She shred, he bled
LARS VON TRIER strikes again! As a response to a bout of depression and reportedly two months’ stay in a mental hospital, he comes up with this, basically a man (Willem Dafoe) and a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in a menacingly huge forest, a little hut, and a lot of home improvement tools just waiting to be misused.
The couple had just lost their son Nic (Storm Acheche Sahlstrom -- in an attempt I suppose of some kind of self-erasure the two main characters have no names while the boy, who appears for all of five minutes, is granted an actual moniker), who fell from an apartment window while the two were having sex in the bedroom (consider the primal scene: the boy looking at his parents coupling -- only the child seems unaffected, while the ultimate impact falls upon the couple, not the youth).
The tragedy hits her particularly hard -- she collapses at the burial, and suffers a breakdown soon after. He, being a therapist, thinks she’s being over-medicated and that he can help her better with exposure therapy (simply put, presenting her with a series of steps or challenges that help her confront her fear and break patterns of escape). He takes her to Eden, an isolated cottage in the middle of the Pacific Northwest (actually the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany) where the year before she had written a thesis on gynocide.
And so it goes. Actually, the plot barely registers -- after the fateful decision to take over her therapy himself (a decision so full of confidence bordering on arrogance you’re sure von Trier won’t let it go unpunished), the two embark on an escalating series of confrontations that make little psychological sense and even less narrative (Why does she go completely over the edge? Why take it out on him? And why, if later developments and a brief flashback are to be believed, take it out on the child, a male child?). More than any act of violence in the picture the lack of logic is infuriating, if you wish to take the whole seriously, if you insist on logic -- best just let the red herring go, sit back, relax, enjoy the ride.
It’s quite a ride, too. Once you’ve given up on the requirement that von Trier make sense (he's stopped doing so at least as far back as Breaking the Waves  -- where von Trier was in such a hurry to make his heroine suffer he short-circuits the storytelling process) there’s little to get in the way of experiencing the audiovisual feast he lays on you. Oh, I admit at times some of his artistic decisions still get to me (Why, if you’re dealing with musical fantasies in Dancer in the Dark , should the dance numbers be so wretchedly choreographed and shot? And why if you’ve spent the money and effort to build an elaborate theatrical set in Dogville , should the shots be chopped up, destroying all that carefully built space?), but here von Trier seems to be working almost unconsciously, just taking a script and putting anything and everything he can think of in it (reportedly he did this picture to prove to himself he can still make films), and the results seem -- this time, anyway -- to justify the methods. The majestic German forests have a real Brothers Grimm presence; you can believe that at any moment you will come across a gingerbread house standing in a clearing, a witch at the door, or a little hut with a wolf dressed in grandmother’s clothes, lying in bed waiting for you.
The picture doesn’t have a wolf; what it does have is a fox chewing on its own innards and declaring "Chaos reigns!" (reportedly audiences laughed at this moment, but I loved the talking lion in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ). The whole takes on the feel and texture of a fairy-tale nightmare, richly visualized and captured on hard drive by British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (he did von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay , then slummed a bit helping Danny Boyle tart up his Slumdog Millionaire). When she finally flips out and assaults him, all sense flies out the window and it’s a matter of who does what to whom first, harder. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing -- frankly, the tragedy setup felt overdone (shooting the prologue with its sex and death presented in glamorous, langorous black and white and slow motion didn’t help), and I wanted the picture to go straight to the gore. Was rooting for her, too -- she was more inventive, more vicious in her tactics.
Arguably the one element I don’t approve of is the ending (please skip this paragraph if you plan to watch the film). When he stands up and righteous resolve fills his eyes, it’s as if the Wrath of God had risen to smite fallen Eve even if she clearly doesn’t deserve it (she’s been doing an excellent job of keeping a step ahead of him). It’s as if von Trier had had enough and decided to make him win by fiat -- the best argument yet that von Trier deserves the charge of misogyny (he could at least have given her a fighting chance).
Is it a great film? Come on -- Wes Craven does this sort of thing with a hopped-up charge that’s pure exploitation, burning away any trace of pretentiousness; David Cronenberg does this with the deliberate, clinical eye of a veteran pornographer (he realizes our feelings about women’s genitals in meat form, helping give his films a solid, sculptural feel). Of the art filmmakers Takashi Miike does this with wit and speed -- no silly slow motion necessary (haven’t even started on Italian giallo, or early George Romero, or Herschell Gordon Lewis to name a few). People who feel this is the most shocking and disturbing movie they have ever seen need to watch more movies -- it’s pretty good, but not exactly hardcore.
First published on Businessworld, 9.23.10