Why I will see Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.

25 May, 2009

There are many films that premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Obviously I’ve been waiting for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus for ages, and despite the mixed reviews (What Gilliam hasn’t gotten mixed notices?), I’m still as excited as ever. I’m deeply interested in the Palme D’Or winner, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and I will definitely be seeing Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet. But with the exception of Parnassus, there is nothing I am looking forward to more than this year’s cause célèbre of the festival, Antichrist.

First, let me make something absolutely clear: I hate Lars von Trier. I have spent much of my recent life defending filmmakers who others perceive as self-indulgent and pretentious whether it’s Gilliam, Greenaway, Jarmusch, Malick, Lynch, or Herzog. I also readily embraced Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible which similarly freaked out the press at Cannes seven years ago. And even I have no tolerance for the films of Lars von Trier. I like some of his early films, but by Breaking the Waves, he revealed himself as an intellectual bully who likes to make everyone — actors and audience alike — suffer as much as possible for no good reason whatsoever. “Oh, isn’t humanity ugly!?” Well duh.

I had no reason to believe that Antichrist would be any different, and had little desire to see it. That is, of course, until that fateful press screening with people booing, screaming, and laughing at moments of intended horror. What sealed the deal for me was the following from a Reuters article:

Jeers and laughter broke out during scenes ranging from a talking fox to graphically-portrayed sexual mutilation.

Many viewers in the large Debussy cinema also appeared to take objection to von Trier’s decision to dedicate his film to the revered Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. Applause from a handful of viewers was drowned out by booing at the end.

All I could think was: “Has Lars von Trier actually lost his mind?” Instantly I resolved to put aside my hatred for von Trier’s films and have made plans to see his latest picture, which has surprisingly been picked up by IFC Films for the U.S. (Albeit with cuts.)

I have a fondness for art fueled by madness. That’s part of the reason why Apocalypse Now is my favorite film of all-time. It is the work of an extremely talented and ambitious filmmaker who was nearly broken by the chaos surrounding him while he tried to create art. Somehow, he channeled that chaos into creativity, and the result is an explosive masterpiece full of flaws and structural problems that still manage to fall into place in spite of themselves. One should embrace flawed masterpieces. Films that appear perfect (e.g. Oscar-bait costume dramas) shouldn’t be trusted. More often than not, they have no soul.

On the other side of the coin, my favorite bad films aren’t the cheesy B-movies aware of their own shortcomings. I like the films that aim way higher than they need to, and completely fall flat on their faces as a result. The news of Lars’ talking fox instantly made me think of Neil LaBute’s The Wicker Man, a staggeringly stupid remake of a flawed masterpiece that seems to think of itself as a new horror classic. Three years ago at Cannes, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales received the same kind of treatment from the press. I rented it, thinking it couldn’t possibly be as bad as all that. Not only is it worse than all that, it is so terrible it’s genius. And this is the moment that turned night into day for me:

And that’s exactly why I have to see Antichrist. For the same reason I rented Southland Tales, Guy Ritchie’s Revolver, and M. Night Shyamalamadingdong’s Lady in the Water. If I’m going to spend two hours of my life on a lousy picture, I’d much rather see something as astonishingly bad as the above three than the slightly below average rubbish that Hollywood churns out every week. After all, which films do you remember more?

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