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“If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, [Antichrist] is the movie he would have made.”–John Waters, “Artforum Magazine”
DIRECTED BY: Lars von Trier
PLOT: He and She (the characters are nameless) are making love when their child tumbles to his death out of a window. She falls into inconsolable grief, and He, a therapist, unwisely decides to take her under his personal care. When He discovers the root of She’s anxiety and irrational fears centers around a woodland retreat they call Eden, He forces her to go there to face her fears; but when they arrive, nature itself seems determined to drive them both mad.
- Von Trier says that he was suffering from extreme depression when he made Antichrist and that working on the script and the film was a form of self-therapy. Von Trier was still depressed at the time of screening and sometimes had to excuse himself from the set.
- In the title card and much of the promotional art, the “t” in “antichrist” is suggested by a figure combining the Christian cross and the symbol for “woman.”
- The therapy He employs in the film is called “exposure therapy” (where an anxiety-ridden patient is gradually exposed to the source of their irrational fear); von Trier had undergone this treatment for his own anxiety problems, and thought little of the practice.
- The idea for the fox came from a shamanic journey taken by von Trier.
- Besides this film, British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle also shot Slumdog Millionaire, for which he received the 2009 Academy Award, in the same year. Of the two, Antichrist, with its extreme slow-motion photography, was the more difficult and magnificently shot film.
- Von Trier dedicated Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky, which caused jeers at Cannes and gave critical wags the opportunity to take deserved, if obvious, potshots (Jason Anderson’s “we now know what it would’ve been like if Tarkovsky had lived to make a torture-porn movie” was a typical dig).
- The film’s Cannes reception was tumultuous, with audience members reportedly fainting, and hostility between the press and von Trier (who proclaimed himself “the world’s greatest director.”) Charlotte Gainsbourg won “Best Actress” for her brave and revealing performance. The film received a special “anti-humanitarian” prize from the ecumenical jury (a Cannes sub-jury with a Christian focus), who called Antichrist “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world.”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Without doubt, the searing image is of the encounter between Charlotte Gainsbourg’s intimate prosthetic and a pair of rusty scissors. However indelibly gruesome this scene may be, however, it comes out of von Trier’s shock toolbox rather than from his weird shed. For an image with a power to make us do more than squirm, we turn to the scene where He and She are copulating in the woods, with her head resting on a bed of roots from a massive oak tree. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal a number of disembodied human hands sticking out at various places from between the oak limbs.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Though the graphic torture-porn (and plain old-fashioned porn) elements have stolen the headlines and alienated viewers, at bottom this is von Trier’s spookiest and most mysterious film, a trip deep into the heart of darkness, and one the viewer may have as difficult a time returning home from intact as the characters do. The irrational horror of von Trier’s vision is only magnified by the sense that you aren’t so much watching a story of madness as watching a director going insane in real time, before your very eyes: he seems to lose control of his story as it progresses, turning the climax over to his internal demons for script-doctoring, before reasserting some measure of control of his material in a surreal epilogue.
Trailer for Antichrist (WARNING: contains non-explicit sexual content)
COMMENTS: Lars von Trier deserves to be roundly criticized for burdening Antichrist with four transgressive, shocking scenes: not because of their content, per se, but because these gratuitous displays dominate the experience and draw attention away from the rest of the film, forcing viewers (and reviewers) to deal with their reactions to these provocations first. Their main function is to serve as obstacles to appreciating the grim beauty of the remaining film. Whether their inclusion is a calculated act by a prankster director, or a lapse in judgment resulting from psychological impairment (von Trier claims to have written the script as self-therapy to help him deal with a crippling bout of depression much like the one suffered by Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character), they are a blight on a work that otherwise is startling, stark, and deeply disturbing. Some are poisoned by these masochistic directorial indulgences and can’t move past them. But, if your internal editor can cut about 1-2 minutes of gross, gratuitous gunk from the movie when you play it back in your head, you may witness miracles.
The artistically offensive scenes are a gratuitous shot of hardcore penetration, a needlessly graphic scene of Gainsbourg masturbating, and two scenes of graphic genital mutilation, one of which brings to mind the farcical climax of Nekromantik. The penetration scene, though only seconds long, is in a way the worst offender, because artistically it adds nothing to the beautiful, monumental opening classical montage, but only distracts our attention. There’s no point to it other than to send the prudes scurrying out the door early, and prepare the remaining audience to expect later shocks. Although there is a thematic excuse for the clitorendectomy, there is little aesthetic justification for look-at-me, “Hustler”-meets-Saw explicitness with which it’s depicted. It evokes a visceral grossout response that’s far out of harmony with the meditative spiritual dismay that surrounds the scene; the literalism takes us out of the moment, forcing us to wonder what’s possessing the director rather than what is possessing Gainsbourg. It has to be a mistake rather than a prank or a cynical ploy, because no director could be so self-loathing as to deliberately sabotage the transcendental tone he’s labored so painstakingly to create by inserting a Pink Flamingos moment into his sincerely despairing, metaphysical horror film.
