Female Trouble

Photo: Christian Geisnaes/Courtesy of IFC Films

Props to Lars von Trier for managing to revive an idea that Judeo-Christian teaching, the Enlightenment, and feminism have helped us to suppress: that misogyny is a sound religious position. In his latest cinematic mugging, cheekily titled Antichrist, the baleful Dane confines a man, He (Willem Dafoe), and a woman, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), to a cabin deep in the woods (it’s called “Eden”). There, He attempts to heal She’s psychic wounds with that most paternalistic of tools: psychotherapy. Don’t run away from your pain, he says gently. Let it out. This goes on for some time (the film is divided into four “chapters”), with He laying Freudian hands on She, She mocking Freud, and Von Trier serving up horror-movie visions like the talking fox that announces, “Chaos reigns.” Since the film begins with the couple having (hard-core) sex while their toddler toddles out the window (in lyrical slow-motion, his stuffed animal bouncing and coming to rest beside his dead body), it’s tough to care about either of these self-centered people, the psychobabbling prat or the bad, slutty mother. It’s only in the last chapter—when She plunges a butcher knife into his crotch and He realizes what his therapeutic plumbing has loosed upon the world—that the movie’s true monster (and faith) is revealed.

Von Trier has said he made Antichrist after a depression, and for all its artiness, it’s revealing: It should clear up any doubts about his attitude toward the fair sex. It’s true that in most of his movies women are punished unjustly, even martyred, but it’s hard to shake off the feeling that he digs putting his female characters (and the actresses who play them) through the wringer. They might believe they’re innocent. They might not mean to be demonic. It’s just their nature—or, more precisely, their connection to what Camille Paglia calls “chthonian Nature” in all its wild, primal force. (Paglia celebrates the chthonian goddess; Von Trier gravitates toward burning her.)

Should you see Antichrist? It’s good for a few bad laughs, but you have to be up for a castration, a clitoridectomy, and a lot of symbolism. You have to be up for watching Dafoe and Gainsbourg—the latest in a line of masochistic stars to submit to this high priest of cinema and film-festival darling—humiliate themselves. Von Trier has said he wanted to make a genre horror picture, but he couldn’t even come up with a decent metaphor: The climax is out of a Grade C hack-’em-up with people chasing each other through the woods with axes and knives. David Cronenberg explored a similar theme in The Brood, in which a male psychiatrist’s est-like exhortation to a woman to “go all the way through” her trauma produces not inner peace but deformed psychotic babies that hammer people she doesn’t like to death. Now, that’s entertainment!

There is one poignant aspect of Antichrist. He pleads with She not to blame herself for the death of their son, but it turns out that it was her fault, that mothers can be creatures of chill, narcissistic indifference. When Von Trier appeared via a teleconferencing link at a New York Film Festival press screening (he’s also travel-phobic), a questioner expressed skepticism that any mother could be so cold. “You didn’t know my mother,” the director replied. I liked him at that moment. He looked quasi-human.

Unlike von Trier, Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) makes gross-out Freudian body-horror movies full of tender sympathy. The world of the flesh is icky but, oh, the spirit soars—on even the tackiest wings. Gentlemen Broncos is the atrocious title of an enchantingly freakish comedy that centers on Benjamin (Michael Angarano), a teen who writes Dune-like sci-fi tomes (The Yeast Lords) in which he sublimates like mad to relieve his sexual discomfort. No, Hess doesn’t spell it out, but by the third or fourth time Benjamin’s fictional hero (Sam Rockwell)—in garish, Pop Art fantasy sequences—loses his gonads and faces off against giant, laser-blasting mammaries, he doesn’t really need to. There’s enough weird breast imagery in this movie to make Robert Crumb murmur, “This guy’s got issues.”

Angarano’s Benjamin moves through the world on the verge of tears, looking as if he wanted to will his body out of existence. I’ve never seen a teen hero so stricken, but then, everyone in Hess’s movies appears to be suffering from some unspecified gastrointestinal distress. Gentlemen Broncos is best when Hess doesn’t force the grotesquerie but casually lets you observe. There’s a bit when bodice-ripper writer Tabitha (Halley Feiffer, a whiz with deadpan) squirts lotion all over her hand and asks an aghast Benjamin to rub it in, as her rictus-faced friend Lonnie (Héctor Jiménez) leans into her ear issuing moose calls and crunching potato chips; David Lynch would murmur, “This guy’s got issues.”

The best part is Jemaine Clement as Benjamin’s grandiose genre hero, Dr. Ronald Chevalier. Even if you love him on Flight of the Conchords, you’ll be unprepared for his genius—and charisma. Gazing on his young fans, he intones, “So many juvenescent, ripe minds,” looking and sounding under his dark, heavy beard like James Mason’s Captain Nemo on the verge of a titanic belch.

The high-toned Amelia Earhart biopic, Amelia, is told in flashbacks as the famed aviator (Hilary Swank) makes her doomed flight around the world, and it’s all so glancing and superficial that the movie doesn’t seem to have a present tense. It goes by like coming attractions. It is, however, a treasury of bad biopic dialogue. When Earhart passes over giraffes in Africa, she marvels, “Look how free they are … No schedules to keep!”—which is, of course, the problem with her life on Earth, where her alpha-capitalist older husband (Richard Gere) compels her to endorse luggage and cigarettes. When Amelia can’t decide what to do about her adulterous love for Gene Vidal (Gore’s dad, played by Ewan McGregor), he says, “Just ask yourself,” and Amelia says (I’m not making this up), “I’m not sure who that is anymore.”

Swank has certainly transformed herself. Either her teeth have been artificially enlarged to resemble Earhart’s or she has lost too much weight: There’s nothing left but cheekbones and choppers. In her best performances, Swank has a gift for pulling you into her characters’ heads, for making their dreams almost tactile. But she needs a director who can give her something real to play off. Kathryn Bigelow might have lightly fetishized the planes so that you felt in your bones why Earhart had to put herself in the cockpit. Mira Nair, on the other hand, has no point of view that I could detect. This is a movie about a free spirit made by people on a tight schedule.

See Also
A Squeamish Person’s Guide to Seeing Antichrist
Lars von Trier Reviews His Reviews
The Ten Most Brutalized Wangs in Movie History

Directed by Lars von Trier.
IFC Films. NR.

Gentlemen Broncos
Directed by Jared Hess.
Fox Searchlight Pictures. PG-13.

Directed by Mira Nair.
Fox Searchlight Pictures. PG.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Female Trouble