How Very Dare He

By Owen Armstrong

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Sparking some of the most vitriolic and divided debate in recent years, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist has quickly become a moral fulcrum for critics and journalists alike. While some have dutifully and respectfully considered the film’s artistic pretensions, others have used it as a conduit through which to question the responsibility of censors – an argument that will more often than not be peppered with the reviewers own very personal rage.

It is almost surprising how willingly many reviewers have wandered into the critical minefield of Antichrist, yielding one by one the opportunity to offer some kind of useful rational observation. Instead, we’ve been gifted with what, at times, amounts to genuine comedy gold. One such concerned critic was Bryan Appleyard of The Sunday Times who asks simply whether or not Antichrist should be banned – and thank heavens the right man was sent to decide. The crux of Appleyard’s tirade is certainly his preoccupation with censorship in which he covers some very familiar ground – criticism of the BBFC, the free availability of violent material on the Internet, the fact that in time none of these concerns will matter etc.... Painting quite the picture of himself, he mentions that having to endure the film left him so incensed that he was on the verge of throwing two bottles of wine into the window of Oddbins, and what an awful situation to find yourself in.

It’s fairly clear from the outset that Appleyard has no interest in Von Trier, or his film, and continues on into an unrelenting wash of anger and disdain. As well as giving the impression that lurking within Antichrist is something inherently evil, he’s also accused Von Trier of inflicting on us an act of such self-indulgence that it cannot be considered art. This raises a few questions.

What exactly is self-indulgence if not publicly condemning a filmmaker through what amounts to nothing more than conjecture? Furthermore, what is art if not self-indulgence? The very idea that a particular individual should take credit for something profound, or less, merely proclaiming something – essentially an opinion – is that not an indulgence? Are we not all guilty of this, and to what extent is it something to be guilty for? Of course it’s self-indulgent, and one would hope so.

There’s also the odd dedication to Von Trier’s cast, who we are led to believe have been dragged through hell and back in the name of art. As if the idea weren’t bizarre enough, neither Willem Dafoe nor Charlotte Gainsbourg have issued any such complaint. So what exactly are we supposed to make of people that are overpaid, whining about how difficult it is to star in a film? Appleyard references Bjork’s summation that working on Dancer in the Dark was outright ‘soul robbery’, but the fact that she gave a magnetic central performance and was most likely paid above minimum wage, leaves little to sympathise with.

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Appleyard concludes that Von Trier has truly duped anyone that finds themselves sat watching Antichrist, vying with whatever it is that it is ‘doing’. But it isn’t just the ‘suckers in the art-house crowd’ that fell for it; it’s everybody that gives too much credence to the furore that Antichrist seems to incite. Beyond seeing it, the responsibility is no longer Von Trier’s and this is reflected quite clearly in the wildly varying opinions that have clung to his film. In a Q & A following an early London preview of the film, one audience member stood up and asked “Lars, why do you hate women so much?” – another overarching sentiment that has followed Von Trier, and this fairly well sums up the distorted way in which people have approached him and his work. Is it not more a statement than a question? It seems likely that the person who asked this has already decided that Von Trier hates women, and has opted to confront him with knives at the ready. How exactly was he supposed to answer this? He is no longer justifying the fact that he made a film, he now has to justify why he clearly hates women. After a moment’s thought, he conjures an appropriately incredible answer: Hating women is like hating elephants. Some elephants are idiots, and some aren’t”. Quite right.

Definitely the most fantastic thing to come out of anything to do with Antichrist though has to be Christopher Hart’s piece for the Daily Mail. Briefly entitled What Does it Take for a Film to Get Banned These Days?, Hart cuts straight through the matter, mining the depths of his own despair so we don’t have to. Of course, it wouldn’t be the Daily Mail if it weren’t blaming the gross irresponsibility of someone else; parents, censors, the Middle-East etc… but the real thrust of Hart writing is that in a world as mutilated as ours, we don’t even need to see a piece of art to reprehend it. When the risks are as high as Hart would have you believe, why see anything? Despite having omitted to watch the film, Hart has been able to produce 1500 words or so of some surprisingly creative writing, the content of which reveals that he is not a man to suffer fools, or anything at all gladly.

