The Movie Club

Reason vs. Instinct, the Snooze Button vs. Lars von Trier

Still from Antichrist. Click image to expand.
Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist

Dear Roger, Wesley, Dan, and Dana,

Damn you! Damn you all! Because the Movie Club is winding down and all of you have raised, and keep raising, the kinds of questions that demand to be chased down and wrestled with. And there is now very little time left to wrestle. So I’ll move along quickly.

Dan, I love your defense of Inglourious Basterds. I didn’t love the movie. I think I love the screenplay more than the finished product—there’s something restless about Inglourious Basterds as a whole that, both times I saw it, just drove me a little nuts. But damn, that thing is alive, and I loved the way you described that one sequence, with Shoshanna’s face projected on a wall of smoke: “At that second it makes perfect sense that in Tarantino-world a movie can kill Hitler and change the course of history.” I remember when Inglourious Basterds came out, I was puzzled by people who thought it was inappropriate to have Jews kicking Nazi ass. But Tarantino’s fantasy showdown of good vs. evil made perfect sense to me—it’s like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. We know who the good guys are in this equation—what’s the problem?

Regarding the Up in the Air backlash: I don’t have much to say, because I thought the movie reeked of slick opportunism from the start, and said so. I’ve been accused of being a man-hater for that—I’m still trying to figure that one out. No, on second thought, I’m not. I have no idea where that notion comes from, and I don’t care.

Wesley, your vigorous and passionate defense of Avatar makes me wish I’d liked it more than I did. And this line—”I rarely long to reach out and touch a movie, but there went fingers feeling for fauna and flora and, I won’t lie, nipples”—gave me one of the biggest laughs I’ve had all week, and I needed one!

And Dana, I knew at some point you were going to smoke me out on Antichrist. See me cowering here behind the couch? “Oh no … here she comes. … She’s got that look in her eye. She wants to know how on earth I could have put that vile thing on my 10-best list.”

Oh, look. I’ve hated every Lars von Trier movie I’ve ever seen (and I confess I haven’t seen nearly all of them). Breaking the Waves, Dogville, the loathsome Dancer in the Dark. H-A-T-E-D. And for years I’ve had to listen to people going on and on: “Yes, he’s an unpleasant filmmaker, but a disciplined one, and his misogyny is actually fascinating when you take into account that it comes from a carefully considered blah blah zzzzzz.”

So there were some early summer screenings of Antichrist. Did I drag myself out to any of them? No, plenty of other chances. Cut to the morning of the New York Film Festival screening. The alarm goes off. Reader, I hit the snooze button. Several more screenings pass by, but they’re all scheduled for the exact moment I’ve planned to wash my hair, shave my legs, or brush my cat’s teeth. Too bad.

So it gets to the point where I’ve missed all the screenings and I actually have to pay money to see it. And I look at this thing, and my jaw drops. First of all, it’s the most gorgeous-looking movie of the year—yes, Dana, there’s Bosch in there, as you mentioned, but also the quiet naturalistic beauty of Dürer, gone haywire. And then there’s Charlotte Gainsbourg: Her performance is so raw I could barely bring myself to watch it, but I couldn’t turn away, either. I really think something new has kicked in for von Trier: He’s so in tune with the anguish of this character—he’s not just presenting her feelings, her very being, as if they merely constituted an interesting specimen, as I feel he’s done in the past.

I know some people have decreed Antichrist misogynist, but I think it’s a bad idea to look at the movie strictly through the lens of sexual politics. Maybe von Trier is inviting that—the main characters are a husband and a wife, after all, so why wouldn’t we assume he’s talking about “men” and “women” in strict terms? But I don’t think he is. What he’s really digging at, in a way that’s horrifying, exhilarating, and sometimes a little comical, is the terror inside all of us. Or, OK, maybe just inside him—but he’s really opening something up to us, instead of just passing judgment on the human race as a bunch of self-interested jerks (which is about all I’ve ever been able to glean from his previous movies in terms of their supposedly rich and brilliant ideas). There’s a part of us—the Willem Dafoe part, located just beneath the obligata cordula, I think—that likes to think we can fix things, we can work out the thorniest problems rationally. And then there’s the Charlotte Gainsbourg part—and I’m not going to tell you where that’s located—that rails against reason and order, that’s capable of great joy but is always in grave danger of succumbing to despair. OK, that’s an extremely black-and-white reading of an enormously complicated picture; and obviously, the conflict between reason and instinct is all over literature—I’m not giving von Trier credit for inventing it. But whatever else you think about that movie, I think it demands that you embrace two conflicting ideas at once: “Nature is inside of us and all around us. And nature is not our friend.” Yeow! We are so fucked.

Well, sorry to leave you guys on such a cheery note. But I’ve had a blast here this week—it has been my great pleasure to hang out with you all, and I hate to go when there’s so much more ground left to cover. Dan asked earlier about any particularly pleasant, or unpleasant, moviegoing surprises, and I’d have to say my conflicted but fiercely defensive feelings about Antichrist were the greatest surprise. Because they reminded me that you can never write off even the filmmaker you hate—or believe you hate—the most. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, chaos reigns. It’s one of the things that keeps us going to the movies.

Love to you all,