It was known from the very beginning, that Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist” was going to be one of the most controversial films of the festival. If the Danish provocateur names his project thus, anything is to be expected; all kinds of monstrosities, cruelty, sex shown openly, without insinuation; all that finds a distinct and suggestive expression on the screen. Nevertheless, the audience reaction in Cannes was merciless. Von Trier’s psychoanalytic horror, a Polish co-production, was hooted – which could partly be read as an act of self-defense.
“Antichrist” is pure biology – neither a horned devil, nor an earthly beast. Not even a false messiah; only a sinister mechanism, repeating the errors of creation. “Nature is the church of Satan”, the words coming from the screen are to explain the director’s concept according to which man’s torments, involving all imperfections of mind and body – diseases, physiology, dying – evoke fear, the sense of guilt, suffering, madness. And all of this is shown through the convention of a Freudian dream.
The film stars two actors only – Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Their marriage begins to decline after losing their son. In a poetic prologue ( “Antichrist”, similar to “Breaking the Waves”, consists of a few titled chapters where emotions reach an extreme state) the parents make love. They are not aware of the fact that the boy has woken and sees them having sex. He then jumps out a window. The woman, tormented with a sense of guilt, falls into depression. Her husband, in an attempt to help, puts her into a state of hypnosis in order to name and eliminate the source of her fear. However, this kind of family psychotherapy soon turns into psychical abuse, which results in pure horror. Consequently, we are presented with a scene of screwing a drill in the oppressor’s knee, then a penis squirting with blood in the act of masturbation and, finally, cutting the clitoris with scissors that supposedly symbolize the wild and self-destructive inclinations of the deeply hurt female protagonist, slowly falling into insanity. All this is smartly shot by Anthony Dod Mantle (an Oscar winner for his cinematography in “Slumdog Millionaire”) in ice-blue tones, depicting the increasing coldness in the couple’ relationship.
The question is, what is Von Trier really trying to say? In the interviews, the director claims that this is his most personal picture, where he describes his own struggle with long-term depression, one that made him practically unable to function in society. He carried out a sort of a unique auto-therapy, by filling the film with pitch – black images coming from his childhood, subconscious fears, obsessive thoughts referring to a bestial nature of man as well as his untamed sexuality. However, “Antichrist” seems to be more than merely a chaotic outline of the artist’s healing process. It is an intentional, impudent provocation aimed at those who consider the world to be a perfectly harmonious construction where the hand of a fair, merciful God can be seen.
The film is dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky, who is regarded as the biggest Christian mystic of cinematography. This leaves us with no illusions as to Von Trier’s intentions. “Antichrist”, with its infernal picture of nature, chaos, a failure of reason, unimaginable pain, misery and the decline of humanity, appears to be a manifest of disbelief in good. The imperfect world is revealed in the way the Gnostics perceived it: evil is the master of creation, satan is the Lord, and a woman is a tool in his hands.
Edited by Tara Judah
© FIPRESCI 2009