For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

pages from a cold island: (NO) FEAR OF FLYING

 

You may be wary of fallen stars
They're always poking around in the dark
The aerial view of a dying man
Screaming out "Can you help me, invisible man?"
—The Auteurs, Fear of Flying (1996)

"[As] long as intention has no visible effect, it has no importance to the outside world and leads into nothingness. What takes place in the depth of one's being, in the unconscious, can neither be called forth nor prevented by the conscious mind. For if we cannot be influenced ourselves, we cannot influence the outside world."
—Harold B. Helwig (1970)

“When people around me have it bad, I have it better than ever.” 
—Lars von Trier (interview with Danish radio, 7th Sept. 2000)

***

The following extract is taken directly from the website of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), specifically from the page dealing with Lars von Trier's latest work, Antichrist. The page in question went online last Friday (12th June 2009), and I ask the reader's forbearance for what is a somewhat lengthy quotation:

ANTICHRIST is an English language drama from director Lars von Trier. It tells the story of a couple trying to come to terms with the death of their young son. After the mother experiences a mental breakdown, they retreat to an isolated cabin in the woods where the child's father, a therapist, hopes to help the mother to confront her fears. The film was classified '18' for strong real sex, bloody violence and self-mutilation.

At '18', the BBFC's Guidelines state that the more explicit images of sexual activity are unlikely to be permitted unless they can be exceptionally justified by context and the work is not a 'sex work'. A 'sex work' is defined as a work whose 'primary purpose is sexual arousal or stimulation'. It is clear that ANTICHRIST is not a 'sex work' but a serious drama exploring issues such as grief, loss, guilt and fear. 

The brief images of explicit real sex (sight of a penis penetrating a vagina during a consensual sex scene and sight of the man's penis being masturbated to climax) are exceptionally justified, in this context, by the manner in which they illustrate the film's themes and the nature of the couple's relationship.

Their relationship is depicted throughout in a graphic and unflinching fashion, both psychologically and physically. The BBFC has permitted comparable explicit images in a number of previous features at the '18' level (eg L'EMPIRE DES SENS, 9 SONGS, SHORTBUS and Lars von Trier's earlier film, THE IDIOTS) where it has been clear that the purpose of the work - and the individual images in question - is not simply to arouse viewers but to illustrate characters, relationships and themes.


So, there we have it. It's official: "Antichrist is not a 'sex work' but a serious drama exploring issues such as grief, loss, guilt and fear." This may come as a surprise to those who first heard of the film in the immediate aftermath of its unveiling to the world's press on 17th May at the Salle Debussy of the Cannes Film Festival. One of the first reactions came from the keyboard of Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeffrey Wells:

I ran right up to the Orange wifi cafe after escaping from Lars von Trier's Antichrist, which had begun at 7:30 pm in the Salle Debussy. I sat down and wrote for a solid hour, so charged by what I'd just seen and what had just happened -- easily one of the biggest debacles in Cannes Film Festival history and the complete meltdown of a major film artist in a way that invites comparison to the sinking of the Titanic... But my God, what a screening! What a reaction! Critics howling, hooting, shrieking. There's no way Antichrist isn't a major career embarassment for costars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, and a possible career stopper for von Trier. It's an out-and-out disaster -- one of the most absurdly on-the-nose, heavy-handed and unintentionally comedic calamities I've ever seen in my life. On top of which it's dedicated to the late Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, whose rotted and decomposed body is now quite possibly clawing its way out of the grave to stalk the earth, find an axe and slay von Trier in his bed.