It does seem strange how comfortable Hart is in so explicitly attacking BBFC President Quentin Thomas for not doing his job, or rather not doing what he is paid to do, when Hart himself has failed to fulfil the most fundamental task of a critic. I suppose we are to take it that Von Trier has created something so repulsive in concept that it rendered the journalist incapable of working – sadly though, not quite rendering him lost for words. Maybe this is all too cynical though, perhaps we should admire Hart’s ardent conviction and dedication to such a strict set of moral principles. He is after all, merely safeguarding the delicate sensibilities of adults and children alike, as well as forewarning us of the apparently very real threat that Antichrist poses once it is released on DVD – or something to that effect, I wasn’t really paying attention.

Sadly, Hart’s savage release does lose a touch of its incredible self-righteousness in at once proclaiming himself the ‘broad-minded arts critic, libertarian in tendency’, and yet still a victim of the ‘hesitant fumbling, comfortably cushioned, value-free Leftish elite that now govern us’. There really is no way of critiquing the hypocrisy that penetrates Hart’s ‘review’ that isn’t already scrawling all over its readers face. In the man’s own ridiculous words:

‘If I were to see Antichrist, I don’t believe for a moment that it would incite me into copycat violent behaviour or make me a danger to others. But it would poison my mind and imagination, with explicit, ferocious scenes of sexual violence that would stay with me forever.’

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Clearly undeterred by accidentally having read some of his own words, Hart forges ahead with more meaningless platitudes about the state of cinema, and how by extension, the EU are at fault for funding such an atrocity with his, and our, taxpayers money. The real cherry on this odious little sundae though, has to be Hart’s deduction that Antichrist has confirmed his worst fears regarding Europe (!) – that Antichrist confirms ‘our jihadist enemies’ view of us as a society in the last stages of corruption and decay’. This is exactly the sort of conviction we need on the front line.

In opposition – because he actually saw the film – The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw is wise to Von Trier’s tricks. To be fair, a definite attempt has been made to provide a reasonable response to a difficult film, but it doesn’t come without the smug whiff of having seen it all before. Rather than attempting to receive Antichrist on its own merit, Bradshaw is – like many others - bemused by the reputation that precedes both director and film, reinforcing Von Trier’s tired moniker as cinema’s enfant terrible. Not to make the man sound like a child, but perhaps he would stop behaving as such if he weren’t encouraged – is it totally inconceivable that as opposed to having the last laugh, he may just have made a film that doesn’t work? Somehow though, Von Trier has been granted the unique situation of perpetually being the focus of his work and can always rely on the attention of those that gather clamouring at his every utterance. He may as well have just suggested the idea of Antichrist, not bothered making it, and left it at that.

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So on one hand, critics are in dismay, desperately trying to have said the right thing and to at least appear to have taken some moral responsibility in the face of the apparently unruly liberal swill that swamps our artistic conscience. And then there are those, equally lost, that have spent their time second guessing the intentions of Von Trier with a kind of nervous uncertainty, characterising him as a mischievous cackling intellect conducting some elaborate rouse. It all smacks of one of the final scenes of Nathan Barley, Charlie Brooker’s too-close-for-comfort take on the media’s desperate fascination with the absurd. After having had beer poured over him, and his bespoke suit, a bewildered TV producer stands in the middle of a crowded pub whimpering ‘…are you guys the crew? Are we all in this? Am I the centre of something here? Is something brilliant happening?’ Literally, no one knows. Admittedly a little far-fetched, but true nonetheless, this quizzical proclamation has underpinned much of the conjecture that Antichrist has stirred up.

If nothing else, Antichrist explores the notion that until a piece of art enters the critical sphere, it is incomplete. This is not to say that what someone creates isn’t art until it is critically received, but on any level the simple act of interpretation is what completes the work. We know this because it is only after we witness something, that we begin to understand it through the conduit of our own experiences. This is also where Antichrist has, and will continue to befuddle critics and audiences. Von Trier’s reluctance to explain himself has meant that whether in outrage or knowingly deconstructing the joke, its reception has generated a polemic of its own – a possibly perfect piece of ephemeral art. While critics scramble to justify and make sense of all this madness, Von Trier remains at least moderately happy with a piece of work that he admits did not turn out exactly as he had hoped, and he will doubtless continue on with whatever his next project may be. Luckily, Appleyard has not been arrested for breaking windows and lives to write another day, but at least now we know the identity of the man loitering outside Oddbins.

Owen Armstrong is a projectionist and manager. He lives in London.