Antichrist is a film which surrounds itself with an intangible, yet undeniable, aura of Olympian, or perhaps Styxian, grandeur. First there is the title with its connotations of the apocalyptic and the blasphemous. Then there’s the reputation of the director himself – though already an accomplished filmmaker in the 1990s, Lars von Trier has made himself the cinematic bete noir of this young century, a veritable lightning rod for controversy. His psychologically brutal methods with actors have earned criticism (it’s said that Bjork vowed never to appear in a film again after enduring Dancer in the Dark), while his storylines garner accusations of misogyny and anti-Americanism. With his devilishly grinning visage and intellectually refined sadism, he himself strikes a cutting figure in public appearances and even in his own movies: the 2003 documentary The Five Obstructions saw him torture one of his idols, the older director Jorgen Leth. Von Trier forced Lethe to remake a classic short film over and over under various conditions, all of them set, with perverse pleasure, by von Trier himself (on one occasion, he rather obscenely forced Lethe to hold a banquet in front of starving Calcuttans; on another, von Trier himself takes over directorial duties, violating his own rules and holding Lethe responsible for the violation).
Yet undergirding – perhaps even motivating – all this diabolical cruelty, nastiness, and alienating misanthropy is the suggestion of a moral vision. Is this morality merely a front, a charade, as von Trier’s most vociferous critics seem to suggest? Or does von Trier, engaging in the very evil he claims to condemn, only strengthen his moral outrage by including himself in its aim? All these questions are liable to spin around in a viewer’s head while watching one of the Dane’s films, but to be fair, such questions are usually overtly suggested onscreen as well. Not so much this time. While Dogville, The Five Obstructions, and Dancer in the Dark (I’ve seen neither Manderlay nor The Boss of It All) are all evasive and tricky, their purposes are not as obscure as that of Antichrist. This new film, starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, is narratively straightforward and stylistically far more conventional than much of von Trier’s recent work. By the ending its themes are clear enough: violence towards women, masochism masked as sadism, the collapse of smug rationalism. The story is always rather easy to follow, with some scenes consisting of nearly undisguised exposition, and the remarkably uncluttered cast certainly make the characters easy to keep track of (there are no speaking parts except for Dafoe’s and Gainsbourg’s; and all the extras have their faces blurred out). Even much of the initially obscure symbolism – the deformed animals who haunt the film, the wife’s obsessive thesis paper, the strange chapter headings (“Grief,” “Despair,” “Pain”) – is clarified by the climax. Yes, the “what” is not so hard to ascertain. What’s more elusive is the “why.”
The “what” is roughly as follows - and the reader is advised to stop here if he or she wishes to know no more about the plot (personally, I scrupulously avoided any synopses before going in, sensing that the notorious-sounding movie was best experienced with fresh eyes and ears). A couple, grieving for the loss of their young boy, who wandered about one night and fell out a window, attempts to deal with grief through psychoanalysis. The husband is a rather arrogant psychologist, his wife a scholar who was writing a thesis on the subject of “gynocide,” focusing on the persecution of women as witches in the Middle Ages. Aggressively rational, almost bullying at times, the husband tries to convince the wife that her fears are unfounded, and even takes her to the center of her nightmares – a cabin in the middle of a wood simply called “Eden” – to confront her fears. There, he begins to have his own doubts and question both his wife’s sanity and the legitimacy of her terrible intimations about “Nature.” That’s the story, but what’s harder to get ahold of is the flitting mood, occasionally ethereal, often intense, yet never quite experienced head-on, except in the beginning.
Antichrist opens with a sequence of stunning virtuosity, one of the most breathtaking I’ve experienced in years. With crisp black-and-white photography, sharp as a razor and lit like a dream, all action cranked down to the slow-motion point of melancholy drift, von Trier captures He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the shower. Each droplet of water is as clear as a frozen bullet and as if the visuals weren’t achingly transportive enough, a deeply moving rendition of Handel’s “Rinaldo” scores the entire passage. Yet pristine as the imagery is, freely as the elevated emotions flow, the moment is rife with subversion. He and She are passionately screwing in the shower, and later in bed, with full-on close-ups of penetration leaving little to the imagination. And as a toothbrush slips from its perch near the showerhead, cascading gracefully before it bounces off the orgasmic Gainsbourg’s shoulder, it’s hard to suppress laughter at von Trier’s cheeky ability to include the ridiculous alongside the sublime.
Adding to the discomfort of the scene are the frequent cutaways to a little boy in pajamas, who at one point clearly stands in the same frame as his naked parents, who ignore him in the throes of their own passion. There are also repeated shots of a dryer, as beautifully lit as the fairy-tale child’s room or the amorous bodies, whirling away in some forgotten corner of the room. Again, we laugh, and wonder: what’s going on? The beautification of consumer products casts an uneasy light upon the whole scene, the innocent child and the primal couple alike. It suggests that all the artistic sheen of this sequence is somehow phony, little more than a glorified TV commercial or print ad (reminiscent of one of the Five Obstructions in which von Trier forces Lethe to reshoot his classic film as a slick, “arty” Euro-ad). Indeed, the ability of this “Prologue” (as it’s titled) to evoke the aesthetics of advertising, the emotions of art, and the occasional imagery of pornography all in one fell swoop is remarkable and unsettling. The sequence concludes when the little boy, clutching a badly-used teddy bear steps up onto a window sill, slips, and falls into the snow below, as gracefully as that toothbrush in the shower stall, but with far more gruesome results. A dark stain splashes across the fluffy white ground; more poignantly, the sad-looking little bear busts open, its threadbare arm finally shaking itself loose upon landing next to the boy – an indirect evocation of innocence’s destruction.
