Review: Antichrist, 2009, dir. Lars von Trier

Antichrist represents the sort of film that can’t simply be written off using monosyllabic soundbites to indicate its quality; “good” and “bad” don’t really come into the discussion. Rather, Antichrist is challenging; controversial director Lars von Trier has made a film that forces us to confront our grieving processes and ask ourselves deeply personal and sensitive questions about human sexuality. Indeed, the sex of von Trier’s characters, in every meaning that that implies, makes up the bulk of his film’s focus. And often their sexual natures are examined in graphic, uncomfortable, and frequently disturbing ways. Setting aside the sexually confused (arguably repressed) culture we live in, Antichrist is an extremely taxing movie to experience, but undoubtedly a completely visionary and deftly made picture all the same.

Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play He and She, respectively, parents who we meet in a carnal grasp in the film’s opening. Sex proves to be a fatal distraction, and their child, unsupervised, falls out of a window and dies. The entire sequence is shot in black and white, and in slow motion; for von Trier the bleakness of the color palette and the speed of the proceedings appear to be tools for mounting a sense of inevitability and dread. She, in the aftermath of the boy’s death, remains confined to a hospital for over a month, medicated through her grief; He, a psychiatrist, deigns that he can treat Her better than her own doctor can, and begins to assist Her through the grieving process. Their journey leads them to a cabin in the woods, where the nature surrounding them slowly morphs into something abnormal and malevolent as the film slow-burns its way to its devastating final act.

This is not a film for the squeamish. That may bear repeating. Antichrist is not for the squeamish. Von Trier litters the film with unsettling and often grotesque imagery– foxes self-cannibalizing, does running through the woods with dead fawn hanging half-born out of their bodies, baby birds being set upon by swarms of famished ants. This is to say nothing of the gruesome events of the film’s climax, unblinking portrayals of sexual violence with the power to leave even a seasoned film buff speechless in the emotional flotsam of their wakes. But where the greatest difficulty of the visuals lies in determining their meaning, and understanding what von Trier intends by their inclusion. What is Antichrist? A blistering misogynistic text? Or a brutal and unflinching defense of women? Or is it neither of these things, something wholly different– maybe a close-up glimpse of the destruction of a marriage, peppered with the unearthly?

The quickest answer is that von Trier is being unforthcoming and somewhat obtuse, and of course that’s exactly what makes Antichrist so compelling. In point of fact, the film is all of the aforementioned things, or at least it can be. Taken at face value, Antichrist reads like a scathing indictment of the female gender; She, in doing research about gynocide, comes to believe that women are inherently evil. Her subsequent actions seem to support her assertion; She tortures He and mutilates herself in an abrupt outburst of animal violence. But the exact evidence she uses to make her conclusion (documents detailing practices used upon suspects during witch hunts) actually can be used to defeat it. In other words it’s a movie that exists in contradiction of itself, and ultimately what you take away from it depends solely on you. Yes, the same can be said of most movies, but rarely is such sentiment so totally true as it is in context with a film like Antichrist. Von Trier gives us much, but at the same time conceals an enormous amount, and the result is something totally complex that will probably elude full comprehension with one viewing– which, I’m certain, is the point.

While I can’t say with authority what Antichrist‘s true meaning is, what I can say is that von Trier’s film looks totally gorgeous. It’s photographed marvelously, and with intimacy appropriate for an examination of the disintegration of the characters’ marriage. Even in the open wilds the director’s eye errs on the side of the personal, remaining focused and mostly closed in as She descends further into madness and He struggles to understand the wife who he has kept at arm’s length for so much of their relationship. Antichrist was shot in the North Rhine-Westphalia state of Germany (and in fact, represents the first film that von Trier has shot entirely in Germany), and the lush countryside is captured in beautiful detail. The purity of the film’s location balances against the eerie and haunting elements introduced in the film’s middle, and it is in those moments that von Trier is at his best. He wields command over the supernatural like few directors working today do, weaving it into his narrative seamlessly and without allowing it to become the star of his film while still managing to retain its power to shock and move us. Antichrist could very easily be categorized as a horror movie, but it is important to recognize that the elements of the paranormal introduced in the story exist for a purpose broader than the simple need to scare or titillate us.

Grounding the film through the supernatural are the performances of Dafoe and Gainsbourg, who make up the total focal points of the plot. While von Trier deserves credit for keeping a film centered on only two characters (three if you include the brief moments where their child still lives) from feeling terse and self-deflating, the real praise should be heaped upon his players, whose turns as the grieving parents can only be described as undeniably brave and immeasurably powerful. Literally, both actor and actress bare themselves before their audiences and render themselves exposed to our eyes and judgment– the recurring full-frontal of both actor and actress easily could be too much for more prude audiences– and genuinely suffer for their art and their craft. Dafoe personifies condescension as a rational man attempting to find reason in chaos, while Gainsbourg– easily the better of the two excellent performers here– begins her descent into real madness in the midst of an ongoing downward spiral. Her arc– from grieving mother to an avatar of feminine wrath– is undeniably gripping, the kind of performance that few female performers are bold enough to nurture.

And when the credits roll, all we can objectively say about Antichrist‘s quality relates explicitly to performance; the rest, I fear, I didn’t quite “get”. But maybe that’s okay; Antichrist, at a lean hour and forty minute run time, is stuffed to the gills with ideas about gender relations and roles, and when a film demands its viewers to face their own conceptions regarding both, there’s reasonable amounts of wiggle room for uncertainty and doubt. But the film’s visceral and emotional qualities are above dispute; quite simply, whatever you ultimately make of Antichrist, it is a singularly and unequivocally provocative picture fully capable of moving any audience. Will you love it? Not necessarily. Will it defy your expectations and perceptions? Without question.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Antichrist, 2009, dir. Lars von Trier

  1. I really did not enjoy this movie much. Sure, it was wonderfully shot and amazingly acted but what was the point of it? Why all the shocking and grotesque sights? I thought this movie was doing all this just for the sake of controversy and it didn’t really have a point. Also, well I thought it was a bit bland after the opening sequence and before Hell was unleashed.

    • Well, that’s the challenge of Antichrist. I loved it and even I’m not sure I fully “got” it/understood it. Arguably the graphic imagery is there in service of the story; it exists to underscore the utter disintegration of not only He’s and She’s marriage but of their respective sanities. I mean, really, She is embracing all of the irrationality and hatred inherent in the subject of her research (witch hunts); combined with her grief, the film leads to her growing totally combustible, and the third act represents her becoming truly unhinged.

      What I appreciate about your comment is that you appreciate the craftsmanship that went into creating the film. Antichrist, beautiful qualities aside, isn’t for everyone. But at the end of the day, even though you were repelled by the imagery, that exact element may ensure that you never forget it. And maybe that’s part of von Trier’s intent, too.

      But given who von Trier is, we’ll probably never know.

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