A Second Opinion: A New Review for ‘Antichrist’

Arriving later this month from IFC Films is Lars von Trier’s highly anticipated Antichrist, which stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a couple who retreat to an isolated cabin in the woods following the death of their child. While Michael Panduro already chimed in with his positive review, we’ve got another look at the film thanks to Thomas M. Wagner. Chaos Reigns!
Antichrist is a transgressive psychosexual nightmare of such lacerating intensity that it will likely be too much for many audiences to take, even those familiar with Danish wild man Lars von Trier and the fearless way he likes to go over the top and keep going. Von Trier has visited the dark night of the soul many times before, in such despair-laced epics as Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. The latter of those two films was such an ordeal for its star, Icelandic singer Björk, that she gave up acting altogether. One can only imagine what von Trier’s stars in Antichrist, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, had to process, both emotionally and intellectually, to take on the roles they play here. These are not merely brilliant performances, but heroic ones.

If you think you know what the movie is about because of its title, you’re wrong. If you think you’re prepared for it because you’ve seen everything else von Trier has done, you’re wrong. If you’ve read the reports from Cannes about horrified viewers fleeing the screening like startled rabbits, particularly during that one scene where She gets out the scissors, and you think this gives you a good idea of what to expect, you’re wrong. There’s far more than meets the eye here, right down to the movie’s enigmatic and thought-provoking final shot, and it’s only after a great deal of reflection that you can begin to get a grip on what you’ve seen and what it all means. Having thought about it intensely (it’s impossible to do anything but think about Antichrist for several hours after you see it), I think I have a good idea. Maybe I’m wrong. All I can tell you for sure is that this movie takes a lot out of you.

The story details one couple’s descent into hell, after a tragic accident kills their infant son. The accident makes up the film’s prologue, a masterful sequence shot in black and white with a hypnotic beauty that visually evokes such early von Trier movies as Europa and The Element of Crime. We know the boy’s name — Nick — but the couple is never named. The credits identify them as He and She. This leaves the film open for von Trier to spin an allegorical web over a story that, innocently at first, seems as if it’s going to be about grief, then seems as if it’s going to be about madness. It is about those things. But then it goes farther, much farther. If your understanding of Antichrist stops at madness, you’ve missed the black forest for the trees.

He is a psychotherapist. She is a historian and writer. In the wake of the child’s death, She is so debilitated by grief that it’s almost as if She will never recover. She blames herself, which He reassures her, in that armchair therapist manner, is normal. There is, as we will learn, absolutely nothing at all normal about Her self-recrimination. But He deals with Her emotional trauma by going into hyper-rational Professional Mode, a trick She sees through immediately. “You’re distant,” She tells Him bitterly, which He rejects. But She’s right. Clearly She knows a thing or two about psychology Herself.

But She is still mostly a basket case, shifting moods wildly from deepest anguish to manic episodes where She pounces on Him in a kind of sexual frenzy. He comes up with a therapeutic exercise: define your fears and confront them. She manages to identify a locus for every fear and anxiety currently tormenting her, a cabin deep in the woods where She recently spent some time, alone with Nick, while researching Her book. Now, it’s the precise topic She was researching, and the effect that this has had on Her, that will inform everything that transpires in the movie from the time He and She return to the cabin in an effort to heal Her.

The “cabin in the woods” thing is the one nod to conventional horror tropes that von Trier allows himself here. Beyond that, he moves into dangerous territory all his own. We know things will not turn out well for the couple. It’s in the narrative’s many layers of hidden meaning that the real depths of the horror lay.

As the couple venture deeper into the woods (named, with massive allegorical significance, Eden), it appears that Her mental state might be affecting Him more than He realizes. Seemingly innocent visions of the beauty of nature suddenly reveal decay and corruption. He spots a doe, alone in a clearing. But when the creature turns away, there is a stillborn fawn dangling grotesquely from its birth canal. Even the acorns, falling from the trees with a sound like little gunshots on the cabin roof, will mostly fall not to take root, but to die. Falling to death, pointlessly, just like Nick. Nature itself, so deceptively beautiful, always ends in death. It’s a theme von Trier conveys to startling effect in the way he photographs the location itself. I don’t care how many “cabin in the woods” horror movies you’ve seen; you’ve never seen woods, even in The Blair Witch Project, as terrifying as these.

I’m up to the point where a reviewer can get frustrated, because to write a simple consumer review of this movie seems so inadequate, when what Antichrist needs is the sort of analysis that allows you to talk freely about its ending, its surprises, its symbols, to an audience who has seen it too. This will be a movie that film students will write their master’s theses on. Entire auditoriums will debate it heatedly.

Suffice it to say I am bowled over by its artistic brilliance, yet hesitant to recommend it without giving people a full understanding of what they’re in for. (Yes, the graphic as well as the emotional content is a big part of that. Von Trier doesn’t do gore in great quantities, but when he does it, he makes it count.) But even that would be futile, as I could simply type out a scene-for-scene story walkthrough, and it would still not fully prepare you for the experience of watching it yourself. Part of me hopes I never go within a hundred miles of Antichrist again, while part of me wants to see it again, desperately, right this minute. I know a second viewing will help clarify my understanding. At the very least, I’ll be ready for that one scene, even if I still have to avert my eyes.

Von Trier has been slammed by some critics as misogynist, because his female characters routinely endure ordeals that are horrific beyond words. (Emily Watson of Breaking the Waves is another heroic actress who deserves an “I Survived Lars von Trier” medal, and von Trier will likely go down in history as the only director able to convince a star of Nicole Kidman’s stature to do a gang rape scene.) This movie will probably give those critics plenty of ammunition. I suspect that when Antichrist begins its US art-house run late in 2009, a number of feminist blogs will erupt like Mt. Saint Helens. It will be an entirely understandable reaction to a movie like this.

The thing is, while I do think there’s some real misanthropy going on in von Trier’s films, Antichrist is not, when you consider it carefully, a misogynist film by any means, despite all that She and He will experience in those woods. Actually, if anything is under indictment in this movie, it’s misogyny itself, particularly a patriarchal societal norm rooted in centuries of religious teachings that brand a woman’s sexuality, and the very essence of her femininity, as innately sinful and evil. It is only through an understanding of the film as anti-misogynist that the final shot makes any sense.

What is likely to cause the greatest argument among audiences is von Trier’s solution, which is to offer an “Antichrist,” in effect a female Christ — the hint is there in the way the title is spelled onscreen, with the last “t” replaced by the symbol for woman — to undo the Fall and cleanse womanhood of the unjust taint of “sin”. (If you think of a female Christ figure as an “anti”-Christ, you’re explicitly rejecting the patriarchal religious view that necessitates a male savior and masculine god.) I think von Trier fully intends audiences to glom on to the way his title links femininity to the Antichrist concept, and to respond angrily when they interpret the word by the conventional Christian definition — only to find he’s subverted that expectation by completely reversing the word’s meaning in his narrative. Is a female “Antichrist” better suited to redeeming humanity than a male Christ? Eve, after all, got a pretty raw deal. Without some kind of corrective, and soon, then, like the dying fox says, “Chaos reigns.”

9/10 Skulls

Thomas M. Wagner also reviews literary science fiction and fantasy at SF Reviews.net.