Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, and while it did not win the Palme D’or, its screening at that festival will be talked about long after the premier screening of the film that did win (Michael Hanake’s The White Ribbon) has long been forgotten. Von Trier has long been known as a provocateur but even those familiar with his work must not have known what hit them when, without warning, they were confronted by a film that so suddenly assaulted them with extreme images whose purpose were not entirely clear at first glance. Polarized reviews and detailed analysis began pouring out and stories of the film’s hostile press conferences in which Lars Von Trier acted as an amused ringmaster added to the mystique of the film. Some called it misogynistic, some called it deeply spiritual, some called it schlock, others called it profound art. The whole affair harkened back to an age when film artists like Luis Buñuel and Jean Renoir would deliberately shock their audience to the point where they nearly riot. As I far away from southern France when this was going on, I could do nothing but read story after story. I normally avoid plot details to movies before seeing them, but in this case I couldn’t help but read the many spoilers about what it was that had horrified a number of respected critics. Even though I’m generally not a huge fan of Lars Von Trier, all this hoopla tantalized me to the point where I hungered for the day when this thing would come to my city so I could weigh in on this international debate about a film which, love it or hate, has undeniably sparked more thought than most films ever will.
The film has only two speaking roles, that of a man and a woman who are played by Willem DaFoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg respectively. In the film’s prologue, the man and the woman (who are unnamed) are seen making passionate love, unaware that a tragedy is about to occur as their young child walks toward an open window. The boy falls and dies, plunging the two into a grief that is as intense as the joy they experienced in that opening scene. In fact intense emotions are a running theme that will be taken to an absurd extreme in the film’s climax. As the woman wallows in pain, the man (who is a therapist) decides that he will psychologically treat the woman himself. His goal is to discover what it is that the woman fears the most, and this quest leads him to Eden, a forest where the family had once stayed at so that the woman would have time to write her thesis on the subject of Gynocide (the study of witch burning and other such extreme forms of misogyny). Once they arrive at Eden their relationship becomes a rollercoaster of emotions, ranging from passionate lust to deep resentment and other strange things begin to occur; animals like a deer, a raven, and most memorably a fox, begin to appear who behave in ways that are decidedly unnatural and it becomes clear that this woman has a much deeper fear of this forest than the man initially realized.
Lars Von Trier has been a frustrating filmmaker for me. On one hand I can appreciate that he is a man capable of presenting his films in ways that are visually innovative, and I also think he’s excellent at directing actors and actresses, but all too often this talent seems wasted on scripts in which characters behave in illogical ways that are contrary to my perception of reality. Authority figures in his films are moustache twirlingly intolerant, the women in his films are often confused children in need of guidance, and all of this is in service of stories that just don’t make a whole lot of sense. Most of these are criticisms that could be lobbed against Antichrist, which would lead one to believe that this movie would be torturous to me, but that’s not the case. In fact, I think this is the best work that Lars Von Trier has ever done. The film’s extreme nature (symbolic or otherwise) seems to make a lot of the usual Von Trierisms make a lot more sense; these characters inhabit an esoteric realm and this makes the film beholden only to its own internal logic and not to the real world.
Perhaps one of the root problems with a lot of Von Trier’s previous work was his association with the Dogme 95 movement. I’m not completely opposed to Dogme, it’s produced some pretty good movies, but I’m not sure it was really the right mode for Von Trier, which I suppose was probably his own conclusion as evidenced by the fact that he’s only ever made one bonified Dogme film his entire career in spite of the fact that he was sort of the movement’s poster-boy. In fact Antichrist actively goes against all ten of that movement’s famous rules; though most of the camerawork is hand-held, the lush cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle features a look that is heavily filtered and stylized. Take the first scene for example, which is filmed on a set (breaking Dogme rule one), uses non-diegetic opera music (breaking rule two), has non-handheld camera (rule three), is in high contrast black and white (rule four), requires optical work (rule five), ends in a moment of superficial violence (rule six), is in service of what could be called a horror movie (rule eight), is in widescreen (rule nine), and comes after a very large credit belonging to the director (rule ten), oh and arguments could definitely be made that the whole film is temporally and geographically alienated (rule seven).
So what we have here is a film that employs a degree of stylization unseen in Lars Von Trier’s work for a very long time, it harkens back to his early wunderkind days of films like The Element of Crime or Europa. But the Lars Von Trier work I’d most readily compare this film to is probably his unfinished project for Danish television called “The Kingdom.” Like that work, this seems to tell a story against a spiritual/supernatural backdrop the nature of which is hard to really place a finger on, and like that work this is not afraid to provide the viewer with disturbing images that one is not expecting.
