Lars von Trier - A Visual Appreciation Of Haunted Beauty
Say what you will about Denmark's purveyor of doom, Lars von Trier. To many he is a overly self indulgent pessimist whose films defy you to be entertained. To others (like us at The October Country) he is a overly self indulgent pessimist who not only entertains, but moves, wows and stuns time and time again with his deeply personal works of art. Trier has dabbled in the horror genre sporadically (though it is arguable that films like 2003's Dogville isn't itself a horror film, being as it is one of the most horrifying, grim films I've ever had the pleasure to sit through) with films like Antichrist, the upcoming Melancholia (of which he famously pronounced "no more happy endings") and the should-be classic miniseries The Kingdom (aka Riget) 1 and 2.
I first encountered this unique visionary's style (which I am about to extol) in the aforementioned miniseries. Specifically, his visual style. No, not the yellow-tinted monochrome cinematography that is found in nearly his entire body of work, but rather two instances of specific, haunted atmosphere found in the the opening prologue of The Kingdom (which runs before the beginning of each episode) and throughout the entirety of Antichrist. Upon first viewing The Kingdom, I was absolutely taken aback at the sheer stunning visual power of the opening 2 minutes. I had never seen anything so simultaneously mesmerizing, beautiful and downright eerie. It was as if the most sinister painting ever committed to canvas had come to breathtaking life on my television screen. Upon it's conclusion (and unfortunately right where it's opening credits begin, which have got to be the cheesiest credits ever attached to, well anything, Danish or otherwise) I immediately rewound my videocassette and re-watched the prologue over again, and over and over. 265 minutes later, I was heartbroken that never again (save the reoccurring opening) did this instance of visual power reaffirm itself anywhere in The Kingdom's proceedings. Don't get me wrong, The Kingdom is beautifully shot, and the previously mentioned yellow-tinted monochrome cinematography casts a more than effective spell over the viewer. It just was nothing like those opening 2 minutes which I just could not cleanse from my consciousness. I wanted an entire movie shot with such style.
Flash forward 15 years and I am sitting at my computer as the trailer for his (then) newest film Antichrist is buffering. I was excited about many things in regards to my anticipation to view it. The film had recently played Cannes and ended up coming away as one of the most divisive movies in the festival's history (always a good sign in my book, as I have a healthy appreciation for any film that makes such a bold statement as to render it either immediately hate-able or love-able with no middle ground in between). "Brutal", "perverse", and "a grueling, unpleasant exercise in cinematic sadism" were among some of the nicer things said about it (good, "I like a challenge" I thought). The film's story functions as an inverse of the Biblical creation story read one interpretation (hmmm, "ballsy" I further opined). Then, the trailer finished loading and I anxiously clicked play, and there, it was. The same visual motifs, epitomized, that I fell deeply, madly in love with 15 years prior when watching The Kingdom; the slow motion crawl of characters slinking throughout landscapes of fog enshrouded menace. It was the same motifs, the same aesthetic, the same atmosphere only now, it was being used in a feature film and by the looks of it, used much more often. Goosebumps instantly raised along my flesh. My husband was present during this viewing and I'm certain that my prattling on about Trier revisiting the style he so briefly used in The Kingdom led me to force my spouse to park it and watch that miniseries so as to gain a deeper understanding of what it was I was getting so riled up about (he ended up loving it, natch, and we are still making our way through it's sequel)Yes, that's life with an obsessive horror enthusiast.
