There are always films that people can’t stop talking about long before a festival begins. At this year’s New York Film Festival, Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (screening this weekend) has such an honor. After a packed showing at Cannes that shut out many members of the press, those who saw it couldn’t stop talking and blogging about how, well, revolting it is.
Von Trier’s gruesome flick is a visually stunning but emotionally vapid tale of a self-absorbed therapist (Willem Dafoe) who brings his distraught wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to a cabin in the country to help her get over the death of their young son and confront her fears. He fails miserably and instead unleashes some kind of demon (there are many ways to read the religious implications and the title that Von Trier took from Nietzsche’s classic but never read) that wants to kill him, setting into motion a perplexing series of violent events.
Once some of the shock value subsides, what’s left is pretty interesting. Von Trier has stated publicly that he started writing the film in the throes of a deep depression (one he’s still dealing with), and it can be seen in every frame of Antichrist, which at its core is about two people trapped in a dark place who desperately want to get out but can’t. It’s an allegory for depression, but avoids falling into a dramatic black hole (so many of his predecessors haven’t been so lucky when tackling that subject) by basing the film in action not contemplation, and setting his characters (known only as “He” and “She”) loose on each other.
Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) and Chris (Lars Eldinger) have the perfect relationship on the surface in Maren Ade‘s excellent drama Everyone Else (screening Sunday and Monday) that’s reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1973) in its well-observed depiction of a real relationship that seamlessly blends awkwardness, sadness, and ambivalence with passion and joy.
The film opens during a summer gateway at Chris’ family vacation house. His sister has brought her kids, and at first glance, it’s almost a European approximation of a Norman Rockwell portrait albeit a little darker — while lounging by the pool, Gitti teaches her boyfriend’s niece phrases like “I detest you” that the child embraces with relish, and they become her new favorite words. This interaction hints that Gitti (while a schoolteacher) isn’t quite ready for any kids of her own, which is cool with Chris who is drawn to her outspoken nature.
As an aspiring architect, he’s focused on a different sort of creation, but despite his prestigious education and awards, can’t manage to turn his blueprints into buildings. This ambivalence seeps into his relationship. When he tells Gitti he’s worried that he’s not masculine enough for her, she laughs it off as an absurd aside, but it’s the first time we feel there’s something a little off. This feeling increases as Chris gets closer to completing his first building. Ade’s beautifully realized scenes never hit a false note and slowly increase in intensity until the delightfully offbeat yet melancholy ending.
All of Todd Solondz’ characters are hopelessly fucked in Life During Wartime (screening Oct. 10 and 11), a loose sequal to Happiness (1998) — the cast is completely different, and it takes place eight or so years later when the pedophile patriarch (Bill Maplewood) is released from prison just in time for his youngest son, Timmy’s Bar Mitzvah — so there’s no expectation of a happy ending. This allows us to laugh relatively guilt-free at situations that would normally make us cringe with disgust, a hallmark of Solondz’ films that has served him well with Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) and Storytelling (2001) among others.
There are plenty of dark laughs in Wartime, which has nothing to do with war save for a few offhand remarks, including when Trish (Allison Janney) tells her son Timmy (Dylan Snyder) she got “wet” in an attempt to explain her date that night. Janney imbues Trish with an earnestness that enhances the hilarity of these moments. With the Bar Mitzvah as the framing event, Solondz’ shows us glimpses of Trish’s sisters (Helen’s a completely narcissistic actress while Joy is an aging waif who’s haunted by her past lovers) and her new love, Harvey (Michael Lerner), who while not being a pedophile like her ex-husband, is about as exciting as a piece of stale melba toast.
Ultimately, it’s an examination of what becoming a man (or woman) really means, but instead of satisfying revelations all we get are very bleak endings that wreak of deus ex machina. Still, there’s a lot of insane merriment that’s worth a view. (Note: It took home Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival.) As an added bonus, it screens with Socarrat, a funny, offbeat Spanish short about a day in the life of a very dysfunctional family.