Speaking of those disturbing images, they are probably the most polarizing element of the film. You’ve probably heard about this already, but there is some really extreme violence in this film and if you are someone who’s squeamish about such material, you should probably look elsewhere. In the film’s defense, though the violence is very graphic and disturbing, there isn’t really a large quantity of it. The movie’s reputation is earned mainly from two isolated scenes that come pretty late in the film and these shots aren’t much bloodier than the unrated versions of some of the more extreme horror films. What makes the material here so shocking isn’t necessarily how much is shown so much as the twisted ideas behind what is going on. The most infamous image (it involves a scissors) is a brief shot that doesn’t have a whole lot of blood, but the idea of the action itself is very disturbing. In this case I probably benefited from having read spoilers as this allowed me to mentally prepare for what was coming, the images that inhabited my mind from having read about the material proved a lot more disturbing than the actual images ever could have been. This is a luxury that the Cannes audience did not have, and this probably explains why the film has been better received in subsequent festival screenings.
The two actors who are in the center of all this chaos, Willem DaFoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, do excellent work. Gainsbourg has the unenviable task of displaying extreme emotions without going over the top. When her character begins shouting and screaming it easily could have come off as ridiculous, but Gainsbourg makes it work. She has a physically taxing role and is clearly putting a lot into her craft. Dafoe has a slightly less challenging role, but that shouldn’t diminish his accomplishments. He gives a more subtle performance for a more subtle role, he internalizes more of his emotions and his character can be almost as violent as Gainsbourg’s albeit in a more passive-aggressive way.
The film has so much symbolism and is made in such unconventional ways that it can at times feel like a puzzle demanding the viewer to discover its meaning. There are a number of art house movies that do this, but what perhaps makes this so special it that it actually works pretty well as a thriller even if you’re not interested in connecting the film’s thematic dots. I’m a bit hesitant to call this a horror film, because this doesn’t really operate like a “mere” genre film, but it does achieve most of the goals that horror films try to achieve. It establishes an atmosphere of dread early on, the tension rises steadily throughout and there is a profound sense of evil throughout which must be directly confronted towards the end. In fact, when looked at as a thriller, the film has a lot in common with The Shining. Like that Kubrick film, this is set in an isolated area from which escape is difficult, this location is haunted by forces that are never explained and only show themselves in occasionally, and in the ending the forces manipulate one of the family members into trying to kill the other. Of course the violent images also link the film with the horror genre, but the images which I found more creepy were the mysterious animals which showed up at times as well as the moments in which limbs and bodies come out of the ground to turn the environment into a Bosch-like hellscape.
But to simply say that this works as a thriller is a cop-out, the themes and symbolism here clearly invites close analysis, and I’m not too proud to admit that I’m not going to be able to explain everything on display here after only one sitting. I’m at a bit of a disadvantage with this one because almost every interpretation of it is either religious or feminist, and those are both disciplines I’ve never had a whole lot of patience for. I’m going to avoid tackling the feminist/antifeminist material, but I’ll take a stab at a religious interpretation, this will involve spoilers. The movie itself is a bit of a paradox as its title derives from a character of the book of Revelation (the final book of the bible) while it’s principle location of Eden is derived from the book of Genesis (the first book of the bible). What’s more Eden is a place you leave, not a place you enter, so perhaps what we’re witnessing is the bible in reverse. Man and woman are cast into Eden instead of out of it, and rather than being paradise it’s a hell. As man was created first and woman second, here woman is destroyed second and man first. So what’s the original sin? Chaos and murder, and the animals labeled the three beggars are the voice of temptation leading the characters toward it, woman first and then man. So, what’s the antichrist? Evidence would seem to suggest that it was the child killed in the first scene, note the positions of his arms as he falls, also the deformity of his feet. This would make Gainsborg’s character the mother of the antichrist, but what’s the polar opposite of a virgin? The answer to that might have something to do with the scene with the scissors.
Is that an airtight theory? Hell no. In fact that interpretation has more holes in it than Swiss cheese, but I think it touches on one mode of watching the film. One could probably sit and theorize about it for ages, it’s a bit like Cries and Whispers era Bergman in the way it forces long contemplation in order to find meaning in its stark imagery and bleak subject matter. It may end up being one of those movies like Mullholland Dr or A Tale of Two Sisters that have people watching them a million times in order to post elaborate theories on the internet. Whatever. The meaning of life may or may not be encoded into this thing, but what really matters is that it’s made with the utmost conviction, it’s beautifully crafted, and it’s consistently compelling and thought-provoking. That’s great cinema whether or not it functions as a definitive statement about the fall of man.
**** out of Four