Dir: Lars Von Trier
Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.
Lars Von Trier may not be the most universally appreciated of filmmakers, but he is certainly one that enjoys titillating and pushing his audience with his movies. With films like Breaking the Waves, Dogville and Dancer in the Dark, Von Trier made just as many enemies as admirers with his punishing vision of humanity. However, it’s Antichrist, recently released by the Criterion Collection, that may be the ultimate test for Von Trier admirers.
In many of his films, Dogville and Dancer especially, Von Trier is critical of American society, even manipulating us to enjoy the bloodbath at the end of Dogville, slaking that American desire for revenge and justice, even if it’s at the hands of outlaws. However, it’s not the American Empire Von Trier is decrying as evil in Antichrist, but humanity itself.
Upon its debut at Cannes, Antichrist polarized the audience. Some hailed it as a masterpiece while a few even fainted in response to the movie’s explicit violence. It is definitely not a film for everyone, but anyone who calls Antichrist a failure is unwilling to push themselves to see beyond the film’s horrific exterior. Written while the director suffered from a crippling depression, Antichrist begins with a beautiful black and white sequence set to Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga.” As Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s nameless characters make love in slow motion in the bathroom, their toddler son escapes his crib and falls to his death out the window of their apartment. It is, perhaps, one of the most beautiful sequences ever filmed, the child floating in the air, flecks of falling snow drifting down to the street along with him. However, leave it Von Trier to twist the nature of things. Rather than signify the procreation of new life, the copulation of Dafoe and Gainsbourg instead is the catalyst for the end of life.
After the child’s death, Gainsbourg suffers from a debilitating grief, one that fascinates Dafoe, her smug therapist husband who decides to treat her as his patient. After fishing for what terrifies her the most, a cabin in the woods known as Eden, Dafoe decides that bringing the patient to the source of her terror is the best and most aggressive way to treat her malaise.
Both an allegory and a horror film, Antichrist becomes an exercise in terror as the couple grapples with the nature of good and evil up in the cabin. But this is a Lars Von Trier film and concepts like feminism, the healing power of nature and even gender roles are twisted. The woods are home to a malevolent force and rather than heal Gainsbourg’s grief, they change her into a violent monster.
The key to the film (and Von Trier’s vision) comes when Dafoe discovers the research material for Gainsbourg’s abandoned thesis on “gynocide” in the tight attic of the cabin. Rather than continue the modern viewpoint of repulsion at the torture, murder and dismemberment of women during the Medieval period, Gainsbourg instead finds justification in this heinous acts, tying the evil of women to the concept of Original Sin. If all humanity is evil, then women are evil by default, therefore justifying any sort of horror impugned upon them in the past and the present. Does this justify Von Trier’s own degradation of actresses like Emily Watson, Nicole Kidman and Bjork in past films?
On a basic level, Antichrist flips over the gender roles seen in most other horror films. Gainsbourg begins to terrorize Dafoe in the film’s final act, boring a hole through his leg with an awl, penetrating him as it were, before chasing her hobbled husband through the forest with a knife. Just like the cowering last survivors in a Friday the 13th film, Dafoe has become that shivering, terrified victim alone in the woods with a psychopath. But once again, as Dafoe manages to choke the life from his aggressor (but not before she removes her own gender by cutting off her clitoris with a pair of rusty scissors), Von Trier seems to want us to help guide Dafoe’s hands around his wife’s throat.
So where does the Antichrist come into the film? True, Gainsbourg seems imbued by dark and evil powers that stem from the woods and her research, but perhaps she was also preparing her son to be the titular villain. She finally snaps when she finds a coroner’s report showing damage to her son’s feet and Dafoe finds photos where she placed the wrong shoe on the wrong foot on her son in numerous occasions. It is perhaps an allusion to the cloven hoof of Satan or just another red herring thrown our way by Von Trier, but we later learn Gainsbourg saw her son approach the window while in the throes of passion. Was his death a blood offering?
“If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, this is the movie he would have made,” John Waters said of Antichrist, naming it one of his favorite films of 2009. On repeated viewings, once the shock value of the violence has died down, it proves itself to be one of the most thought-provoking and obscure horror films of the last decade. While Von Trier’s intent may be too obfuscated and misogynistic to defend (but I would proffer an anti-humanity bent rather than anti-female), Antichrist is a film that will likely continue to polarize audiences for years to come. It is not a fun night at the movies, but unlike most horror films, this one leaves you thinking for days to follow.