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'Antichrist': Why Lars von Trier's latest fake outrage was made for, and only for, the Cannes film festival

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In the world of cinema, there are many precious accolades — an Academy Award, a rating of 100 percent fresh on rottentomatoes.com — but few can match the sexy frisson of that most glittering of distinctions: getting booed at the Cannes film festival. Any old drama can win universal acclaim, especially if it’s set in the back alleys of Romania during the waning days of Communist rule. But to get booed at Cannes…that’s a venerable prize indeed. It signifies that you’ve made something fearless, wrenchingly divisive, ahead-of-the-cutting-edge, maybe even visionary in its disregard for the staid old status quo. It means that you’ve made a movie the bourgeoisie can’t handle. In case you don’t believe me, just check out this image from Lars von Trier’s Antichrist

Antichrist_lHave you recovered from the shock yet? You may think I’m kidding about all this, but there’s a time-honored tradition of movies that get booed at Cannes and then go on to win a reputation as timeless, subversive works. The most famous is probably L’Avventura. In 1960, the crowd on the Riviera didn’t know what to make of Michelangelo Antonioni’s grandly arid and despairing anti-thriller, and so they booed its slowness, its joyless decadence, its mirror held up so pointedly to…well, them. But the film was soon recognized — rightly — as a kind of masterpiece of disaffection, and the memory of those early catcalls only added to its austere luster. Great works, of course, have been hissed and booed throughout history. The most famous example in our time is the first performance of The Rite of Spring in 1913, which caused a riot (though I’ve always found it hard to picture what, exactly, fancy Paris men in top hats and tails engaging in the act of rioting would actually look like). Pauline Kael evoked The Rite of Spring‘s premiere when she wrote about the world’s first showing of Last Tango in Paris at the 1972  New York Film Festival — a movie event that provoked, if not boos, then (according to Kael) a hush that was deafening in its lack of enthusiasm.

In Cannes last spring, Antichrist, von Trier’s pagan-domestic couples-therapy torture-porn horror film, first played on a Sunday, when, according to a reporter from Reuters, it “elicited derisive laughter, gasps of disbelief, a smattering of applause, and loud boos.” He might just as well have been writing a press release from God. The very intensity of the reaction qualified the movie, on some essential level of postmodern publicity, as a succes de scandale. Some questioned whether a film as “shocking” and “extreme” as Antichrist would even get picked up for distribution, and when IFC Films swooped in and bought the rights, they made a special point of mentioning that the movie would be released uncut, with every frame of mutilation and hard-core sex as it had originally appeared. In other words, the controversy would be coming — intact! — to a theater near you. Or at least to a Netflix queue.

But a funny thing happened to Antichrist on the way from the Cannes film festival. When it opened here a few weeks ago, the reaction was still divided — Roger Ebert still loved it; a number of critics, including myself, disliked it intensely — but the divisiveness had none of the drama, the ferocity, the avant danger, the specialness that it had had in Cannes. The scandal had evaporated from the controversy. As it turns out, the movie did open at a theater near me (the IFC Center in New York, which happens to be around the corner from where I live), and I can testify that there have been no riots, no noisome crowds, and — from anecdotal observation — no fierce arguments on the sidewalks after 7:30 p.m. showings. Viewed within the context of ordinary moviegoing, Antichrist turns out to be…just another movie. It turns out that the audience Lars von Trier wants to shock is no longer shockable. Except at the Cannes film festival.

I think that’s because von Trier, consciously or not, made Antichrist with that mythical Cannes setting and audience in mind. He dreamed the movie, with its showboating fusion of child death and marital agony and bloody physical punishment and Christ imagery and triple-X teases, because he wanted to create his own Last Rite of L’Avventura In Paris moment. And he did. It worked. But only once. Antichrist is a movie that had a powerful ripple effect of unholy disrepute at the Cannes film festival because it was made, in essence, to be shown at the Cannes film festival. Now that it’s arrived in America, it’s a provocation that has no audience left to provoke. It’s a tree of calculated outrage falling in art theaters and not making a sound.

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