Lars von Trier’s ‘Antichrist’: Theopoetry or Cosmic Joke?

GERMANY-CINEMA-ANTICHRIST-VON TRIER

Once upon a time, as a graduate student. I spent three years studying people who believe the pope is the antichrist, a mythical figure referenced (with surprising infrequence) in the Bible, and who over the centuries has inspired some of the strangest speculation and religious behaviour.  From the 12th Century mystic Joachim of Fiore who changed the date for the end of the world as often as his undershirt, through the fact that Isaac Newton believed that his discovery of logarithms would speed up the calculation of what the Number of the Beast meant, to apocalytpic frenzy at the time of the French Revolution, right up to more recent doomsayers such as Hal Lindsey (the bestselling ‘non’-fiction author of the 1970s), who may have felt rather conflicted when 1988 came and went without the earth being destroyed, and now Glenn Beck, who seems content to encourage eschatological surmising about President Obama.  They’re all wrong, of course; and it’s obvious that end-times guessers have tended to be socially bigoted too.  Certainly it’s the case for some that naming the antichrist has been, as one of its foremost students has said ‘an obsession’.

And now along comes Lars von Trier, a director whose work indicates for most critics either genius or madness; or he may be a court jester; or someone who is projecting his depression on screen.  What I think is this: ‘Dogville’ was compelling but did not describe the world as I experience it; ‘Breaking the Waves’ grasped the horror of grief and suggested that life on earth is a stepping stone, a preparatory ground, a purgative moment before eternal grace takes over.  I think if I re-watched either of them, my opinion might reverse itself.  Last week, at Cannes, he added his name to the not-so-illustrious role of those who have appropriated ‘antichrist’ for themselves.

His film, imaginatively entitled ‘Antichrist’ has caused the kind of controversy not seen at the festival for some time.  People are  terrified, embarrassed for the actors, overwhelmed, distraught, disturbed, angry, entertained, unintentionally made to laugh, or provoked to think about the nature of existence.  It seems that some reviewers both love and hate it at the same time.  It’s not certain whether von Trier is using the title literally – if he really intends to comment on the notions that captured Joachim, Isaac, et Hal; but the word can’t be divorced from its history.   ‘Dogville’ and ‘Breaking the Waves’ seemed to me to be produced by a person disagreeing with himself – putting Willem Dafoe, one of the most striking Jesuses on film in a movie called ‘Antichrist’ seems entirely in keeping with von Trier’s way of playing the audience.  I’d like the film to be a serious exploration of grief and suffering – the accounts in so far suggest it is anything but; in fact, it may be the big screen equivalent of the kind of painting you sometimes see being done in a television documentary by one of the severely traumatised patients in a war veterans’ home (although he and his cast look happy enough in the photo above).   On the basis of the words written about it already, and the track record of the director, I both can’t wait to see it, and am not sure that I will be able to watch it.

Three reviews below:

Roger Ebert

Variety

Empire

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