Your ability to enjoy Antichrist may depend on your ability to deploy selective amnesia to those distracting scenes (and, of course, also with your ability to enjoy movies that are divided into chapters accurately titled “Pain,” “Grief,” and “Despair”). The rest of the movie is a mood piece with an uncanny ability to unnerve and to pull you in scary psychological directions you’d probably prefer not to follow to their conclusion. The film begins with an exquisitely (hardcore insert aside) realized black and white, slow motion prologue, scored to a yearning Händel oratorio whose title translates as “Let Me Weep,” in which Gainsbourg and Dafoe make love while their unattended one-year old child plummets to his death. (Watch the way the water droplets hang magically in the shower as the couple hump; suspended particles, often linked to procreation, will become one of the film’s major visual motifs). After the boy’s death, the movie becomes a searing psychological drama as Gainsbourg falls into inconsolable grief, and therapist Dafoe, fearing her psychiatrist is medicating her into oblivion and denying her the opportunity to heal, suspends his practice and his ethics to devote his life to helping her work through her bereavement and face her pain. This section of the film is fascinating, and gives us the opportunity to observe two fine actors at the peak of their powers. Gainsbourg, while avoiding histrionics, is credibly hysterical, while Dafoe’s performance is subtle; at the same time, we admire his devotion to his wife while knowing that his treating her is a Bad Idea (in capital letters). There’s more than a hint of psychological sadomasochism in their sessions, but never a suspicion of deliberate malice; just the foreordained fear that one of them will inevitably and inadvertently scar the other by probing too deeply.
When the couple travel into the twisted forest to face Gainsbourg’s irrational fear of the hermetic retreat where she spent time writing her thesis on gynocide, things get decidedly weird. Their psychological turmoil manifests itself in a malevolent nature. These tantalizingly deliberate middle scenes, where an unknown but terrifying tension builds through odd apparitions such as a deer galloping away from Dafoe with a half-born foal sticking from its hindquarters and the unaccountably anxious sound of acorns pounding on the roof, are perhaps the richest in the movie, full of mysterious implications. Two more totem animals appear alongside the deer, each with a disturbing quirk (one of which will causes some watchers to laugh instead of cringe). Things become more and more unhinged, as themes of sexual guilt and nature’s inherent antipathy to human desires become mixed with increasing otherwordly imagery and a slow-boil occultist plot that hints at much more than it reveals. As Gainsbourg appears to heal, Dafoe becomes less and less controlled, until a final rustic therapy session boils over into shocking violence—and into that damned distracting, revolting imagery. Inside the cabin, as the couple lays bloody and battered on the dirt floor, rationality finally departs altogether, replaced by mysticism. Von Trier wraps it all up with an epilogue that brings back the black-and-white and the Händel, and ends on a mysterious, dreamlike image that raises even more unanswered questions.
It’s difficult to divine what all of this—the erotic loathing, the marital dynamics, the battle between rational and irrational, the witchcraft and the feral mysticism, the evocation of anxiety and depression, the hints of religious allegory—is meant to add up to. And yet, the picture feels cohesive; perhaps as nothing more than a terrifying vision of a universe hostile to human hope. The movie’s inscrutability didn’t stop many critics from dismissing it as pretentious and empty. The most common complaint was Antichrist is blatantly misogynistic. I find this interpretation both reductive and extremely hard to swallow, though easy to predict based on von Trier’s previous record of psychologically torturing and debasing his female characters (the sexual debasement of Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, Nicole Kidman‘s rape in Dogville, and the fact that Bjork accused the director of being an “emotional pornographer” and refused to act again after working with him in Dancer in the Dark). Certainly, misogyny is one of the subjects of Antichrist, but a movie does not become racist simply because racism is one of its subjects. It’s hard to imagine that anyone actually sees the intended message of the film as a transparent “women are inherently irrational and literally evil.” If anything is obvious, it’s that there is nothing easy or literal about the movie. Gainsbourg’s She is an incredibly complex character, both victim and victimizer, powerless and powerful. Her “evil” is a mental condition, largely created by unquenchable grief (itself a product of an unquenchable love); even at her most sadistic, she’s never an unsympathetic cardboard villain.
I think true misogyny mocks women and reduces them to frilly, ineffectual nothings (as the quote from the genuinely misogynistic The Horrors of Spider Island goes, to “hot goods for cold nights”). Here, Von Trier depicts femininity as powerful and mysterious; the trappings of witchcraft can be seen as empowering, rather than debasing. The female is associated with the irrational, but it is also much more attuned to nature and to procreation. There is an uncomfortable, almost Buddhist intimation throughout the film that sex is evil, because its purpose is to perpetuate a cycle of pain. From the moment her boy tumbles to its death as her face contorts in orgasm, the association of emotional pain with sexual pleasure is the explicit source of the crippling guilt She feels throughout Antichrist. She suffers at the death of her child, and this causes her final desperate act to cut herself off from the shame sexual desire inspires in her. Images of reproduction as a horrific event recur in the stillborn fetus hanging from the hindquarters of the bounding deer and the sinister acorns that rain on the rooftop and around Dafoe’s head. The feminine, nature, and sex are all connected here, and He is alienated from them and cannot understand or control them. With her intimate connection to procreation, She is more directly trapped inside the evil of nature than He is, and She realizes and lives a deep, despairing truth that He cannot grasp. If this is misogyny, it’s a far more complex and nuanced form of misogyny than the simple prejudice that goes under that name; it’s also not something that can be immediately dismissed by name calling.
