Friday, October 30, 2009

Irrational States: Antichrist

I think I knew what Antichrist was all about right from the opening credits. It begins, in crude, distorted handwriting, with the words ‘Lars Von Trier’ followed by ‘Antichrist.’ Lars Von Trier is the director of this film and the opening credits can be taken as a sign that the Dogme days—of handheld cameras and absent music and no directorial credit--are over. What we are seeing here are pages torn from Von Trier’s coloring book.

Antichrist, starring Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsborough, is playing in select theaters in what is apparently an ‘uncensored’ version; and I don’t see how it can get any less censored. Defoe and Gainsborough are a couple who live most of their days in some nameless city, and who’s lives are interrupted when their son falls out his window one day, while they are busy copulating, to his death. In the ensuing days, Defoe and Gainsborough (their characters are nameless) attempt to come to terms with their relationship in the wake of such a tragedy. Hit the hardest is Gainsborough, who is suffering from post-traumatic stress. Defoe has assigned himself the role of her therapist—apparently his profession—and eventually the two agree that they must visit their cabin in the remote wilderness to sort things out. It is the wrong decision. Defoe is troubled by visions of animals inflicting savagery on themselves or on other animals, one of them being a very prophetic fox. He is angered by the notes his wife left behind the last time they stayed at the cabin—notes that were supposed to be for a thesis she was writing, but indicate far more sinister things. As Gainsborough slips in to a more psychotic state, Defoe comes along with her.

The story has already shown a sign of irrationality before they get to this sinister-looking forest. A husband being his own wife’s therapist is a sketchy decision, especially if he is Willem Defoe. But rationality is not Von Trier’s goal, and his film becomes overall a psychosexual fantasy about irrational states. This calls for a visually preachy, gothic-fantasy style of storytelling, and in this sense, Antichrist recalls the style of the late Andrei Tarkovsky, to whom the film is dedicated. It shares both the strengths and the weaknesses of Tarkovsky’s films, too. Von Trier is as interested as Tarkovsky was in co-opting various artistic sources in to his own sense of gloom. The idea of people who are lost in the middle of life ending up in the woods is reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. This reminiscence gets stronger when we understand that Gainsborough is afraid of Satan and that the forest is plainly possessed by some sort of evil. Some of the images, well-shot by Anthony Dod Mantel, recall baroque or early surrealist art; hands coming out of a tree trunk while Defoe and Gainsborough make love, a figure moving slowly through a foggy forest, surrounded by shapes. A clinically depressed Heironymous Bosch might have made Antichrist.

Yet Trier’s film cannot hold together given some of the odd choices he makes and the painfully cheesy instincts he gives in to. Trier has always liked the chapter format—at least since Breaking the Waves—but the last thing Antichrist resembles is a book, and it would have been more thrilling if it had all just flowed together, without hints as to what we’re supposed to feel about each segment. The last chapter is, inevitably, the most long-winded, and amidst all the mayhem that Defoe and Gainsborough inflict on one another (therapy has failed at this point), Trier loses a sense of the basics of directing; for example, in one climactic scene, a large foxhole that lies some ways from their cabin suddenly seems to sit right next to it. Trier also stops caring about treating his characters fairly; Defoe becomes as emotionally manipulative as Gainsborough becomes violent, yet he is still supposed to be a moral center for the film. But Trier’s biggest mistake was in attaching symbols to everything in sight; the foxhole is symbolic, acorns are symbolic, and even the animals turn in to incredibly obvious symbols. As a result, the creepiness of earlier scenes earlier scenes loses momentum. Trier is a great stylist of shock and misery, but he is also a belligerent child, who tears up his coloring book and throws it in our faces. When he made his earlier films of visual extravagance, he wanted us to become intoxicated by their cinema, not their symbols. It is, perhaps, an inevitable fate of stylistic pioneers; even Tarkovsky went the same way.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cinema 57 to Reopen

If I rarely mention Boston in these posts, it's because I don't believe in provinciality. I do live and work in that city currently, but who cares. It's films that I'm writing about, and films are linked from cinema to cinema, print to print, memory to memory and nation to nation. 
Nonetheless, here I will break this rule. As every movie-fan in Boston knows, this city does not have a single movie theater that represents independent and foreign films (I refuse to use that word that begins with 'art' and ends with 'house.') This is a source of frustration, to myself and others, as we have to hike over to Cambridge on a regular basis if we want to see one of the Brattle's Elements of Cinema series films, or an obscure screening at the Harvard Film Archive, or even the somewhat-more-mainstream fare of the Kendall Square Cinema.
 But some very exciting news just came to my attention today: the Stuart Street Playhouse, formerly called Cinema 57 over thirty years ago, is reopening as a one-screen cinema for Independent and Foreign films. The theater originally shut it's doors in 1996 and since then has been a theater and, interestingly, a place where golf classes are held. It will stay with the name Stuart Street Playhouse, but soon we can expect to simply walk up to the Theater District and shuttle in to a theater that isn't Loews. 
This is hopeful news for the world of film in ways that do not need to be elaborated on, and remarkable in this age of unceasing downloads and Netflix arrivals. I wonder, are any other cities in this country experiencing similar revivals? Any other cities in the world, for that matter?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

