You must have heard all about it by now: the genital self-mutilation, the talking fox, the loudest chorus of boos and jeers to greet a film in Cannes since Gasper Noé’s “Irreversible seven years ago, the Daily Mail’s demand to have the film banned in the UK, the wide-spread misogyny accusations, the Tarkovsky dedication. European cinema’s enfant terrible has astonishingly outdone himself, creating the most shocking work of his unsettling career and the year’s most controversial film.
Four months since its release in Europe, “Antichrist continues to be heavily debated by Lars von Trier’s fervent supporters and his equally passionate opponents. American critics are already joining the debate a month prior to the film’s limited US release.
As the heated argument continued to rage on, I sat quietly a month ago to watch the film. My first reaction to the movie was somewhat extreme. “The most difficult, most visceral, most agonizing 105 minutes of my entire cinematic life, I wrote in my blog. The film left me shaken to the core, searching like a madman for any possible thread of hope. For 105 minutes, civilization swiftly collapsed in front of my eyes as von Trier’s forces of despair plunged me deeper into the foreboding abyss.
The second viewing was starkly different. Watching the film with a clearer mindset this time around, I decided to detach myself from Eden, the reclusive cabin in the woods where most of the film is set. My impression of von Trier’s powerful and unique filmmaking remained unchanged. The rawness, ferocity and crushing despondency of the film hit me as hard as the first time. Yet, surprisingly, “Antichrist didn’t appear as shocking as I initially thought it was. The horror elements are too scattershot to pose a tangible threat. And although the film, on paper at least, centers on a couple dealing with the loss of their son, the film is not actually about grief.
“Antichrist is a film with a multitude of dimensions. On one level, it’s is a vivid, excruciatingly piercing portrayal of depression and madness. On a more expansive one, the film re-imagines the story of creation told in reverse, propounding the following question: What if Satan was the one who created the world and not God?
Like his 1996 Grand Prix winner “Breaking the Waves, von Trier’s film is divided into four chapters: “Grief, “Pain (Chaos Reigns), “Despair (Gynocide) and “The Four Beggars, in addition to a prologue and an epilogue.
Set to the Lascio Chi’o Pianga aria from Handel’s moving opera Rinaldo, the film opens with an impeccable black and white slow-motion sequence imbued with savage beauty and immeasurable sadness. The two unnamed protagonists of the film, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, are making love in the washroom, lost in abandon. Their baby son crawls out of his bed, glances at them, climbs up the sill, tries to catch the falling snowflakes and accidentally falls to his death. In von Trier’s world, ecstasy is never devoid of agony; both are inseparable; both are the building blocks of this life.
Unable to cope with the loss of her baby, Gainsbourg, a PHD student, is hospitalized. Her husband, a therapist, seems fairly remote. He coerces her to cut off her medication and decides to treat her himself.
He takes her to Eden, the source of Gainsbourg’s deepest fears. He subjects her to intense, non-stop psychological inspections, stripping her off from her mental and emotional defenses. He’s mercilessly arrogant; she’s too vulnerable to endure his unbending determination. She breaks down, starts devouring her husband, and in the words of one talking fox, chaos reigns.
Von Trier wrote the film during a severe fit of depression, and it clearly shows. Nearly every scene of the film radiates unfathomable sorrow and rage. Gainsbourg, in a brave emotionally and physically naked performance, embodies his depression with every shudder, look and scream. “Antichrist is unmistakably a work of a man trying to find a way out of his internal inferno.
Gainsbourg is the emblem of von Trier. The most difficult thing for the depressed is realizing that his/her pain is unshared, and that is what Gainsbourg experiences with her husband despite his efforts. Like von Trier, she finds herself facing this cannibalistic hollowness alone, thrust in a battle she’s bound to lose. The punishment she ultimately wreaks upon her husband is, in many ways, analogous to the one von Trier imposes on his viewers.
Von Trier conceives his vision via a series of carefully constructed austere imageries reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf (1968) and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s gothic tales (“Vampyr, “Day of Wrath ). The basic premise “Antichrist shares with Nicolas Roeg’s classic “Don’t Look Now (1973) is rather superficial. The latter is a study of grief formulated in the shape of a horror film. The former is more complex and ambiguous in the routes it takes and the destination it reaches.
It is also von Trier’s most visually striking film since “Europa (1991). Lensed with a rigorous formality by “Slumgdog Millionaire DOP and Dogma 95 alumnus Anthony Dod Mantle, “Antichrist represents a much welcomed departure from the natural lighting and handheld camera movements the Danish provocateur strictly adopted in his last five films. The end product is a true work of radical art; breathtakingly beautiful canvases juxtaposed with images of equal ugliness. The most terrifying images of the film, including a particular one featured at the end of the trailer, recall Hieronymus Bosch’s 1504 famous painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights. Realizing parts of this painting on film is, in my book at least, more petrifying than the 30 minutes combined.
The unbearably extreme emotional guilelessness is what “Antichrist is such an exceedingly difficult film to watch, not the heavily discussed torture scenes which say more about the dire state of journalism than the film.
The graphic torture scenes are tremendously shocking. But von Trier is not the first filmmaker to resort to extremes, nor will he be the last. From the early surrealistic works of Luis Buñuel (“Un chien andalou, 1929, “L’âge d’or, 1930) and experimentations of Maya Deren (“Meshes of the Afternoon, 1943), art cinema has never shied away from depicting extreme acts of violence, breaking more boundaries in the ’70s with Stanly Kubrick “A Clockwork Orange (1971), Nagisa Ôshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salò (1975) and reaching its zenith this decade with a multitude of films including Ki-duk Kim’s “The Isele (2000), Noé’s aforementioned “Irreversible (2002) and Virginie Despentes’s “Baise-moi (2000) to name a few.
As outrageous as “Antichrist’s torture scenes may seem, I believe there’s nothing in here grislier than Ruggero Deodato’s “Cannibal Holocaust (1980).
Most reporters and critics have refrained from discussing the theological questions von Trier presents, taking the easy route of shrugging the film off and branding it “pretentious.
“Antichrist takes place in a parallel universe. When the pair crosses the bridge to Eden, rational life ceases to exist. The Eden their forbearers were cast out from has been distorted.
“I understood that everything that used to be beautiful about Eden, it was perhaps hideous, Gainsbourg says at one point. “Now I could hear all things I couldn’t hear before; the cry of all the things that are to die.
Denying Gainsbourg her numbing medication becomes spurs her quest for a forbidden fruit. She uses sex as a drug to temporality shield herself away from the bare truth, but it doesn’t work for long. She eventually must face the truth about herself and the place she’s come to inhabit; a hopeless, vindictive world divorced from any salvation. The Antichrist is Eden, nature, this world of ours, driving us to inescapable doom. Is there a sacrifice to prevent it? It all depends on your personal interpretation of the last scene of the film.
Von Trier has created some of the cruelest, most emotionally e
xhausting films of the past 15 years. “Antichrist is his most misanthropic picture to date; a flawed and maddening film rich with countless allusions to Milton, Dante, Blake, Kierkegaard, Dali and Rembrandt that will continue to bewilder viewers the world over. My advice? Forget about the misdirected hype and go watch the film. “Antichrist is the must-see film of the year.
“Antichrist is released on DVD in the UK and parts of Western Europe next month.