Von Trier is more disturbed here by existence itself than he is by women. His philosophy in Antichrist appears to be completely nihilistic, at least until the enigmatic epilogue with faceless women arising as if freed from their graves. Unlike most nihilist prophets, von Trier is not self-congratulatory, not proud to have figured out a gnostic truth the bourgeois masses can never grasp. With a philosophy forged in the fires of deep depression, he’s revulsed by the abyss he has seen. The disgust that flows through Antichrist is genuine, and while it doesn’t totally absolve von Trier from the missteps in taste that weaken the movie, they do come from his desire to communicate—and to not glamorize or gloss over—his sincere loathing.
Von Trier’s decision to dedicate his ultraviolent shockfest to Andrei Tarkovsky moved Cannes audiences to catcalls. Certainly, the tasteful Russian would never stoop to such cynical exploitation tactics as explicit genital mutilation, and the deeply Christian director would never endorse such a nihilistic message. But there actually are many echoes of the mysterious minimalist master in von Trier’s hypnotic pacing; in his lingering on images of pure cinematic beauty; and in the enigmatic, supra-rational, irreducible meaning of the film, which seems channeled from some other plane of existence. It’s just that, while Tarkovsky had angels whispering in his ear, von Trier has terrible devils.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…the only honest way to deal with a movie as dreamlike and filled with self-hatred and sealed off from the world as ‘Antichrist’ is by resisting von Trier’s shtick… this isn’t just the most personal film von Trier has ever made, but something like an unconscious film. As magnificent as Dafoe and Gainsbourg are, they’re specters in a shadow play excavated from the deepest recesses of Lars von Trier’s troubled psyche.”–Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com
“…an out-and-out disaster — one of the most absurdly on-the-nose, heavy-handed and unintentionally comedic calamities I’ve ever seen in my life. On top of which it’s dedicated to the late Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, whose rotted and decomposed body is now quite possibly clawing its way out of the grave to stalk the earth, find an axe and slay Von Trier in his bed.”–Jeffery Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere
OFFICIAL SITE: Antichrist (2009) – The Criterion Collection – contains the trailer, a scholarly essay by film professor Ian Christie, and a collection of press clippings
IMDB LINK: Antichrist (2009)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Antichrist Pressbook – courtesy of the Cannes Antichrist page. Contains the “director’s confession,” a very intelligent interview with von Trier by Knud Romer, and more
Lars von Trier – ‘It’s good that people boo’ – von Trier’s first post-Cannes interview/profile, by a sympathetic Kaleem Aftab of The Independent
“I Don’t Hate Women”: Lars von Trier on Antichrist – von Trier briefly addresses the controversy surrounding the film, among other topics discussed in this Rotten Tomatoes interview with Luke Goodsell. An earlier RT interview with Jonathan Crocker is here.
Cannes #6: A Devil’s Advocate for “Antichrist”– Roger Ebert’s Cannes blog entry goes much deeper than his official newspaper review of the film, offering an interpretation of the movie as a fantastical religious allegory
Antichrist’s Willem Dafoe: ‘We Summoned Something We Didn’t Ask For’ – Movieline interview with star Dafoe
Lars von Trier’s film Antichrist shocks Cannes – Reuters contemporary account of the furor Antichrist raised at Cannes
ANTICRHRIST: The man who made this horrible, misogynistic film needs to see a shrink – Chris Tookey, of the Daily Mail, is one of the few critics who actually outlined the case for Antichrist‘s alleged misogyny, rather than accepting it as a given
Is Antichrist director Lars von Trier a misogynist? – Slate’s Jessica Winter gives a nuanced and well-researched analysis of the title question, though she stops short of definitively answering “no”
DVD INFO: There was an Australian DVD release of Antichrist (with the “scissors” cover) that was pulled very quickly when Criterion became interested in acquiring the rights. It’s highly unusual for Criterion to issue a new release film, but they chose to do so with their 2-disc, director-approved Antichrist set (buy). Disc one provides the film, three versions of the trailer, and a commentary dialogue between von Trier and film scholar Murray Smith (von Trier stumbles a bit in the commentary; Smith seems to understand the film better than the author does). Extras on disc 2 include interviews with von Trier and stars Dafoe and a 45-minute session with Gainsbourg; footage from the Cannes premiere, including the star’s promotional interviews and footage of a reporter demanding von Trier “justify” the film; and seven “making of” featurettes, each about 15 minutes in length, covering the “test film” made with different actors, the visual effects, the soundtrack, the production design, makeup and props, the animal wranglers, and a bit by the movie’s “misogyny consultant” divulging her research into the history of witchcraft persecutions.
The film is also available, with the same features, on Blu-ray (buy).