Antichrist: Let it not be said that I prefer to ease my way into things. For my first screening on my first day at the Toronto International Film Festival, I dived right into Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, the hound from hell that has polarized viewers since its cause célèbre debut in Cannes. As usual with overhyped shockers, the Rite of Spring promised turns out to be closer to ominous Muzak. Still, filled with psychosexual wounds and scored to a cacophony of growls and moans, it’s a bravura jumble of concentrated bad vibes. Flower vases hold primordial slime, CGI critters warn about doom, cocks ejaculate blood. As if taunting his critics, von Trier’s horrific-wacky tale of a grieving nameless couple (Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg) alone with their fears in a woods cabin evokes not just misogyny, but medieval misogyny. As with Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, there’s no anchor to the cataract of malevolent images other than the director’s own crawling neuroses. Gainsbourg’s mutilating succubus is far preferable to von Trier’s usual brand of suffering maidens though.
Bright Star: At the opposite pole from von Trier’s raging therapy session lies Jane Campion’s delicate period embroidery. Staying in the realm of 19th-century poets after having played a snippy version of Rimbaud in I’m Not There, Ben Whishaw offers an appropriately pallid John Keats, a penniless artiste alternating between brainstorming odes to beauty and bouts of tubercular cough. The film traces his final years with his beloved Fanny Brawne (a gracefully passionate Abbie Cornish), a young society woman who quickly takes center stage as the latest of Campion’s individualist heroines. “I have two luxuries to brood over,” Keats tells her. “Your loveliness and the hour of my death.” Had it fused the romanticism and morbidity of that swooning declaration, the film might have achieved the sense of lyrical danger that Campion’s work has at its best. Unfortunately, its drawing rooms and blossoming fields remain so prettily tasteful that the slightest bit of energy, like the broad Scottish accent of Paul Schneider’s Charles Armitage Brown, comes as a relief.
Vision: Sisterhood (familial, political, spiritual) has been Margarethe von Trotta’s recurring theme for over 30 years, so it’s no surprise to see the veteran feminist auteur examining society’s gender hierarchies from within the walls of a cloister. A biopic of Hildegard von Bingen (Barbara Sukowa, fierce and luminous), it paints the 12th-century magistra, writer, and composer as an instinctive visionary with a profound hunger for knowledge, endowed with intense, even possessive emotions and, in her struggle to lead her fellow nuns onto a commune of their own, something of a Moses complex. Visually stolid (too often the film settles for blocky robed figures hitting their marks against stony walls) but generous-spirited, von Trotta scrupulously contemplates von Binden’s controversial apparitions, aching relationships, and multiple deathbed resurrections not as signs of sainthood, but as proof of an all-too-human search for illumination and love.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 10—19.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.