Written and directed by Lars von Trier. Released by IFC Films.
(Note: This review discusses specific events late in the film, so SPOILER ALERT. Seriously, I’m giving away the whole game here. Be aware that you may find the discussion overly graphic and/or repulsive.)
Danish director Lars von Trier has long had a reputation for misogyny, and there’s little question that he’s prone to putting his actresses through the proverbial wringer. Of his past work, I’ve seen Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville, and all three featured stories that put their heroines through wave after wave of abuse and humiliation. Dogville eventually allowed Nicole Kidman’s character to turn the tables on her tormentors, but by and large, all three films portrayed these characters as innocents under assail. That may be a form of casual misogyny itself – seeing women as helpless, innocent, and frail – but I thought the targets of those films were the male characters and their unrelenting weakness and cruelty.
While that may also be the case – to an extent, anyway – in Antichrist, there’s no denying that it’s a different beast altogether. The film is about a couple, played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (given no names, and referenced in the credits only as “He” and “She”), who are grieving over the loss of their infant son. He is a therapist, and takes it upon himself to treat her extreme grief. Eventually, as part of her treatment, he moves them to their isolated cabin in the woods, which they call “Eden.”
At this point, it’s clear that von Trier has more on his plate than simply the interactions between a grieving couple in a broken marriage, and indeed the film becomes a merciless allegory of grief, pain and despair. von Trier introduces different religious and historical elements into the story in such a flurry that it’s hard to keep up with them – Satan, the burial and resurrection of Christ, witch trials. Finally, the film climaxes in an eruption of sadomasochism so brutal and hopeless as to suggest that the world is a fundamentally evil place.
It’s an understatement to say that this is an ambitious film, but I found myself wondering if von Trier really has the discipline as a storyteller to pull it off. If the film were less of a frenzy, it may have been overwhelming, but I think von Trier goes so far over the top as to undermine himself. For example, it’s one thing for a man to have his genitals crushed by a fireplace log. When you proceed to have a woman jerk him off, however, and then have him ejaculate blood while he’s passed out … how is one supposed to take that kind of imagery seriously?
I’ve written before about my innate self-defense mechanism that kicks in when a movie becomes difficult to watch. Simply put, when I’m pushed too far, that fourth wall is broken, and I find myself consciously thinking about how everything I’m seeing is fake. One example that I’ve used in the past is during 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, when we’re given a lingering shot of the fetus on the bathroom floor. Up until that point, I had been absorbed in the film, but that shot took me out of it. As it lingered, I found myself thinking that it obviously wasn’t real, and as the shot continued it started to look like the fake it was. It was a mostly masterful film, but that shot was a miscalculation.
Instead of a single shot, I think the entire last act of Antichrist is a similar miscalcution. Besides the bloody ejaculation, we’re treated to seeing Charlotte Gainsbourg drilling a hole in Dafoe’s leg and fastening a grindstone to it. We’re shown a graphic (but again, obviously fake) shot of her cutting off her own clit with a pair of scissors. He’s buried alive before being dug up again. And he strangles her in a long, drawn-out sequence. Perhaps I’m simply unwilling to face the horrors in the world, that I find myself unable to take these images seriously. Or perhaps I simply understand that I don’t have to just because I’m at the whim of some huckster with a movie camera.
I wish I could report that the film is an admirable misfire. I generally do admire Lars von Trier and his willingness as a provocateur. Some of the less painful imagery is astonishing; in particular, von Trier and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, along with their special effects artists, have created an effect in some shots I haven’t seen before, where landscapes appear to move like animated paintings. And the performances by Dafoe and Gainsbourg are certainly worthy of respect, even if I couldn’t help but think “Green Goblin!” a half-dozen times as Dafoe glowers into the general vicinity of the camera (probably my fault more than his or von Trier’s). I feel it’s worth seeing if you’re an admirer of the director or otherwise up to the most challenging semi-mainstream film likely to appear for some time.
But I genuinely feel that the movie is a failure of communication. Whatever von Trier’s intentions, they’re lost in a mix of heavy-handed symbolism, impenetrable allegory, and corrosive imagery.