Directed by: Lars von Trier
Written by: Lars von Trier
Starring: Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg
Much has been made of this visually striking, grotesquely dark film from Danish auteur Lars von Trier. The rumors are true, almost all of them. There is a talking fox. There is a gruesome climax filled with not one, but two, genital mutilations. If the latter doesn’t draw in today’s torture porn crowd, it’s only because the barbarity doesn’t fall within the tight moral coding and sugar-coated bloodbath of the Saw franchise.
Von Trier likes to think of himself as above mere mutilation for the sake of it, but viewing this film as a tale with morals when the content is so morally reprehensible creates kind of a paradox. His film is at times visually striking, and at times brutally unwatchable.
It begins with a beautifully filmed yet tragic slow-motion black and white sequence of a couple (William Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) making love while their son sneaks out of his crib and plummets out a window to his death. Mr. von Trier is not above starting out his film with the most cliche form of tragedy: kill the kid.
The acting in this film holds that first part of the section above the formulaic trappings of the grieving parents plot line. Ms. Gainsbourg in particular turns in a tour de force, getting us to sympathize with her in the beginning and leave our jaws dropped later on. Though Willem Dafoe is a reliably superb actor, his role in this movie just isn’t as interesting.
After the child is killed off, the couple decides to sneak off to the woods and let the healing begin. Dafoe’s unnamed character is a therapist, and Ms. Gainsbourg’s also unnamed one has just become his new patient. He’s decided to take her to the forest, the place where she feels most unsafe, and make her confront her grief as well as her fears.
The woods they inhabit are called Eden. Von Trier’s narrative branches off into symbolism and doesn’t quit. The evils of nature, outside and within, are present everywhere. The violent extremes he goes to to make us understand this are quite shocking. Many have cried foul at the portrait that is painted of women in this film, but arguments can be made for either misogynous interpretation or one of brutal feminism.
There are several instances where we see the man surrounded on all sides by the vast forest. The thing this film has going for it are the distinct visual beauties. Whether it be close-ups of throat veins pulsating or a mother blowing flowers in her hand in her imagination while she struggles for control in reality, von Trier knows how to create beauty in all his terror.
The trouble with this film is, that while it may be at times beautiful and philosophically relevant, it can be too much. There are ways to hit home that the sophisticated therapist and his PHD-striving wife are really just animals in the forest without having one of them defile both of their genitalia. The fragments of von Trier’s warped mind run amok in this solemn tale like deer. Sadly, in this case it is more like the dying fox eating at it’s own flesh uttering “Chaos reigns,” than something poignant and hard-hitting about humanity.