Zentropa Entertainments  104′
director: Lars von Trier
cast: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Visit the official site at IFC Films
Pre-order the film from Amazon.co.uk
ANTICHRIST opens in limited release in
the United States on October 23rd
A Warning: I plan on discussing this film, still new and unseen by many, at some length and in some detail – as such I feel it pertinent to warn that this article may contain SPOILERS. If you’re inclined to be bothered by such things I recommend seeing the film before proceeding further.
An unnamed couple [Dafoe and Gainsbourg] lose their child in a horrific accident [falling from their apartment window as He and She make love] and She, stricken with crippling grief, is hospitalized. He, a therapist, disagrees with her doctor’s diagnosis of her grief as atypical and, convinced he knows his wife better than anyone, has her released into his care.
She is forced to flush her medication and confront her grief head-on, culminating in He taking her on a therapeutic trip to Eden – a cabin in the woods in which She and her son had spent the previous summer . . .
Writer / director Lars von Trier’s latest is like little else that has come before, though its construction reminds of another polarizing effort – Pasolini’s SALO. Both persue similar subject matter [death, sex, and sadistic violence] and push the same boundaries of what is and isn’t appropriate in a feature film. Both also invited considerable controversy in their time. While ANTICHRIST’s horror never matches the dizzying level palpable dread that permeates Pasolini’s film it does approach its content with the same unwavering honesty – half a decade of subjection to mainstream torture-porn can’t dampen its grisly effectiveness.
Von Trier was reportedly greatly offended when the executive producer of the film let known the original intentions for the ending – in which it was to be revealed that Earth was created by Satan, as opposed to by God – but the crux of his re-written screenplay, in the works since 2005, isn’t a far stretch from that. The thesis of the production can be found in a conversation between He and She, in which the latter relates how her previous summer in Eden had made her aware of how hideous all the things she once thought to be beautiful really were – that “nature is Satan’s church”. It is from this thesis that the entirety of the crooked mythology of the film is formed.
Eden itself is a bastardization of the garden in Genesis from which it takes its name, possessing a tree of death [huge, long dead and slowly rotting] at its center as opposed to a tree of life, with He and She being alternative takes on the traditional Adam and Eve. Just as the Eden of ANTICHRIST is a reversal of the Biblical concept, so are He and She’s reasons for being there. Their respective sin, her despair and his pride, draws them to the place rather than casting them from it.
There He learns the truth She already secretly knows – that nature, and human nature vicariously, is at its core deceptive and cruel. He encounters a deer with a miscarried fawn hanging from its hind quarters and a fox eating another of its own kind as well as a crow that appears dead but is very much alive [the three animals each represent a stage of the grieving process - grief, pain, and despair - and are known collectively as The Three Beggars]. Even the lowly acorns are deceptive, sounding like rainfall one moment and footsteps another. It is his pride that prevents him from seeing the cruelty and deception inherent in his own character [or determining the real cause of his wife's suffering].
Throughout the first half of the film He torments She in the name of therapy, cutting her off from her medication, denying her sex and condescendingly casting aside all of her concerns. “That’s very touching if it was a children’s book,” He glibly remarks when she poetically describes her reasons for fearing Eden. He remains blind to her most important revelations [such as the implication that She, herself, is evil and capable of evil deeds] until it’s far too late.
His comments and therapeutic exercises chip away at her fragile exterior until she can take no more, leading to the most infamous [and horrific] moments of the picture. She, her despair turned to wrath, convinces herself that He neither loves her nor wants to help her and meets his psychological cruelty with a more physical variety. In her first act of overt sexual violence She smashes his testicles with a piece of firewood and forces him to expel bloody ejaculate, then drills a hole through his leg and bolts it to a millstone to prevent him escaping.
Written as a sort of self-therapy on the part of von Trier, who had been depressed to such an extent that it prevented his working, ANTICHRIST definitely plays as a vision from a troubled mind. Disembodied limbs rise from between gnarled tree roots as He and She fuck [whatever romance was present at the beginning of the film is long since lost at this point] and the forest distorts into masses of twisted human bodies in images evocative of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. There’s an unnerving darkness present throughout and even the calmest of scenes carry with them an undercurrent of potential violence.
On the few occassions when that potential meets visceral fruition, ANTICHRIST is second to none in its capacity to disturb – unhinging its jaws and plunging its audience deep into the belly of the beast. The controversial scene in which She, as self-administered ritual punishment for her involvement in her son’s death, removes her clitoris with a pair of shears is unmatched as clinical horror and doubled in its efficacy by our understanding of the character’s grief. ANTICHRIST’s visualizations of the extremities of human despair are minutely precise and daring in their frankness – fictionalized suffering has rarely felt so real.
From a strictly technical standpoint there is no denying that this is a von Trier film. From the hand-scrawled opening titles to the end dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky, the provocative director’s hand in the proceedings is unmistakable. Willem Dafoe has said that von Trier was “deeply sincere and deeply vulnerable” during filming, and that the project was intensely personal for the director is obvious and welcome. In spite of its unwavering darkness, ANTICHRIST is the most beautiful of von Trier’s productions to date with its super-stylized slow motion and superb choice of location – Charlotte Gainsbourg’s hypnotic walk through Eden is as fantastic as anything ever committed to film.
There are more than enough moments of extreme graphic imagery here to keep ANTICHRIST’s critics polarized for decades, as IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, SALO, and others have polarized them in the past. Prime example of its ability to divide can be seen in the results of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, in which the jury awarded Charlotte Gainsbourg with the award for Best Actress while simultaneously giving the film itself an anti-award for mysogyny [a move decried by festival director Thierry Frémaux]. Where I stand in the good / bad argument should be obvious from the above eleven paragraphs, but it shouldn’t matter. Lars von Trier is, for better or worse, one of the visionary directors of our time and ANTICHRIST, love it or hate it, certainly deserves to be seen.