It has become a mantra. When I try to tell people what’s exciting about Cannes, and that it’s not all about the red carpet, the beach and rivers of champagne, I say something to the effect of: “We come here looking for something we’ve never seen before, something that will change cinema as we know it.” Well, be careful what you wish for. Danish bad boy Lars von Trier has made a habit of shocking audiences in Cannes, gleefully violating the film grammar and the women he casts to serve as his martyred objects of desire. Some of the results have been brilliant—notably Zentropa, Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark.
But tonight we saw von Trier’s Antichrist, and this one goes beyond the pale. I think he’s just messing with our heads. It opens with a dreamy black-and-white, very slow-motion sequence of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg having sex in the bathroom while camera idly drifts over images of a baby monitor, mobiles circling above a crib, an adorable toddler climbing to freedom, reaching a widow ledge. . . The camera follows the child through fairyland snow all the way to his death, which coincides with Charlotte’s orgasm. I’d been warned the film was brutally violent. But this was a relatively tasteful, if perverse prelude, scored to a lovely soprano with harpsichord.
An hour went by without much happening, with Dafoe and Gainsbourg holed up in a summer cottage working through the grief. He plays therapist and she’s the patient. It was like a bad episode of In Treatment. And I was having trouble staying awake. I dreamt of being home, snuggled up on the couch watching In Treatment. Then bad things started to happen.
Spoiler alert! Big red spoiler alert! What’s more, let me warn you that what you are about to read may spoil your day even if you have no intention of ever seeing the film. But this is a movie that cries out to be spoiled. It’s asking for it. Lars von Trier is the Joker, a carnie Antichrist who takes us into the arthouse of horrors with lurid trickery that makes Stephen King look like Mr. Rogers. I won’t spell out all the gory details. Let’s just say that, over the years, I have seen more than a few erect penis on screen in my time. I’ve even seen one or two them chopped off, most memorably in In the Realm of the Senses. But this is the first film in which I’ve seen an erect penis ejaculate blood after its owner is genitally assaulted while having sex. And that’s just the start. This is not your daddy’s chain-saw massacre movie. In this case, the weapon of choice is a carpentry hand-drill. That’s right, the old-fashioned kind that kind of works like a butter churn. In a moment of inspiration, Gainsbourg’s character employs this device to bore a hole in her husband’s leg, then uses a wrench to bolt a grindstone to it. And while we’re racking up precedents, it’s probably safe to say that until now we’ve never seen a woman perform a clitorectomy on herself with a pair of scissors.
Are you still with me? There were shrieks, gasps and a lot of giddy laughter in the screening tonight. You could almost hear bloodshot eyes rolling in their tired sockets. To be fair, of course, I should add that the film was riddled with deep Freudian themes, with beautifully composed tableaus of forest undergrowth and menagerie of totemic animals that included a deer trailing a stillborn fawn and a talking fox. And even before people were out of the building, a few intrepid critics were arguing that this might be von Trier’s masterpiece. But more were making fun of it. And I can’t imagine how the black-tie crowd will react to Antichrist at the official premiere tomorrow night.
Who know’s what effect Lars von Trier is looking for? But I’m beginning to wonder if he doesn’t just make films to create a scandale in Cannes. He certainly got our attention. And I have to concede that no one conjures infernal landscapes with a more divine sense of composition than von Trier, who is by now an old master at fashioning fine art from misogyny. Got to give him marks for provocation, and giving us something to talk about. I dunno. I guess I’m just old-fashioned, but it does make one nostalgic for the days of movies like Don’t Look Now—in which, after the death of a child, it was enough just to have the parents spooked by glimpses of a creepy little phantom running through the alleys of Venice in a red raincoat.