LIST CANDIDATE: ANTICHRIST (2009)

Antichrist has been promoted to the List of the 366 weirdest movies of all time. This page is left here for archival reasons. Pelase go to 72. Antichrist for more in-depth coverage of the film and to make comments.

DIRECTED BY: Lars von Trier

FEATURING: William Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg

PLOT: After the death of their only child, a therapist takes his grieving and anxiety-ridden wife to a retreat in the woods to face her irrational fears; when they arrive, nature itself seems determined to drive them both mad.

Still from Antichrist (2009)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE:  Actually, von Trier’s troubled and troubling Antichrist is almost a shoo-in to make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.  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 filmic depiction 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.  While worthy of consideration, Antichrist finds itself in the same situation as the Coen brothers A Serious Man; we’re not going to officially certify it for the List until it receives its home video debut and we have a chance to scrutinize it more closely than is possible in a cinema.

COMMENTS: Lars von Trier desreves to be roundly criticized for burdening Antichrist with approximately four transgressive, shocking scenes: not because such sights should never be shown, but because these tasteless displays dominate our experience and force every viewer (and reviewer) to deal with them first and foremost.  Their sole artistic function are 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; I sympathize with 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 a near-masterpiece.

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.  Although there is the thinnest of thematic justifications for the clitorendectomy, there is no aesthetic justification for the ham-handed, look-at-me, “Hustler”-meets-Saw explicitness with which it’s depicted.  It automatically 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 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, things get decidedly weird.  Their psychological turmoil seems to manifest itself via 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.  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 gradually 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.

Von Trier dedicated Antichrist to 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” is a typical dig).  Certainly, the tasteful Russian would never stoop to such cynical shock tactics as explicit genital mutilation, and the deeply Christian director would never endorse such a nihilistic message.  But there actually are 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

“[Antichrist] speaks the language of madness with astonishing fluency.”–Marc Savlov, The Austin Chronicle

“…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

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