Reading this dispatch at my home in Sunderland, I was startled and fascinated, and spent most of the rest of the evening seeking alternative viewpoints on the movie. As it turned out, Wells' reaction, while extreme, was by no means unrepresentative. Even the august trade-bible Variety resorted to unusually vociferous vocabulary—Todd McCarthy (long famed for his staunch antipathy to von Trier, it should be noted), kicked off his review thus: 

Lars von Trier cuts a big fat art-film fart with "Antichrist." As if deliberately courting critical abuse, the Danish bad boy densely packs this theological-psychological horror opus with grotesque, self-consciously provocative images that might have impressed even Hieronymus Bosch, as the director pursues personal demons of sexual, religious and esoteric bodily harm, as well as feelings about women that must be a comfort to those closest to him. Traveling deep into NC-17 territory, this may prove a great date movie for pain-is-pleasure couples. Otherwise, most of the director's usual fans will find this outing risible, off-putting or both -- derisive hoots were much in evidence during and after the Cannes press screening -- while the artiness quotient is far too high for mainstream-gore groupies.

By this stage, my curiosity had been stoked to near-unbearable levels—and my torment was ratcheted up several notches when reports came through thatAntichrist would only be shown in its full, uncut version in Cannes. Piqued and somewhat offended (cinema being an essentially democratic art, its works equally accessible to all regardless of geographical location or professional qualification), I looked into the possibility of nipping over to Copenhagen to catchAntichrist on general release over there. I knew that, whatever version the rest of the world would be fobbed off with, there was no possibility that von Trier would spare his fellow Danes the full flowering of his imagination.

Against all expectation, there turned out to be a new airline (Cimber Sterling)—or rather, an airline I'd never heard of—offering a reasonably-priced service from my local airport (Newcastle) to Copenhagen. And I did have a couple of days in my schedule—originally earmarked for a trip to London—looming at the end of the month...

Which is how I found myself journeying from one "cold island" (Great Britain) to another (Zealand, on whose western shore stands Copenhagen), on the morning of Friday, May 29th. This was the first day of Antichrist's second week of general release, and—after ponying up my 65 kroner (roughly £7.50, €9 or $12.50)—I attended the first afternoon screening at the historic Dagmar Theatre, just off the Town Hall Square. The contrast with the crowded, chaotic, frenzied atmosphere of the Salle Debussy 12 days earlier could hardly have been greater. A smallish, quiet auditorium; just me and a small handful of Danes. Much too civilised for anything remotely resembling "howling, hooting or shrieking."

You can read my full review of the film here. But this is how it starts and ends : 

Don't believe the hype. Antichrist, while absolutely nobody's idea of a walk in the park - with its explicit scenes of copulation, genital mutilation and grisly assault - isn't half so hideously gruelling or shockingly intense as you'd guess from the febrile dispatches resulting from its Cannes world-premiere. 
Rather, while this is a very confrontational, transgressive piece of cinema, it would be a mistake to reject it as mere extremity for extremity's sake. The assembled critics on the Cote d'Azur seemed to take particular umbrage at von Trier's end-titles dedication of the film to Andrei Tarkovsky - and whileAntichrist isn't up to the high standards of the Russian maestro's work, he would no doubt approve of von Trier's brave and audacious channelling of ideas and images into cinematic forms that range from the jaggedly potent to the delicately transcendent.

...

By the end of Antichrist, one may feel rather sorry for an individual who has, up till now, been largely content to hide behind the guise of prankster and japester, incapable of being taken seriously no matter how grave his ostensible subect-matter. Here, perhaps for the first time, it seems that von Trier is being utterly and painfully sincere. And this makes that wildly vociferous critical reception (hooting, shrieking, booing, laughter) in Cannes all the more bizarre and dismaying. It does sound rather like an instance of mass hysteria (which is rather ironic, given the film's fixation on female dysfunction.) But if he's got any sense, Lars will surely never want to set foot on the Croisette ever again.


Von Trier will most probably not heed my sympathetic advice. His relationship to the Cannes Film Festival stretches back to 1984, when his debut feature The Element of Crime (Forbrydelsens Element, in which von Trier grinningly cameos as "The Schmuck of Ages") premiered there (in Competition, no less) and was awarded the 'Technical Grand Prize." Since then it's been most unusual for von Trier's works to debut anywhere else—among that number, however, we find  his movie immediately before Antichrist, 2006's hilarious, underexposed and bafflingly underrated The Boss of It All (Direktøren for det hele), one of his rare Danish-language big-screen forays, which premiered at his "home-town" festival of Copenhagen.

