Lars von Trier | 2009 | 104 mins | Denmark / Germany / France / Sweden / Italy
Lars von Trier's amazingly bizarre and disturbing film was obviously designed to divide, outrage and offend audiences, and judging by the boos it received during the press screening in Cannes and the subsequent thunderous applause during the gala screening, he was pretty successful. No film came close to generating the amount of controversy or hype that Antichrist drummed up before more than a handful of people had even seen it.
The film stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as an unnamed married couple who in the gorgeously choreographed, slow motion, black and white prologue lose their only son in a tragic accident.
The body of the film is separated into four chapters - Grief, Chaos Reigns, Despair and The Three Beggars - as the couple slowly and painfully mourn their loss. Gainsbourg starts out doped up in a hospital, told by her doctor that her grief is 'atypical', until psychoanalyst Dafoe decides to take her out of the medical environment and treat her himself, through exposure therapy.
The couple retreat to 'Eden', a cabin in the woods where Gainsbourg had spent the previous summer with their son working on an academic thesis on Gynocide (witch hunts and similar abuses against women). In Eden, Gainsbourg becomes increasingly unhinged and sexually manic, desperately seeking the sexual release that calms her panic and grief symptoms, while Dafoe coldly rebuffs her or keeps her at bay with smarmy jokes about 'fucking the therapist'.
The film is heavy with invented symbolism. A triumvirate of animals (a fox, a black bird and a deer) follow the couple as they navigate the dark, ominous woods around them. A baby bird falls dead out of a nest, covered in ants. A deer in the midst of giving birth turns and runs into the woods, the fawn hanging out of it. A fox lies dead in the grass, eating its own entrails. A fictional constellation looms above. These images are powerful, beautifully composed and never adequately explained, so that they burrow into the mind and fester there. Gainsbourg's fear of the green grass and her sense that “nature causes people to do evil things to women” is set against beautifully composed images of bodies intertwined in the trees and rocks around them. All this is juxtaposed with Dafoe's infuriatingly detached attitude so effectively that her eventual retaliation against him (gruesome though it is) seems fairly well deserved.
Overwrought symbolic imagery lies side by side with raw, horrifying violence, and everything from the operatic opening to the obvious 'fuck you' of his closing dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky is obviously designed to frustrate and offend. Von Trier succeeds on several levels - he has created a profoundly disturbing film which pokes fun at pomposity of his highfalutin audience while simultaneously imbuing the film with enough substance that it can't be easily dismissed by them. In the end, the film's harshest critics will be the ones that turn it into the most talked about and significant cinematic event of the year.
Antichrist isn't exactly an enjoyable film to watch (rumours about the graphic nature of the film's violent scenes are not exaggerated) but it's one that I've had a hard time not thinking about every day since I saw it. My only real beef with the film is that it totally lacks any emotional core. What made von Trier's earlier efforts about abused women (Breaking the Waves or Dancer in the Dark) so effective was the heart wrenching way he was able to make the audience feel the tragedy of his characters. Antichrist is so cold and calculated that by the end one hardly cares about what fate will befall either character. The film is good, but it's all brain and no heart.