as far as directing actors were concerned. Gainsbourg also talks about the film’s themes and the accusation of misogyny that were raised about the film. Gainsbourg reveals her answers along with her thoughts on the character as it’s a very profound interview with the actress.

Willem Dafoe’s 18-minute interview has the actor talking about why he likes to work with Lars von Trier and other directors because he wants to be a contributor to their art. Dafoe recalls his experience working on Manderlay with von Trier that he liked and hadn’t heard from him since as he called him up and asked him what he’s up to. He hears about von Trier’s depression and the struggle to get Antichrist being made as Dafoe asked for a copy of the script as he decided to do it. Dafoe also talks about the difficulty of the production largely due to von Trier’s state of mind at the time as the director struggled to be on set all the time.

Dafoe talked about the fact that all these rumors about von Trier being tough and such were true only because of how he wanted things. Dafoe admits there were times he found von Trier to be very difficult yet there were times when von Trier was fine throughout the production. Dafoe also revealed that there was a feeling that the film might not be finished as some wondered about von Trier’s state of mind. Yet, when it finally premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Dafoe talks about the criticism the film received while he does admit that the film would’ve had greater difficulty being shown to a wide audience in the U.S.. Dafoe says he loves those films though does understand why American audiences wouldn’t be so keen into seeing something like this.

The second big feature is a seven-part video series from Zentropa Entertainment about the film’s production that totals to nearly an hour. The first part is a six-and-a-half minute piece about test shots made for the film where the camera was controlled by a computer to see how shots are tracked along with the famous slow-motion falling acorns shot is made as they’re presented with different actors. The second part is a fifteen-and-a-half minute piece about the visual style of the film as von Trier, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, visual effects supervisor Peter Hjorth, and producer Meta Louise Foldager. Mantle discusses the look of the film as well as the varied camera styles used throughout the film including ones he had never done before.

Foldager talks about the visual compositions that were partially created by Hjorth whose job was to create the visual effects as Hjorth brought ideas to the film as he was also Lars’ right-hand man during the pre-production. Mantle also talks about Hjorth’s ideas in terms of presenting visual effects to make it look real but not in a highly-stylized manner with a lot of films as test shots were created in 2007. Even as the piece reveals how the layers of visual effects were created along with the falling acorns scene was created at 1000 frame-speed per second. Mantle discusses the camera movements where he did a fair portion of the camera operating though von Trier was unable to do it because of his own issues despite the fact that he loved to operate the camera.

The third part is a 13-minute segment about the sound and music used in the film as sound designer Kristian Eidnes Andersen discusses the sound work in the film. Andersen discusses the sound work as he revealed that von Trier wanted organic sounds created in an organic way. Andersen and von Trier used everything from grass, rocks, and voices to create sounds as Andersen would sample and loop them into the sound textures heard in the film. For the operatic piece Rinaldo by Handel, trying to find a recording was hard as they found the notes which they finally recorded in January of 2009. While it was a complicated piece, the music director Bjarte Eike was able to conduct it for the musicians needed to record the piece with Tuva Semmingsen singing the piece. Semmingsen also contributed additional vocals for many of the sound textures Andersen created.

The fourth part is a short, five-minute piece about the art direction as von Trier, Foldager, and production designer Karl “Kalli” Juliusson talks about the house in the fictional world of Eden that was shot in a forest in German which wasn’t easy to find. Particularly as they had to find someone where they couldn’t shoot in certain areas because of a stork that was nesting there. Juliusson revealed that he created part of the big tree next to the house while taking a smaller house next to the main one in the film. The fifth part is an eight-minute segment about the makeup effects and props created for the film as Morten Jacobsen and Thomas Foldberg reveal the creation of the wheel that was stuck on Willem’s leg. Even as they created a fake leg for one crucial scene while they created another wheel that Willem had to strap his leg to for those scenes.