By my reckoning The Boss of It All is the best thing he's done since his Palme d'Or winner—and, for my money, still his sole masterpiece Dancer in the Dark(2000). Light, breezy and somewhat daft, The Boss of It All made remarkably few international waves—it only received UK distribution in February 2008. Perhaps Lars felt the need to stoke a little more of the controversy with which his name has so long been associated. And no doubt his long-serving, long-suffering producer—and "partner in crime"—Peter Aalbæk Jensen was a more-than-willing accomplice in this particular direction. Many reckon that Jensen is responsible for the suggestion that four people "fainted" during the instantly-notorious Salle Debussy screening (reliable first-hand witnesses attest that not a single attendee succumbed to the vapours, and it's been widely reported that the number of walkouts was bare-minimal.)

As Mike Goodridge - a FIPRESCI juror at Cannes this year - noted in Screen International,

There was never any question that the film would be divisive but its impact as an exercise in horror was diminished by the mob rule of the audience. This is an ageing group of writers, a high percentage of whom went on to dismiss out of hand visceral journeys into darkness and discomfort such as Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay or Gaspar Noé’s Enter The Void.  Images in these bold cinematic works were just too unpleasant for many of the older critics whose tastes remain rigidly old-fashioned and geared towards intellectual film-making from classic names such as Alain Resnais or Ken Loach.

In a stroke, von Trier has re-established his enfant terrible reputation—he must realise that if he can get the representative of the UK's tiresomely right-wing quasi-tabloid The Daily Mail, Baz Bamigboye (not a figure held in much regard among British critical circles) to stand up and angrily question/denounce him at a Cannes press conference, he's surely doing something very right indeed. Likewise, it is surely a feather in von Trier's cap that the festival's quasi-official Ecumenical Jury should who broke festival-etiquette and protocol by ludicrously awarding him an "anti-prize." Jury-president Radu Mihaileanu's statement described Antichrist as "the most misogynist movie", suggesting that "woman should be burnt at the stake so that man can finally stand up...We cannot be silent after what that movie does." Cannes' Boss-of-It-All Thierry Fremaux, it should be noted, instantly responded by slamming what he called a "ridiculous decision that borders on a call for censorship... [it's] scandalous coming from an 'ecumenical' jury which what is more is headed by a film-maker."
Bravo, monsieur le directeur. I do have to wonder, however, whether the "firestorm" that erupted around Antichrist will ultimately be in the long-term interests of either the film, von Trier, Cannes or cinema as a whole. What does it say about the art-form when one of its most lauded, transgressive and imaginative practitioners is greeted in such a manner? Should we really be supporting or respecting a film-festival which allows this to happen? Is Cannes happy with what happened on May the 17th, on the basis that any publicity is welcome—especially at the mid-point of a festival which, up to that juncture, had unfolded in disappointingly uneventful and torpid fashion?

And did von Trier head home—reportedly by train this time rather than camper-van, as he's famously averse to air-travel—with the feeling of "job done"? Or was he perhaps taken aback by the extremity of the attacks? On balance, I reckon that I'm perhaps being a little over-concerned about Lars von Trier's feelings—the evidence so far suggesting that he's big enough and ugly enough to look after himself. And there's still part of me that can't quite take anything he does or says at face value—it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest, for example, to discover that the whole "fear of flying" thing is an act, and that von Trier's carbon-footprint rivals my own, shamefully sasquatch-sized spoor.

***

POST SCRIPT

Very shortly after finishing the above article, news reached me that Antichrist is to have its UK premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on Wednesday 24th June at 9pm in the Cineworld multiplex. According to the EIFF site...

