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February 3, 2010

The man comes around

I went to see “Avatar” just before Christmas, and I was impressed with the colorful 3-D effects. I was even impressed with the way James Cameron introduced Jungian principles of interconnectivity and spirituality into the melodrama. But I was disgusted by the lowbrow manipulation of the action. Even the most fully developed characters were barely two-dimensional.

Sigourney Weaver smokes a cigarette? Whatsisname is a paraplegic? The douchebag corporate bigwig brought golf clubs on an intergalactic spaceship? It’s crap. With all of the good qualities balanced against the bad, I’d say it was still worthwhile for the 3-D effects, but I thought “Beowulf” and “Meet the Robinsons” managed more in this regard with less effort, expense and hoopla.

Meanwhile, Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist” arrived in Louisville for a seven-day run at Village 8 last month. Von Trier is notorious for his creative and uncompromising criticisms of America. Additionally, he has a reputation for intense misogyny, because his films usually feature female characters who are tortured by their circumstances and generally come to bad ends.

Advance word on “Antichrist” operated almost exclusively as a warning not to see the film. The previews were disturbing enough. The reviews were horrifying. Even the title seems to have been chosen to inflame and alienate the film’s potential audience with its allusion to the biblical Armageddon. On the other hand, it seems more likely that Von Trier was making a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche’s consideration of the term, which stood as a flashpoint to redirect humanity toward a life more in tune with nature, not that references to Nietzsche are going to draw crowds of American moviegoers. But then, Charlotte Gainsbourg won the award for Best Actress at Cannes. By the time I saw it, I was dreading it as much as I was driven to see it.

The film opens as the principles, “He” and “She,” they are given no names (Willem Dafoe and Gainsbourg), are making love. This first sequence is presented in slow motion, black and white. The detail is graphic. Intercut with images of their carnal passion are images of an infant climbing out of a crib and up into a windowsill looking out on a beautiful snowstorm. The child is trying to hold his animal toy up so it can see the snow. He falls to his death.

Thereafter, the action concerns the parents’ grief and recovery. Unimpressed by the effectiveness of the treatment his wife is receiving for depression, “He,” a therapist, takes over her treatment and convinces her that only by facing her greatest fear may she recover. They spend the bulk of the story at a cabin in the woods, where “She” had previously spent time working on an abandoned dissertation titled “Gynecide.”

Their time in the woods culminates with the female character’s total loss of sanity, which manifests in acts of torture performed upon her husband and herself. At one point, to prevent him from leaving her, she drills a hole through his calf and bolts a sanding stone to his leg. And, while he is unconscious, she performs a clitorectomy on herself with a pair of rusty scissors. This is shown in graphic detail.

Ultimately, “He” gets the upper hand, chokes his wife to death and burns her body. Thereafter, he is shown slowly making his way out of the woods. As he goes, he is joined by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of ghostly figures of women, their facial features blurred out, anonymous, all climbing the hillside toward civilization.

As with many Von Trier films, I had to look for context on the Internet. I saw the “She” as a female martyr, designed to redeem the countless nameless female victims shown being resurrected in the closing scene. Many commentators mentioned Nietzsche, and Von Trier presents the theme of nature in profound and undeniable ways, but I found no satisfying interpretation in the violent clashing of these philosophies.

But that might be why I find “Antichrist” so compelling. It offers no easy resolutions or interpretations. It is lush with images of ordinary beauty. It haunts us with stories heavily dosed with poetic injustice, causing us to refocus our attention on the value of our own simple experiences. It’s a shame that the American mind is not more inclined to appreciate his work.

For further consideration: “Casablanca” is always a good bet. Van Morrison’s album, The Healing Game, is certainly worth your time. But who am I kidding? Go watch “Lost.”