Toronto capsules — Day 1
AN EDUCATION (Lone Scherfig, Britain, 3)
If the title A SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION hadn’t already been taken, they should have given it to this movie. It’s a surefire contender for an Audience Award, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. Every carica…er character is one-dimensional and all the points are well spelled out. As is obvious from the title and my Flaubert joke, it’s in the form of a Bildungsroman, only it really isn’t — its values are those of self-indulgent anti-Bildung for most of its length — the parents are stupid easily-fooled bourgeouis, the teacher is a repressed antisexual tyrant, the headmistress is an anti-Semite (why, Emma … why?). And when you’re rich, sophisticated and handsome and travel to West End jazz clubs and Paris, then minor things like cradle-robbing, theft, grifting and race-baiting real-estate scams can be overlooked. And I don’t know about you, but when I have illicit affairs with 16-year-old girls and are driving her around in my car, I always leave letters addressed to me and my wife in the glove box next to our favorite cigarettes. To make matters worse, the film doubles down on its characters’ self-indulgence with its own self-indulgence — a shameless and anti-believable last five minutes that undo every possible consequence, restore the status quo ante the start of the movie and thus leave the film with essentially having had no stakes whatsoever. It’s the equivalent of pushing a reset button as though life comes with one. Ick. And I hope Sally Hawkins was well-compensated for her unwritten one-scene turn as Wronged Wife, accessorized beautifully with a Victim Son.
ANTICHRIST (Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 9)
Hypnotic. If I had to write a one-word review of this film, that would be the one. I knew this film would live up to my expectations in a scene where therapist husband Willem Dafoe says “close your eyes … and imagine” to wife Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is going mad with grief over the death of their son. I closed my eyes too and sank into my chair too, and it was as if Lars was semi-hypnotizing me too.
Lost in all the controversy and misogyny charges and countercharges is that quality of the film — its superb formal control casts a spell over you and plays you like a piano through one of the most radical tone shifts in movie history (it’s a structural kissing cousin to the great Japanese movie AUDITION). Von Trier made this film as a way of struggling with his own depression (more on that anon) and every frame looks it. The hypnosis effects (and dream effects) are legion — slow motion, fog shrouded scenes, silent scenes, scenes repeated, talking animals, obviously symbolic details like an animal still-birth. One thing Von Trier does several times to great effect is to repeat an image though first in a stylized mythopoetic dream style, then second in a more realistic mode (think a bridge or “She” lying on the grass), usually to underline the gap between the beauty of theory and reason on the one hand and the much messier, dirtier experience of actual embodied beings. Even people who don’t like this film acknowledge that it’s made masterfully.
It starts out with a black-and-white overture — shot like a perfume ad but so as to establish an impossibly idyllic state of innocence, shattered by the boy’s death. Then we see scenes of Defoe trying to help Gainsbourg “work things through” in scenes of psychological gamesmanship, like an Ingmar Bergman chamber drama involving a therapist and patient (you can easily imagine this part of the film recast with Gunnar Bjornstrand and Harriet Anderson). Only what’s really happening (as Von Trier repeatedly foreshadows) is a slow burn into the unrepressed id of a horror-movie third act. But what’s remarkable in retrospect is how many horror tropes Von Trier used even before the notorious “torture porn” scenes. It’s all done with such gravitas and style though that comparisons with trash like the SAW movies couldn’t be more misplaced — Brakhage-like nightmare forests that look like jagged shapes wailing guttural despair from the center of the universe; expressionist sound design (you’ll never hear acorns quite the same way again) with portentous music and anti-realistic sound effects resonating in space as if the film were itself own echo chamber; and several heart-in-the-mouth “Boo!” moments (the fox, the pyramid, the washtub). Unlike horror trash, this isn’t done to entertain: you really get the sense that Von Trier means it all (the audience I saw this film with was rapt and nobody stirred during the credits). And through the slow catatonia of the first part and the violence of the second, wants the audience to share his experience of depression. Which is why only an idiot would criticize the last part of this movie is either too violent or illogical — that IS the logic of depression; the repercussions have to go too far and have to be randomly inflicted on self and other.
But does it wind up meaning anything? I think it does and I think the title both is and isn’t misleading. It certainly doesn’t refer to the biblical figure from Revelation. Nor does it (as I was kind of expecting) really play as a straightforward hell portrait — there’s no reason for the two-sided dynamic between the couple, e.g. What I’m leaning toward instead, I think, is that this film is merely a raw production of Von Trier’s inner depressive state, which in theological terms would be Gnosticism — that creation (the world) is evil, the work of the devil. Von Trier has an impish reputation, but I think (as someone who’s felt really a soul connection with Von Trier since seeing BREAKING THE WAVES in 1996, just a few years after my his conversion and my confirmation) — that he’s really being more honest and blunt than he lets on. That he uses his Biggest Asshole in the World persona as a way to say what he thinks and duck it at the same time. This really is as simple as a depression movie — a portrait of how the world looks from the black pit. As someone who’s suffered from depression (to one degree or another, with varying levels of knowledge thereof) for most of his life, I can say with authority that it’s very easy when you’re in the utter depths to see the world itself as evil, irredeemable, hellish and write it all off. It’s also very easy to see your therapist or therapy as the cause of it all (that’s probably, ultimately, why I stopped going). And, to judge from this film, Von Trier clearly has no use for therapists — Defoe plays He as a self-centered, unethical, controlling jerk. Yet despite the personal connection I had with the material, I wasn’t as *moved* by it as I thought I should have been. The film doesn’t have a character like DOGVILLE’s Grace or WAVES’ Bess. It therefore resists emotional involvement because “identification” in the usual sense is impossible — the only two people in it are a dick and a nut.