There’s little else in the film to echo the visceral power of this scene, this confusing emotional sway, and richly provocative aesthetic. An epilogue echoes the approach without quite reaching the crescendo; throughout the movie there are dreamy passages of slow-motion, shot in color, which also capture that indelibly iconic quality of the opening. However, the majority of the movie is shot in a handheld, roughly realistic style, indulging in frequent and at times claustrophobic close-ups of the actors, with medium shots when necessary to capture the action. There’s a passing similarity here to von Trier’s much-vaunted Dogme video aesthetic of the 90s, and indeed the whole film was shot on digital (though the prologue and epilogue’s HD is fully cinematic, the bulk of the film feels very much like video). However, unlike the raw pull of the Dogme or pseudo-Dogme films, Antichrist feels fairly conventional. Perhaps, in part, because the raw, off-the-cuff style has become our culture’s dominant aesthetic with the advent of reality television and ascent of Paul Greengrass’ shaky-cam action films – suddenly the trappings of “up close and personal” cinema no longer seem so subversive or shocking. Furthermore, the dialogue is at times didactic, as the actors struggle (mostly with success) to humanize their all-purpose protagonists. All in all, the style and scripting of the film can feel a little disappointing at times; von Trier closes the film with a dedication to visionary Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, but one finds oneself wishing that the truly Tarkovskyian moments weren’t so few and far between, like all-too-fleeting visitors from another more mystical, all-too-missed dimension.
Yet within its own stylistic constraints, the film is fluid, effective, fully controlled – if one leaves the theater disappointed in a sense, perhaps somewhat confused, one also is left with the lingering suspicion that one nonetheless may have witnessed greatness. There are enough gorgeous moments throughout (these moments are referred to as “test footage” in the credits) to keep the viewer intrigued – and ultimately these linger even longer than the gruesome violence serving as the film’s centerpiece and probably the source of its notoriety. If you’ve stuck around this long, be aware that major, and quite nasty, spoilers lie around. You see, ultimately She – who has already acknowledged a belief in the responsibility of women for their own historic persecution – attacks He, bashing him in a rather tender spot and then, while he’s unconscious, doing something which shall go unmentioned in this piece. Finally, she drills a hole in his leg, inserting a road and connecting it to a stone wheel in order to keep him “bound.” Fears of castration are ultimately confirmed, but not in the sense we expected – she wields the rusty scissors on herself in a close-up which, I must confess, I didn’t watch but for a frame after the jump cut.
Finally, after awakening, crawling into hole out in the woods, and unsuccessfully attempting to clobber a crow whose squawking betrays away his hiding place, the man frees himself and strangles his wife to death. She has already warned him that someone must die when the Three Beggars – Grief, Despair, and Pain, represented by a deer (with a deformed fetus growing out of its anus), a fox, and the aforementioned crow – appear. The animals arrive but she hardly struggles with her husband while he disarms her and unscrews his heavy constraint. Retrospectively, it seems clear that her abuse of him was only to ensure retribution: when he kills her, it’s the final fulfillment of her self-loathing (ever-present in the wake of her son’s death, which she may have caused – inadvertently? on purpose? – by putting his shoes on the wrong feet).
This leads to the vaguely perplexing conclusion in which Dafoe leaves Eden, his own Eve lying lifeless in its center. Handel soars on the soundtrack once again, the imagery returns to its original monochrome hues and stylized framing, and Dafoe looks about him with disbelief. A flock of women slowly emerge out of the woods where, in earlier, darker moments, we viewed masses of knotted dead bodies strewn through the soil. Has She, (anti?)Christlike, liberated their souls from purgatory and cleansed their sins? Is sinfulness the wrong way to look at it – was she the ultimate martyr, with their “resurrection” merely a reminder of the brutality women suffered at men’s hands throughout history, usually from those who – like He – thought they were doing right? Or are they a silent reminder to Dafoe’s character of the tradition he belongs to? Why are their faces still blurred? As with the tolling bells at the end of Breaking the Waves, the appearance of this woodland sisterhood blurs the line between female martyrdom and objectifying sexism – supposedly von Trier had a “misogyny” expert on the set during this shoot, but she may have been out for a coffee break when this scene went before the cameras.
Ultimately, the conclusion, like the rest of the film is as fascinating as it is vexing. It will take multiple viewings – if one can withstand the sordid sadism of the final act – to decode all the film’s allusions and symbols, to analyze its correspondence to greater archetype as well as its inner dramatic connections (the “meaning” as well as the “story”), and to determine why the hell that fox looks up at Dafoe halfway through, and loudly hisses, in a voice worthy of Gollum, “Chaos reigns.” All of that will be fun, to be sure, but there’s a more important question: does the film work? Does it move, does it captivate, does it illuminate? At times, yes, but for the bulk, I’m not so sure. As some sort of a mad allegory, for the historical relations of the sexes, the relationship between reason and intuition in human society, the position of the director himself in relation to his subjects – and indeed the connectedness of these various subtexts to one another – no doubt reams of essays could be written about the movie.
Yet as an emotional experience the film struck an uneasy balance between the archetypal and the specific. At times, our distance from the characters, despite the commitment of the performances, was hard to surmount given the lack of a relatable world around them – or indeed, any world at all. And the levels of mystification von Trier piles onto the movie, from the hypnotic black-and-white footage to the scrawled chapter headings to the very title itself, repeatedly make us step back and question what we’re seeing, instead of falling under its spell. Such may be the point, but is it an ideal one? Yet there’s enough there to warrant a second look, and perhaps a deeper discovery. Like that hideous little fox, von Trier hisses his warning at us, but he knows we can’t resist. And so we follow him yet again into that deep, dark glen, into a Nature that, as the film’s characters note at one point, could be that external threatening Nature or else the human nature within. Either way, it’s one cruel mother.
Read comments on Wonders in the Dark, where the piece was originally cross-linked.