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December 5, 2009

The Dialectics Of Shock: Antichrist and Kinatay


Above all its other qualities - unsettling, shocking, horrifying - Lars Von Trier has made with Antichrist an invigorating motion picture, one which engages the viewer wholly through that perfect conjunction of intellect and trickery which marks the work of any great director (a great director being one who knows how to perfectly establish, sustain and build upon a single intonation, and then get away with something as outre as letting a fox speak aloud to his protagonist without tearing that fabric asunder). I loved the movie. I walked out of the theater - and went to sleep, and woke up the next morning - still thrilled, not so much by its specific ideas as by its aspirations towards and achievement of ideology.

These ideas, of course, are underscored by some some famously physical moments, including unsimulated intercourse, animals consuming their young, animals consuming themselves, strangulation, conflagration, a drill through the leg, bloody ejaculation and an extreme close-up of female circumcision by way of rusty scissors. It's a brutal film, and yet I didn't feel brutalized; it's confrontational, but not an affront, which is exactly the opposite reaction I had to that of the other enfant terrible from this past Cannes festival, Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay. Mendoza takes Von Trier's genital mutilation and raises him the rape and dismemberment of a prostitute. He hedges his bets on strident realism, while Von Trier goes for broke and lets his entire opus pivot on a talking fox. Both take entirely legitimate approaches to incredibly difficult subject matter, and I pit them against each other not to compare and categorize styles but to examine my own reactions to them. I didn't feel nourished after Mendoza's film; I felt a bit nauseous, a bit shellshocked and a bit debased. It's a real bummer of a movie. So is Antichrist, but you wouldn't have guessed that based on my mood afterwards. It doesn't make you want to shuffle out of the theater and avoid the gaze of your fellow moviegoers who've likewise subjected themselves to such blunt shock treatment.

Why do we subject ourselves to it? Subjection is of course the keyword to the question - I knew all about what Kinatay had in store for me, the same with Antichrist - and the answer is the same one that horror filmmakers have exploited for decades: audiences will always find some illicit pleasure in witnessing something awful, preferably something more awful than the last awful thing they paid to glimpse. Mendoza plays heavily upon this in Kinatay, and he hits a homerun when it comes to building a dreadful sense of anticipation. From the casual suicide that skews the otherwise happy opening scenes to the distended van ride that ferries both our hero and the poor young woman to their fates, the majority of Kinatay is a masterpiece of escalating tension. Von Trier plays much the same game throughout Antichrist, using nature (falling acorns, ticks, animals) to gradually pluck away at the audience's defenses. The evil he's suggesting is far more esoteric than the sociopathic culture shock of Mendoza's film, but both directors are clearly building towards a horrific crescendo. Whether or not it's explicitly anticipated by the audience is inconsequential; it's there in the filmmaking. In both cases, what has to happen has to happen.

But it doesn't have to happen the way it happens, and it's here, in the moment of release, that Kinatay falters and Antichrist succeeds. Mendoza, it turns out, has nothing more to offer us than a Cannes-friendly alternative to Hostel or Saw. His film resolves itself as an endurance test. We either stomach it or we do not; we've either survived the experience or we've fled the theater. I stayed, of course, and the discombobulation I felt as the lights came up wasn't because the film turned my stomach - it had every right to do that - but because I felt I'd been mildly had. This is a film that demands quite a bit from its audience, and offers a paucity of returns. It's not in the ballpark of the worst film in the history of Cannes, as an aghast Roger Ebert proclaimed last May, and there's no denying it's initial effectiveness. But it's also frustratingly limited in its perspective. Mendoza paints himself into a very small corner, and briefly wallows there before cutting to black.

Von Trier is too bombastic to be content with the same, and this latest film finds those tendencies at their most constructive. Antichrist's most extreme moments are not about shock for shock's sake, but the dialectics of shock. Like that beloved talking fox, each represents an impediment to resolution; each creates friction which must be worked through, thereby forcing Von Trier and his audience to dig deeper, more forcefully into the subject matter at hand in search of a solution. This is rigorous filmmaking - vigorous filmmaking! - and as such, it's exegetical qualities not only justify the graphic content but are bolstered by them. Von Trier isn't content to present us with a dry document; this is a thesis on evil, written in blood. By the time we reach self-circumcision - the ostensible climax of the film - we're in need not just of catharsis but of a closing statement, and we get both. The thrill of the terrible (the image) is met head-on by its own terrible meaning (the narrative instigation, which in this case takes us back to the opening of the film and demands close interpretation), which then gives way to a postscript of almost startlingly poetic power. How wonderful is it to have confidence that the enigmatic final moments, as impossible as they may be to completely decipher, actually do mean something?

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A note, which would never have come about had it not been for the nearly arbitrary comparison of Mendoza's film and Von Trier's: it's perhaps worth noting that the blunt, verite force of Kinatay occurs in a milieu of third world poverty, with a hero who is uneducated but good at heart, whose turn to evil is predicated entirely on economics. The married couple at the heart of Von Trier's film are white, presumably wealthy and almost definitively educated, the latter trait being the root of their own Edenic fall. I wouldn't say that cultural context excuses Mendoza's film, but it does put an interesting spin on the idea of its limitations.

Another note: that talking fox looks an awful lot like the hero of Wes Anderson's The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Posted by David Lowery at December 5, 2009 11:26 PM