Only a few months down the line, I faltered in my excitement for the film. Further details were emerging about the plot and many of them were giving me pause (no, not the genital mutilation). Apparently Antichrist, (who's trailer left much to the imagination) was really about a grieving mother's struggle to battle a severe anxiety/panic disorder. Okay, truth (and a brief story of how one thing led to quite another): I was 3 years into forging my own battle with anxiety. Up to that point, nothing in my life had been harder, or seemingly hopeless, than that battle. In a short period of time this disorder had invaded my being and completely hollowed me out, leaving me utterly unable to recognize myself within months. I wasn't able to hold down a job. I was just barely able to wed my spouse Daniel in Canada (our "honeymoon", as it were, was spent largely with me curled up fetal on a mattress or trying to not claw my skin away or pull my hair out while intoning about how I felt as though I were "entombed" due to the frigid temperature of the Canadian winter and even more nonsensical ramblings). Things got to the point where I was unable to leave the city we lived in. Yet in some cases I was unable to stay home, dragging my husband out of bed at 3am to aimlessly walk about the city until the anxiety has lessened. Though that was the thing, it never lessened. It rode sidesaddle every day. If not swallowing me whole in a full-blown panic attack, then licking it's lips in between them, letting me know that it was there and that it wasn't leaving. I eventually began to crack under the stress of having this constant threat (whose presence was physically felt in what it was doing to my body, cold sweats, anxiousness, racing heart and a dozen other things that are difficult to describe) looming over my head on a daily basis. Things that I knew were symptoms of my overextended, burdened mind, notions to crazy to be real (a "smiling', demonic face in the crumpled folds of the blanket at the foot of my bed, a sky that felt ever threatening no matter what the forecast) were beginning to take hold. I never once believed in these things, thankfully, but the very idea of them was too much for me to bear. With all my everyday energy spent fending off the next debilitating panic attack, my mind was becoming weaker and weaker in other areas as a result leaving me more susceptible to falling prey to insane notions like the ones mentioned above. It was a very dark time in my life, to say the least. So into this comes to the details of what Antichrist was about: anxiety.
Upon learning this, I wasn't so sure that I wanted to watch it any longer, let alone could watch it. Oftentimes, just talking about my anxiety disorder left my feeling as though I was bringing an attack on. So, to watch a woman's panic disorder realistically dramatized on screen in what was now surely going to be a excruciating exercise in art house excess seemed unthinkable. But like I said earlier, I like a challenge and whatever my anxiety disorder had twisted me into, I was still a rabid horror film fan buried beneath it all. I was determined to hold onto that defining aspect of myself. So, we watched it. My reaction? Not what you would expect. Hell, it wasn't what I was expecting. I'm certain I'm one of the few living, breathing people who viewed Lars von Trier's Antichrist and after walking away from all its gloom, all it's despair, physical violence and pessimistic hopelessness, walked away uplifted, Yes, I said uplifted. I had never to that point experienced anything (conversation, film, book, personal accounts etc.) during my struggle with anxiety that perfectly captured what it was like to be lost in this mire of one's own psychological hell. It was all there on screen. Nearly everything Charlotte Gainsbourg's character experiences is something that I've dealt with extensively for years (minus the climatic violence). It was the ultimate affirmation that I was not alone and as it turns out, I did need to see it dramatized. When the movie ended (after my husband asked me a dozen or so times throughout if I was "doing okay" with the content) I sat there silent. Then I began to cry. But they were tears of joy. I realized that Antichrist has just acted as an enormous tool of catharsis and that those tears, they were because I was grateful for it. Like I said earlier, I think the cheese might stand alone on this one. I realized that my deeply personal experience with the film is probably mine and mine alone (insomuch that I'll probably never meet at least, another person who felt the same way about it).
Having said all of that, there is still Trier's achingly beautiful imagery to contend with. If it was walking about like one of the film's Three Beggars, I'd probably shoot it and mount it on my wall. Actually, that's precisely what I wanted to do the moment I feasted my eyes upon it. As with The Kingdom, the imagery is slowed down enough that it's not hard to imagine it framed and hanging in one's home, resembling (with the aid of the slow motion) as it does photography or paintings already. So, after the initial hurdle of actually sitting down to watch Antichrist was cleared, was the visual sumptuousness that had me initially excited, everything I hoped it would be? You betcha, and then some. So now, I would like to extend a heartfelt thanks to Lar von Trier. First, for the visual poetry that you have brought to the realm of the horror genre and secondly, and most importantly, for that night of catharsis you provided me. It was a turning point for me, and amidst all the chaos, grief, pain and despair that I had been living in for 3 years, no words can ever express in the confines of this article how immense it was to have a turning point at all.
So, it is with this that I tip my hat and honor some of his stunning work below.
"For it is as if the cold and damp have returned. Tiny signs of fatigue are appearing in the solid, modern edifice."
"Imagine you are at Eden. Imagine you arrive at Eden through the woods."
"The ground is burning."
"It's evening. Almost no birds can be heard. The water is running without a sound. Darkness comes early down here. I walk into it."
"The acorns fell on the roof then too and I they kept falling and falling and dying and dying. I understood that everything that once was beautiful of Eden, was perhaps hideous. Now I can hear what I couldn't hear before. The cry of all things that are to die."
"Nature is Satan's church."