No Liberation for these Women: Repulsion







         The first two shots of Repulsion are exemplary acts of cinematic object-worship. They show Catherine Deneuve’s eyes, almost unblinking, as the credits scroll over her pupils. The character Denevue plays is Carol, and she is a woman who will be abused relentlessly throughout the film—by men, both real and imaginary, by her petty sister, by herself, and by Polanski’s camera.

            The story is simple enough to give the impression that the film is one elaborate film-school-ish exercise, or just a step-by-step manual on how to make a psychological thriller. Carol and her sister, Helen, live in a flat together in London and work at a Beauty salon. Helen has a boyfriend with whom she loudly copulates each night as Carol tries to sleep. Carol is a severely withdrawn, yet beautiful girl. A man asks her on a date and she accepts as if accepting something in a dream. She spends more and more time in her apartment, becoming obsessed with cracks that she notices all over the walls, with the constantly ringing phone and with the bizarre food she accumulates (though we never see her eating it). When her sister goes on vacation with her boyfriend, Carol’s madness intensifies. The cracks get bigger. The walls turn to clay. A stranger appears in her room and rapes her each night. Eventually, she will commit murder.

            Much of this is an excuse for good old pure cinema, of the shock-value sort, and it’s a good enough excuse. The rape scenes are silent except for a ticking clock (leaving the 60 Minutes theme open to very sinister interpretations). Polanski is obsessed with tracking shots of Deneuve, for no particular reason other than that they look impressive. The score uses jazz music extensively, sometimes with the tracking shots, sometimes with more surprising associations, like a murder scene. One shot lasts for some time past it’s legal expiration, in order to focus on several street musicians as they cross the street playing their instruments. There is no reason to believe that the filmmaker’s did not get a kick out of the sleek, unhinged mood of the film, and their cinema for the sake of cinema gives us a kick out of it, too. Yet the film, with it's skittering jazz score, fashion styles, and implication of the sexually liberated young person (not the protagonist), gives a whiff of the coming 60’s counterculture. It was made at the very start of the ‘swinging 60’s’ period, and this is part of the overall milleu.

            What is more controversial is the way in which Repulsion indulges in objectification and idealization of female sexuality. This is one of the most sexist films ever made, though not quite mysoginistic. Carol is an infuriatingly blank and vulnerable woman, yet she does have the guts to kill a man, and may have suffered abuse in her past. One of the men in this film is a genuine pervert; another is a well-intentioned guy whom Carol perceives as a pervert. Carol is simply horrified by men, and her levels of sexual repression are vast enough to be unbelievable—just look at how gorgeous Deneuve is—and ambiguous. Perhaps Carol is a lesbian, whose attraction to women only comes through in a scene when she is loosening up and laughing with, and almost touching, a female co-worker, before looking away in shame. Or perhaps she is terrified by mere physical contact, and the physical attributes particular to women; the potatoes that lie on her kitchen table come to resemble ugly, dead things, similar to fetuses. A family photograph hints at possible familial abuse from years before. The way in which the filmmakers handle this ambiguity is by relentless objectification of Deneuve; close-ups of her face and eyes as she is raped or grabbed by hands that come out of the walls; her increasingly skimpy clothing. Yet Deneuve asks for this sort of treatment by way of her freakish, trembling performance. How are we not supposed to project our interpretations of the source of this woman’ sexual repressions when she is so thoroughly uncommunicative and unceasingly mad? One thing Polanski fortunately does not do is turn the story in to a righteous pulpit so popular with stories of madness in the cinema: it’s not Carol who’s crazy, it’s the rest of the world that doesn’t understand her. No, this woman is simply, frighteningly unnatural. Repulsion falls firmly in to line with all the other films that objectify women and their sexual mysteries, going all the way back to D.W Griffith’s An Unseen Enemy and continuing with Ecstasy, Belle Du Jour, Deep Throat, and even Mulholland Drive. Repulsion may be the most unsettlingly proud film of it’s kind; it looks at a sex-object, builds her character through further sex-objectification and invites the audience to rejoice in it.(An Unseen Enemy, 1912)

(Deep Throat, 1972)(Ecstasy, 1933)

(Mulholland Drive, 2001)