Jacobsen and Foldberg also talk about the deer giving birth to a baby deer as they revealed that created the baby deer to make it real as possible though it did scare the real deer carrying the fake one. For the prologue scene with the baby, they created a doll for many of the wide shots used in the film as they wanted to make it look real but not to real. The final makeup effects created is the famous genital mutilation shot as they reveal to create prop scissors and a prop area with the help of a body double to create it. Jacobsen reveals that it’s not easy to watch the final version not because of the reaction but rather thinking what mistakes are made and such.

The sixth part is an eight-minute segment about the three beggars as animal trainer Ota Bares talks about the animals he trains. With the raven, it was quite easy though Willem Dafoe revealed he had hard time working with that raven. For the deer, Bares worked with visual effects supervisor Peter Hjorth about the look of the deer as they used a real one who didn’t enjoy having the fake deer on her. Hjorth revealed that in order to make the animals comfortable, a second unit crew was used to film around them since it is a smaller crew. For the fox, they had to wrap a bit of meat around the body for one of its famous shots as von Trier found the animals easy to work with.

The seventh and final part of the making-of series is an eight-minute piece that revolves around the text about women and gynocide as von Trier, Foldager, and researcher Heidi Laura talk about the material that was needed. Laura revealed that in order to do this kind of research, the best place to start is modern ideas of gynocide that allows the research to go backwards to earlier times. Featuring quotes from Nietzsche, Tertullian, and many others about the evils of women, it reveals the fear about women as von Trier admits to find a lot of the writing to be ridiculous though interesting.

The third big special feature are three video clips about the film’s premiere at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival plus interviews with Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. The first video entitled Chaos Reigns at the Cannes Film Festival is a seven-and-a-half minute clip about the day of the festival’s premiere from the photo calls, interviews and to the infamous press conference where von Trier declared himself to be the best filmmaker in the world. It concludes with the film’s infamous premiere where it received a mixed reception. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s six-minute interview has her talking about the film and von Trier’s direction as she reveals how helpful von Trier was to directing her.

Dafoe’s eight-minute interview has him talking about working with von Trier as well as the reaction from the press about the film. He reveals a lot about von Trier’s idea of filmmaking while saying that this is not a film for everyone.

From the booklet included in the DVD is an essay by film scholar Ian Christie entitled All Those Things that Are to Die. Christie’s essay talks about his own experience in seeing the film as well as what drove von Trier into making the film following his own depression along with a period of films that didn’t meet expectations. Christie also talks about the controversy that Antichrist drew as well as the accusations of misogyny in the film as Christie draws to other von Trier movies like Breaking the Waves and most notably, Medea. Christie also revels in the film’s subject of gynocide in relation to the violence that plays out late in the film. Christie’s essay is truly mesmerizing to read as it brings some sort of understanding about the film. The overall DVD content for Antichrist is spectacular as it lives to the film’s infamy.

***End of DVD Content***

When it premiered in May of 2009 at the Cannes Film Festival, it divided and shocked audiences of its imagery and graphic violent and sexual content. The film was considered to be the most controversial film of von Trier's career as well as the history of the festival. Critics accused von Trier of lots of things as he declared himself the greatest filmmaker in the world. While it won some anti-prizes and lots of anger, the film walked away with the best actress prize to Charlotte Gainsbourg. Yet, the controversy over the film is still in the minds of audiences and critics as it is considered a film that people either loved or hated.

To say Antichrist is a great film would only baffle people who would believe that it is the exact opposite of that. Well, that is true. It is a disgusting film. It is obscene, it's horrific, it's downright pretentious, it's blasphemous, it's evil. Yet, it is also beautiful, enchanting, haunting, and downright provocative. Only a Lars von Trier film can do that in creating two sides that are split with opinions while there's even room for a middle ground for those unsure of what they just saw. It's not a film for conservative filmgoers or mainstream audiences. It's not a film for fans of horror films. It's a film that is for those interested in a challenge and are willing to see something that is unlike anything. In the end, Antichrist is a hell of a fucking masterpiece from Lars von Trier who not only puts himself in the list of the greatest filmmakers of all-time. He also raises the bar of what is shocking and what is obscene as Antichrist is a film that lives up to its name and shock value.


(C) thevoid99 2011

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