Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Cannes Reviews: "Antichrist" [B] & "Mother" [B+]

Film / Review

Antichrist [The Playlist]
Director: Lars Von Trier
Year: 2009

"Antichrist" is an exorcism of the foulness and unmitigated hatred stewing inside notorious provocateur Lars von Trier. It's production follows a crippling depression which stifled the Danish master's output for two years, following completion of what could be described as the filmmaker's only conventional film, 2006's office comedy "The Boss of it All." This new work finds von Trier coming out the other side of the woods and leading us in: "Antichrist" is set in the heart of a forested landscape known ironically as "Eden."

The film's proverbial Adam and Eve (the cast lists them as "He" and "She") are played by the willowy Charlotte Gainsbourg and previous von Trier collaborator (in 2005's "Manderlay") Willem Dafoe. The couple recently lost their only son (a tragedy depicted as the couple has unbridled sex in the film's heavily-stylized black and white prologue, arguably the most accomplished passage of film this director has ever produced), and the wife has been stricken with inconsolable grief. Her husband (who is also a therapist that arrogantly decides to treat her) attempts to console and rehabilitate his spouse, repelling her sexual advances and embracing her firmly each time she awakes from vivid nightmares. But after the Doc's usual tricks prove largely ineffective ("make a list of what scares you" and "exhale on the count of five," he instructs) it's decided that he must pursue a more severe approach and face her terrors head-on. He leads his wilting wife into a cabin in the woods - into the forest of Eden, the place she fears more than any other.

Unsurprisingly, what the couple find in their foliage-ensconced retreat is nothing less than hell on Earth; a fiercely primal series of brutal acts which She inflicts upon Him in some kind of possessed fury and misguided vengeance. Lars isn't fooling around: within the first five minutes, brief penetration is shown on screen (goodbye R-rating), and later on, one character is forced to ejaculate blood and another takes a pair of sheers to their genitals (hello NC-17). All this ultra-violence is given some context through Gainsbourg's pained whisper of a warning: "Nature is Satan's church."

Sentiments like these are more than appropriate considering that von Trier has dedicated "Antichrist" to Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky (a dude who seems really popular all of a sudden) whose films were always heavily influenced by their natural environments. Acts of carnality and physical abuse are suggested to be provoked by the influence of Eden's foreboding landscape, which complements the film's primal urgency (especially in regard to the un-sexy and desperate sexual encounters, of which there are many). It's frustrating then that von Trier introduces a more academic motive for the wife's horrific behaviors: we learn that she was working on her Masters Thesis regarding the mistreatment of 18th century woman, suggesting that all this mayhem is the result of some kind of demonic possession (and or just some good ol' misogynistic statement on his part).

And then there's 'the three beggars,' a trio of recurring woodland creatures (a deer, a fox and a crow) who pop up in horrific succession during the film. Their implication here is riotous: a fox actually talks at one point (the only point, "Chaos reigns!" he groans, covered in blood from eating himself alive) which understandably was met with hysterical laughter at the premiere screening (and all others for that matter). This is a consistent failing of "Antichrist": the more serious and provocative moments are too ridiculous to be taken as such, and thus often come off as comical, and we have to assume that's not what von Trier was aiming for (though who knows with this guy).

Yet however dubious the usually on-point von Trier's symbolic implications may be in this equally dubious return to the horror genre (isn't he past this phase of his career?), his craft is still undeniably accomplished. Both the opening and closing sequences of "Antichrist" have an elevating quality to them that could easily excuse whatever comes between, but von Trier further stuns with his impressionistic therapy sessions, which find the husband instructing the wife to visit the forest in her mind and let it absorb her body-- a sort of catharsis before the storm.

When the tempest of brutal, unrelenting violence does hit (like a brick to the dick-- no, literally) von Trier's depiction is just as arresting as it is in his more leisurely sequences. It's a nasty bit of business for sure, frankly depicted without an ounce of irony, and sure to be the cause of many a sleepless nights and heated debates between cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike (that is, if people are actually given a chance to see this thing; I can't imagine "Antichrist" scoring much of a domestic release, what with its likelihood of making the straight-laced MPAA lose their shit).

We've been known to bemoan the popularity of the torture-porn genre fervently, so we would feel hypocritical endorsing "Antichrist" and excusing it of similar transgressions. However, the fact is, this is moving cinema; whether you're moved to love it, moved to hate it, or it just churns your stomach with wretched bile, "Antichrist" will undoubtedly inspire a passionate reaction among those who see it.

So even if Lars von Trier isn't the "best film director in the world," as he so boldly and, we would assume, tongue-in-cheekily proclaimed in a recent press conference, he's still unquestionably the boss of it all-- a unique artistic force who plays by his own rules and answers to no one.

"Antichrist" is, appropriately, an exorcism of hatred and malice from the grimiest bowels of Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, ending a career stifling depression. One question: if this is the aftermath of the director's episode, how fucked up was the real thing?

