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Cannes Dispatch, 2009: Part Two: An online exclusive

An online exclusive

Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lars von Trier's Antichrist


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

By Patrick Z. McGavin


In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov’s confidante Razumikhin remarks that lying is the most natural and elevated actions of behavior, and that it inflects every facet of human consciousness. At the midpoint of this year's festival, the two best narrative films are dialectical opposites — one about a criminal, the other a policeman — that provide sharp, pungent exploration of man and his discontents.

Jacques Audiard's fourth feature, A Prophet, is the standout of the competition. The gifted French director is a specialist in the criminal underworld (Read My Lips, The Beat That My Heart Skipped), and he’s made a long, engrossing and satisfying work that utilizes its full 150-minute running time to construct its own world.

With narrative finesse and a tense visual style, Audiard charts the evolution of a minor criminal from his insignificant origins to a kingmaker during his six-year stretch in prison. The movie stars the formidable newcomer Tahrar Rahmin as the young French-Arab hustler who slowly and methodically transforms himself into a man of distinction through his quickness, agility and willingness to do whatever is necessary.

The story surrounds an act of betrayal and the young man's quickly honed sense of survival. By befriending and killing a turncoat Arab, he quickly insinuates himself into the highly ritualized world of the powerful Corsican leader (a stunning Niels Arestrup) who controls the various power mechanisms within the prison. Audiard's forensic detailing of the prison culture — its ethnic and racial stratification, its negotiation for power and control — achieves a chilling observational power that sharpens the dramatic tension.

The filmmaking is sensational. Audiard is working on a vast canvas, but he uses the full command of the medium — including freeze frames that identify the significant players, freeze frames and text (like “Eyes and Ears”) — to denote the young man’s awakening. Audiard seizes on a single, fixed shot of an airplane wing floating through the air that marks his reversal of fortune — the image is potent, lyrical and tough without sentimentalizing the protagonist.

Police, Adjective is the second feature of the equally gifted Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu. It’s a rigorous, complex and beautiful film that also burrows into the underside of the criminal activity, this time concentrating on a young, ambitious police officer who becomes deeply conflicted over his role in trying to uncover a small-time drug circle in a dreary Romanian village.

The movie has Bressonian purity: On three different occasions Porumboiu refers directly to the police officer’s notes on his stakeout of two teenage boys and a girl. The officer is trying to determine the source for the kids’ hash supply, but he also believes the stringent drug offences are far too punitive and disproportionate to the crimes committed. His moral ambiguity and rumination on power, reason and conscience and how it impacts his job performance become another darkly comic rendition of a country trying to find its soul and identity after the Cold War.

Early in the film there is a tense, hilarious exchange about different European cities that is filled with pauses and ironic disquisition worthy of Pinter. The sharp dialogue is handled by a series of top performers. This is just the most recent in a string of top-notch works by an emerging Romanian New Wave.

Antichrist, a sex and death parable by the Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, debuted to the press Sunday night, followed by a startled public on Monday. Another of his abject lessons on sin and suffering, the film is structured in four chapters, complete with a prologue and epilogue. The story concerns the annihilating games and shifting identities between a married couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the aftermath of the death of their son.

Seeking sanctuary in their Eden — a cabin located deep in an otherwise uninhabitable forest — the couple prove wholly unable to distinguish between grief and absolution, directing appalling violence against each other, including the most repulsive and repellant act of self-mutilation (shot in oppressive close up) I’ve ever seen.

Von Trier and his excellent cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle certainly have a talent for haunting and chilling imagery, particularly a dreamy, abstract sequence of Ginsburg’s character literally changing shape and color as she’s buried in the ground. The story is a cruel appropriation of Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Back (a point von Trier acknowledges by naming the dead child Nic) but the psycho-sexual game-playing and meditations on nature and evil are upstaged by the gruesome acts of violence.

Perhaps I’ve become inured to von Trier’s provocations, though I found Antichrist neither an assault on humanity, nor art, nor a particularly effective or interesting movie. Dafoe and Gainsbourg are fearless, go-for broke actors, and they give the material an emotional desperation and intensity it never deserves. The press screenings ended in a chorus of boos; the public screening I attended was actually well received — or at least the crowed was comprised of von Trier’s partisans.

With Antichrist, that number is getting smaller and smaller.




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