The James Clayton Column: The Devil in the detail
James catches up with Lars von Triers's Antichrist. But do titles and BBFC certificate explanations have a habit of spoiling the surprise, he wonders...?
Woe to you, oh cinemagoer, for Antichrist has taken residence at theatres and is presumably spreading petrifying darkness onto the screen. The latest movie from eccentric Danish director Lars von Trier is not, it turns out, another tale of Damien or Devil’s spawn in the vein of The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby, but rather a rough psychological horror-drama centred about a couple played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe.
These two characters – the only characters – retreat to a forest log cabin to work on their fragile marriage but, alas, end up overwhelmed by the darkness of nature. This means severely shocking sequences of despair, depravity and several other activities suggestive of extreme psychosis. At least that’s what I know going off a few articles and reviews. If I’d have gone off the title alone, I’d be more likely to expect another film about the antithesis of Jesus. In terms of the name preparing the audience for the plot, Antichrist isn’t as accurate and instantly unambiguous as Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.
It’s true that movie titles aren’t necessarily always clear and indicative of the actual content. Heat is not about atmospheric temperature changes. Likewise, Shaft is not about a mining disaster. Is there anything deeply esoteric contained in the title of Antichrist? With an interest in the spiritual and supernatural and with my attention piqued by the scent of the dark and diabolical, I was intrigued to get further insight into Lars von Trier’s latest film.
For information, I looked to a promotional poster and, beneath the review quotes and image of Dafoe and Gainsbourg engaged in intercourse, the obligatory age rating box. Antichrist is an 18, rated so because – as spelled out on the poster – it “contains strong real sex, bloody violence and self-mutilation”. That means there are scenes of self-harm, violence brutal enough to bring bloodshed and sex that is genuine and not just a touchy-feely illusion of moviemaking trickery.
Does that make it any clearer for you? Such explicit elaboration in the age rating box says two things – come and see this if you are not of a nervous disposition and can stand scenes of self-mutilation; and come and see this if you are a sadist starved of the sort of aggressive, sordid sex action that polite society normally eschews in public. This specific detail as disseminated in the certificate info has done a remarkable service. I would have been totally lost in a nebulous world of uncertainty if the poster had simply stated “18” and left it there. With the extra reasoning behind the rating I know what I’m letting myself in for – and knowledge is power.
So, here’s a hypothetical scenario. You’ve been entrusted with your sweet, naïve nephew and niece one afternoon and you decide that a cinema trip is in order (because if you take them to the park they could get dirty or trip up and land on broken glass or a discarded syringe). Upon arrival at the box office, how are you to know which movie is the most appropriate to see? Should you take the sprogs to see Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince or Antichrist? Thankfully, the age classification and content clarification kindly provided by the BBFC enables concerned adults to make a responsible, well-founded choice. The boy wizard’s latest outing has been branded 12A by the BBFC whose website reports that the film “contains moderate threat”. We can’t have the littl’uns feeling threatened. Antichrist it is kids…
It’s all very well offering cautionary insight in the classification information, but does the detail seen in the case of Antichrist have a detrimental effect on the experience of going to the cinema? Forewarned is forearmed maybe, but I can’t help but feel that flagging up outstanding material ruins the fun a little. What if you like surprises or aren’t the kind of person who requires at least five positive recommendations from credible sources and a health and safety check before making the most trivial of decisions?
Admittedly, the advice provided on the poster pretty much guarantees that there will be no unfortunate first dates being organised to incorporate a viewing of Antichrist. Remembering how Travis Bickle unwisely took Betsy to see a Swedish sexploitation reel in Taxi Driver provides reasonable justification for the full “strong real sex, bloody violence and self-mutilation” specification here. The seeds of so many sweet high school romances could potentially choke and perish purely because young couples make a bad choice at the box office. I imagine it’s hard to break the ice and build up nerve for your first kiss when von Trier’s trip of terror, sex and self-harm provides the backdrop.
Despite this, I find it a bit sad that few people are now going to emerge from a screening of Antichrist gasping, “By Lucifer! I never expected to see real, proper sex and acts of self-mutilation! I can’t believe it!” Instead, a great number of spectators will be sitting on edge right from the first frame, anxiously awaiting the promised outbreaks of obscene perversity, pain and passion. They know it’s coming, and so spend the entire movie distracted and dogged by anticipatory anxiety.
Getting so specific in the age certificate explanation is also pretty spoilerific (warning – spoilers follow). Imagine if Oldboy and The Exorcist – to take two prominent examples of edgy, controversy-causing films – had been given the crystal-clear classification treatment received by Antichrist. The ability of these movies to unnerve and astonish the audience would have been completely diminished had the poster pointed out that the film “contains skin-crawling ant nightmares and the consumption of a live eel” or “contains 360º head-turning, projectile vomiting and hardcore masturbation with the aid of a crucifix”.
Where do you draw the line? We’re in danger here not only of clogging up film posters with a lot of ugly unnecessary text, but also of damaging the potential power of a motion picture to shock, frighten and seriously freak out the unprepared audience. I’d have been more relieved to find a tag affirming that “no actors were harmed in the making of this movie (physically, mentally and spiritually)” on the Antichrist poster than the revelatory age rating info. Counter to what classification bodies and moral guardians think, I’d say that surprise and unexpected spectacle appeal to audiences. In order to ensure earth-shattering movie moments are experienced, excess description can go to the Devil.
James’ previous column can be found here.