Film / Review

Mother [The Playlist]
Director: Bong Joon-Ho
Year: TBA

Following his crowd-pleasing, box office record-breaking monster movie "The Host," which premiered at Cannes in 2006 as a Midnight Screening, South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-Ho returns to the genre of his second feature film, the "Zodiac"-esque mystery thriller "Memories of Murder." The director's latest Cannes entry (premiering in Un Certain Regard) is another procedural, this time concerning a widow's attempt to clear the name of her mentally handicapped, 28-year-old son, who is accused of brutally murdering a young woman.

All of Bong's films (even the director's loopy rom-com debut, "Barking Dogs Never Bite") are notable for their riotous entertainment and their equally pointed socio-political commentaries, and while "Mother" certainly brings the entertainment (like Bong's other films, it's brisk and breathlessly suspenseful, with twists manifesting at all the right moments to sustain the tension) it doesn't seem to be pushing any broad message or moral. Instead, the picture's primary theme is one of maternal devotion: As the title suggests, this is a film about a mother, one whose role as such takes precedence over anything else.

"Mother" sometimes recalls Akira Kurosawa's early noir "Stray Dog," as it surveys a small town rote with secrets and latches on to the desperate, human struggle of its inexperienced detective. Our gumshoe is the titular mother, Hye-ja, played startlingly by middle-aged actress Kim Hye-ja, whose facial contours and wide, sad eyes communicate her character's exasperation. It's a performance that channels the ferocious femmes of Pedro Almodovar's best films with fervent, melodramatic intensity.

Another South Korean genre film at Cannes this year, Park Chan-Wook's noxious vampire thriller "Thirst" (which is infuriatingly in the competition section at this festival), dumps heaps of self-serious exposition in effort to explain the motivations of its protagonist. Bong, too smart and skilled a craftsman to waste a second, opens "Mother" with a surrealist sequence (the first of two bookending passages) which tells us all we need to know about his fickle heroine-- her strength, grace and even her loneliness-- absent the heavy-handed lecturing of Park's film.

From here, "Mother" immediately kicks into high gear, leading into a hit-and-run incident which sends characters scurrying about their small, rural town and sows the seeds of a hard-boiled procedural.

Do-joon (Korean television star Won Bin), Hye-ja's mentally handicapped son, is hit by a passing Mercedes Benz and convinced by his headstrong friend to take revenge. The two track the automobile to a golf course, where they think they've found the culprits (a group of unsuspecting yuppies), and then proceed to bash their faces in. This understandably earns the attention of the police, and when a later crime is committed (the death of a promiscuous schoolgirl), Do-Joon, who was even seen at the scene of the crime, is convicted and jailed.

Convinced of her son's innocence and angered by law enforcement's unsympathetic response to his condition, Hye-ja turns to a pricey lawyer and a friend on the force for help. But when no one seems to give a damn about her and Do-joon, all it takes is some bold advice to make Hye-ja take matters into her own hands: "Don't trust go out and find the real killer yourself." Bong's film then quietly segues into the realm of a vigilante picture, akin to Clint Eastwood's "Changeling" (a Cannes official selection last year) but with much more narrative focus and a decidedly sharper characterization of its distressed parent.

"Mother" sits well alongside Bong's other films and acts as a sort of compromise between the absurdist fantasy elements of "The Host" and the more plot-driven social-realism of "Memories of Murder." It's not this talented Korean auteur's best film to date, but it does help solidify his status as one of the most gifted directors of his generation (even with only 4 films to his credit). Bong looks to the age-old genre of the film noir for inspiration, but unlike so many filmmakers who obsessively recreate the look and tone of the noir, Bong instead applies his own thoroughly modern aesthetic, but taps in to the same moral gravity which invested Kurosawa's most effective genre films ("Stray Dog," and also one of our favorites of the Japanese master's works, "High and Low").

Bong's "Mother" isn't flawless (it's probably a few scenes too long, with one too many plot twists piling-up towards the end), and its depiction of the mentally handicapped (or, rather, Won Bin's bug-eyed and cartoonish, one note rendering of his imbecilic character) takes away from the resonance of the film's central relationship. Still, as always, Bong's filmmaking skill is totally on point; his sweeping camera movements and evocative colorization complement the overall seething atmosphere of this often Hitchcockian thriller. And one scene, in which a major revelation takes place as a character stumbles backwards out of the frame, punctuated by a goosebump-inducing scream, is actually worthy of the overused Hitchcock comparison.

In any case, especially compared to the other films we've seen at Cannes '09 -- again feeling like a weak year so far -- "Mother" probably should have been accepted into the official competition selection.

1 comment:

Justin said...

If you like Bong Joon-ho, you HAVE to check out Tokyo!

I can’t wait for the dvd.

I think it comes out June 30 (
I preordered it on Amazon, through the site. I can’t wait.
Better that NY Stories. Best tryptich since Amorres Perroes.