CONSUMER ADVICE : Contains strong real sex scenes, bloody violence and self-mutilation. Antichrist is being screened as an 18+ film. A grieving couple retreat to Eden - their wilderness retreat - following the loss of their son in a tragic accident. Psychological torture gives way to physical (be warned!) as He and She (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) turn on each other and Nature on them both. Leaving the strictures of Dogme flailing in its wake, Danish provocateur Lars von Trier's characteristically controversial two-hander was derided and applauded in roughly equal measure at its recent Cannes debut, and it's easy to see why... Beautiful, absurd, intense, insane and fascinating.

So, on balance, perhaps I didn't really need to schlep all the way over to Copenhagen and back. On reflection, however, I actually did. I fear the worst about the Edinburgh screening. I was at the festival back in 2002 when Gaspar Noé's Irreversible showed amid much hoop-la, including TV-news crews hovering outside the cinemas waiting to interview folk who walked out early (but not the vast majority who stayed till the end.)

It'll be a similar circus a week on Wednesday, and the movie's actual merits will be lost amid the hype and media-storm. If it serves to raise the EIFF profile, I suppose that's all to the good. And part of me does want to experience Antichrist with a massive, jigged-up, vocal audience. But I won't feel too regretful on the Wednesday night in question, taking in Spread or The Girlfriend Experience or Humpday (still haven't made my mind up), though I will be fascinated to hear how the picture goes down with Scottish audiences. This isn't the best film of the year by any means, but neither is it the worst. Instead, it's most likely going to be the most "talked about", the most divisive and problematic. Lars has said, many times, that his aim is primarily to be a "stone in the shoe." And Antichrist is a pretty big, jagged pebble in anyone's plimsoll. Whether we like it or not, it will be one of the cinematic touchstones of 2009. 
In short—you actually do have to see it, if only to see what all the fuss is about, to make your own mind up. Just don't go in expecting some kind of epochal landmark in cinema history. I'll leave the last work to a friend of mine who's been on the Croisette for years, first as a critic, more recently as the director of a major central European festival: Of course, Cannes always overreacts, the so-called 'ultragraphic violence' is not even worth mentioning. Cannes reporters watch only mainstream fare so that's understandable. But this is nothing; wait till you see the new Gaspar Noé ;)

***

pages from a cold island is a monthly dispatch from the European film scene by Neil Young.

Thanks for an excellent account of the Cannes hype/anti-hype process, and your attempt to deal with the film as a film rather than as a phenomenon. The lack of attention to “The Boss of it All” was almost refreshing since there was no need to wade through acres of overheated coverage! Minor quibble, although it relates to the post title: Copenhagen is on the eastern, not the western, shore of Zealand.
Tom
I think I reacted the same way (wanting to see it the more the hyperbolic criticism filtered out), but I tend to react that way to things like this. I rushed out to see Irreversible and Gerry, too, and defend their places in the film canon often. I wonder how much like Caligula this film is. Thoughts?
never saw Caligula, Tom. One day! Gareth – thanks for the praise and the geographical correction. Denmark =is- somewhat confusingly laid out…
Great read. I hope I’m afforded the opportunity to see the film uncut.
Images in these bold cinematic works were just too unpleasant for many of the older critics whose tastes remain rigidly old-fashioned and geared towards intellectual film-making from classic names such as Alain Resnais or Ken Loach. Weird to group Resnais and Loach. Other than the Noe, the Resnais was probably the most boldly “cinematic.” The Von Trier I would say was more cinematically old fashioned. It just was audacious and unexpected, that’s all.
I think the most significant note to add to this story is the press conference which a part can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1SPz5Z_6ew I was absolutely insulted by the The Daily Mall critic insisting on von Trier explaining why Antichrist was made. It was a defining moment for me as to how society so expect everything to be explained by the creator with no regard to the magic and mystique of the creative process. Even if the film is a technical nightmare, von Trier must be applauded for being such a provocateur and helping to remind everyone to adjust their lazy film criticism.

Please to add a new comment.

Previous Features