On the one hand, Lars von Trier's new provocation, Antichrist, often seems hardly worth the trouble of discussing. Its opening—that is, its opening once you get past the ostentatious title cards announcing the auteur, the title of his latest opus, and the fact that this first section of the film is a, ahem, "prologue"—depicts, in luscious, satiny black-and-white, the film's unnamed central couple making violently uncontrolled love as their adorable toddler toddles out of his crib, onto a window sill, and out the window, stuffed animal in tow, falling to his death. Not only does the sequence include the requisite hardcore-sex insert shot (a staple of Scandanavian cinema since 1974's They Call Her One-Eye, I guess; here stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are doubled by Horst Stramka and Mandy Starship), but it's scored to the aria "Lascia ch'io pianga" ("Let me weep," doncha know) from Handel's Rinaldo. Underscoring the difference between know-something-ishness and blatant pretentiousness by partaking equally of both, it's a scene so silly that it practically begs you to laugh at it. And, as the sage Spencer Pratt once said, "that's the problem."
Or, rather, that's one of the problems. By now you've no doubt heard of the putative cinematic atrocities that follow as von Trier transports his troubled couple—he's a therapist, she's a stalled academic—to their place in the woods, called Eden of course, wherein the male intends to cure the female of her grief. It's not just the sickening violence, sexual mutilation, boogity-boogity lighting effects and other shock maneuvers that rankle. It's the intellectual incoherence, the scattershot introduction of nonsensical ideas that doesn't quite camouflage the fact that all von Trier is doing is showing a lot of behavior. It's that despite all this behavior—and Dafoe and Gainsbourg don't flinch from any of it, although you might not come away from the movie believing that that's necessarily to their credit—we never really understand who these people are, their characters are so woefully underwritten, underdeveloped. It's the damn red herrings—wait a minute, their child, named Nick, had...cleft feet? What, is this movie The Omen all of a sudden?
It's all of that and more. So my question for myself is, why the hell is this movie still working me over, to the point that I believe it's the main cause of my waking up in a completely shitty mood this morning?
Such are the mysteries of cinema.
Oh, but I see I haven't yet addressed the title of this post.
In his Variety review of the picture from Cannes, Todd McCarthy noted that the "[e]nd credits dedication to the late Andrei Tarkovsky was greeted by laughs and catcalls" there. And so, too, at the press screening at the New York Film Festival yesterday morning. The screening was followed by a press conference with von Trier, via a Skype call (the technical aspect of which went off pretty much without a hitch, which was impressive). Sporting the most slumped shoulders I've ever seen on a grown man and otherwise looking like a paunchier, even-more-depressive version of XTC's Andy Partridge, von Trier fielded questions cheerfully, and when somebody brought up Tarkovsky, he kind of shrugged and said that he had always loved the director and had stolen so much from him that eventually he would have had to dedicate a picture to him. Why this picture, the imagery of which generally (arguably?) owes more to, say, Lucio Fulci than to the Russian visual poet, he did not say. And it's this sort of thing that outrages so many cinephiles, folks who don't just want to see von Trier in movie jail, but in actual jail, if you go by their tone.
But the more I think about it the more I discern some very genuine thematic affinities between Antichrist and Tarkovsky's Solaris. The central section of Solaris deals, as Antichrist does, with what we'll call the problem of the couple, as astronaut Kelvin is visited on the spaceship by a replica of his late wife Hari, who died a suicide. He has to deal with orienting this strange but compelling, sympathetic simulacrum with a reality she has no idea of. Just as, one might note Dafoe's therapist tries to re-orient Gainsbourg's traumatized wife to, ahem, the garden after the fall. (It's worth noting that at the press conference von Trier apologized for the heavy-handed symbolism of Eden and such, saying that had he paid more attention during the writing of the script he would have either refined it more or discarded it, or something. This is the kind of bullshit that gets him his reputation as an imp of the perverse—does he not think anybody else knows that filmmaking is a years'-long process, generally involving other people, one or two of whom might say, "Hey, you know Lars, this 'Eden' business is a bit too on-the-nose..."?)
So I'm left with the notion that the dedication isn't quite as loopy as all that. And the even more nagging notion that Antichrist's harrowed ugliness is not, in this day and age, an entirely inapt counter to Solaris' tragic beauty. How irritating is that?
Postscript: And you know, kids, it could have been worse. He could have dedicated the damn thing to F.W. Murnau.