She’s Such a Charlotte!
Published November 3, 2010
CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG IN ANTICHRIST. FILM STILL COURTESY OF IFC FILMS.
The Criterion edition of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is coming out next Tuesday. You’ll of course remember the film as the one where Charlotte Gainsbourg goes on a trip to a forest retreat and tears into Willem Dafoe with scissors and torture implements; the one that got von Trier booed at Cannes; that spurred U.S. critics to new depths of boredom and revulsion. Slate‘s review, which urged viewers to stop watching “when the box of rusty tools gets hauled out,” was titled “Game Over: Why I’ll never watch another Lars von Trier movie.”
After the nonstop swirl of buzz that is Cannes, Antichrist might have gotten a raw deal. But could a film singled out for archival by Criterion be that bad? Incidentally, Sex and the City 2 was just released to Blu-Ray disc—the technology will last you forever! Perhaps the coincidence is fortuitous, and Carrie Bradshaw’s trip to the desert can tease out some lessons from Charlotte Gainsbourg’s journey into the woods.Both films begin with a harbinger of what’s to come: Antichrist‘s alienating “opening credits,” in which the atteribution to the cast is replaced by the vaunted words “Lars von Trier” written on a smeared chalkboard; Sex and the City 2‘s too-camp-for-camp gay wedding with Liza Minnelli performing Beyoncé. Sex and the City 2 absorbed its sharpest criticism for its insane decision to move its action to another city—uh, Abu Dhabi, a place to which the fearsome foursome’s sensibilities did not soon adapt. Suddenly, the girls were throwing around condoms in public squares and making gay jokes about one of their hotel-appointed butlers—never mind that homosexuality is punishable by death according to the United Arab Emirates’ federal penal code! The insensitivity, both to the Arab world and to the series’s history of relative albeit aspirationa; realism, got a lot of attention at the time; but once the sound and fury’s ended, the subtleties loom huge.
What’s the oddest thing about Sex and the City 2, perhaps, is its commitment to hammering home the deleterious effects of female aging—both biological and psychological. Kristin Davis’s Charlotte, for instance, suffers a near-breakdown when her daughter smears jam on her dress and develops a paranoid obsession with her nanny’s breasts. This hasn’t suddenly come to seem rational and sane since May, nor has Kim Cattrall’s Samantha’s announcement that she smears yams on her vagina grown more charming. With time to settle, Sex and the City 2 looks all the more like the work of someone who misunderstands women—at least enough to turn four characters who used to have some measure of nuance into shallow, unlikable clowns.
SARAH JESSICA PARKER IN SEX AND THE CITY 2. FILM STILL COURTESY OF WARNER BROS.
Von Trier has tense relations with women, and men too, which we knew before Antichrist—no one has forgotten the treatment Emily Watson’s character receives in Breaking the Waves, or Björk’s in Dancer in the Dark, or Nicole Kidman’s in Dogville—but this film has its moments of grandeur. Perhaps upon its release, its shots of the central couple’s grimy farm or of hyper-explicit sex seemed unnecessary, but, viewed in conjunction with the fake grandeur of the Disneyland souk and Cattrall’s shrieking, what’s good seems much better.
In one of Antichrist‘s early scenes, a toothbrush falls from a shelf and ripples the flesh of Gainsbourg’s arm. It’s realer than any sex I’d seen on film in recent memory. This alone justifies Antichrist—it’s honest about at least our bodies. I didn’t mind, though, leaving the final 20 minutes, with its ravages, as a bonus feature to be watched some day in the future.