As for getting a special “anti-award” and declared the film to be “the most misogynist movie” at the Cannes Film Festival, I think the film might deserve some mention, if nothing else than for being an entry in every film festival in Europe, including the latest festival I’ve attended, The Ljubljana International Film Festival (LIFFE). The film has been attacked for its explicit and absolutely disturbing sex scenes, including the opening scene showing a baby falling to its death while the parents have sex. The film provoked controversial reactions for its graphic sexual violence, e.g. she crushes his testicles with a wooden plank and while he is unconscious she masturbates him until he ejaculates blood and then drills a hole through his shin to chain him to a grindstone. The worst I think was when she cuts off her own clitoris with old rusty scissors. But the criticism was balanced with the fact that the film had been equally well received by critics who were not present in Cannes, but in other countries such as Norway and Sweden. Of course, I am talking about Antichrist, directed by Lars Von Trier. In the English magazine Empire film critic Kim Newman said that “von Trier’s self-conscious arrogance is calculated to split audiences into extremist factions, but Antichrist delivers enough beauty, terror and wonder to qualify as the strangest and most original horror movie of the year.”
After the accidental child’s death, unnamed married couple Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg go through the stages of mourning; as a psychosexual grudge conflict, with Dafoe’s therapy, in an attempt to break down Gainsbourg’s anguish into treatable shame, fear and self-loathing by retreating to a forest, ironically named Eden. Von Trier conjures images that alternate between sexually alluring (prologue) and intimate and surreally gothic; deer birth, a dead, talking fox, shrouded landscapes exploring nature, Satan’s church, embracing the mediaeval witch hunt, all as the manifestation of Gainsbourg’s grief and guilt over their dead child. And it is essentially gothic from the start, when we see the visually strong image of the death of the child in black and white, coupled with Handel’s music piece. There are naked bodies beneath the tree in the woods as well. The film can be seen as a delightful exploration of guilt, grief and many other things besides, which can anger oversensitive viewers. It is not easy to understand the meaning or intention of specific images and details in the film but I still conclude that there’s something neurotic and reactionary in the controversy surrounding the film. But in the way that a real horror film will never achieve, because it reaches a certain audience that perceive the film differently. No doubt, Antichrist is a drama with horror and slightly overdone erotic elements that are visually surreal as well as exceptional.
Part of the Antichrist experience is watching it all, from the first frame to the last. Lars von Trier shot a prologue and an epilogue, and for him it is essential for us to get the full picture. The story only focuses on Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg; a married couple who experience incredible trauma and try to use therapy on themselves to escape an intense grief in their cabin in the woods. Dafoe is mainly trying to help Gainsbourg to get on but the grief and guilt are far too great for her. So she mutilates her husband and herself out of agony, guilt and grief, not out of pleasure, as many others perceive.
In this insanely edgy film, Von Trier breaks every “rule,” but does it in a way that is so beautiful. It’s almost hard not to appreciate it. As for the dedication to art cinema and untouchable Andrei Tarkovsky, powerful and/or ridiculous are shocks that have threatened to overshadow the point of this movie. A Von Trier film, Antichrist is a provocative film; it’s a piece of work from the gut, but a gut that counts on audiences’ vulnerabilities. This is his most embarrassingly and brutally direct film because it is stripping down art house aesthetics in order to get psychologically and emotionally naked, with his unnamed (in film) characters.
Edited by Tara Judah
© FIPRESCI 2009