Antichrist (2009, Lars von Trier)
It’s a reductive crime to characterize Antichrist, a genuinely enveloping, captivating nightmare captured on film, as the mere work of a provocateur dabbling in horror. It’s a profound and major film, and plainly the idiosyncratic result of a crippling depression on the part of its creator, Lars von Trier; this marked his first venture back into screenwriting and directing after it forced him to abandon or postpone several projects, notably the third installment in his USA trilogy (Dogville, Manderlay, the unmade Wasington). The pain is palpable in every frame of this bleak and strangely alluring piece of unfiltered, achingly personal cinema — what’s surprising, then, is what a fascinating thrill it turns out to be, difficult as it may occasionally be to watch.
And it must be said: that element has been overstated. Grouped in with Video Nasties, Antichrist is in reality a tasteful film with simply two or three very gruesome shots that (assuming you’ve been spoiled on the central conceit of the most graphic sequences) won’t really surprise you, but will induce some wincing. Compared to the violence in Drive or even the horrific rape in Frenzy, this movie’s tame. That it’s gained a reputation as an endurance test full of graphic gore and terror is a testament to its psychological power; as with David Fincher’s Se7en, people imagine so much more than what’s actually there. For all its promotion as a horror film, this too is a misnomer — it’s an unsparing examination of, depending on your perspective, an unraveling marriage or a life and relationship to reality unspooled by mental distress and death. Either way, it’s meditative in a way that even the smartest horror films simply aren’t.
One could easily write a book about what is or isn’t “really” happening in Antichrist, but certain bare facts seem lodged into the analysis: a child falls out a window and dies as his parents, she (Charlotte Gainsbourg) a journalist and he (Willem Dafoe) a psychiatrist, fuck too enthusiastically to notice in time that he’s left safety — significantly, her orgasm occurs just as the boy dies, which some labeled as typical Trier tastelessness but in reality is simply a setup for his examination of the damaging associations she gains with sex, which run on a parallel of re-acquisition of “life” and the will to live and a more basic negative connotation due to the synchronicity of her sexual bliss and the child’s loss of life. Though devastated, Dafoe remains somewhat stoic and professional and attempts to provide psychotherapy for his own wife, leading to an exposure experiment in which they will retreat to her most feared place: a cabin they keep in the woods, where shortly before the tragedy she was working on an extensive text about gynocide, filling a sinister upstairs room with graphic source materials, illustrations, sobering documents about violence against women. At that point things become confused, extrapolated, ambiguous. The direct story the film tells is of Gainsbourg losing her mind while unable to shake her own bodily desires, becoming obsessed with the material she’s studied and coming to either believe it or avenge its trail of blood by attempting to murder her husband, and by crushing his genitals, then burying him alive. When she has a moment of clarity and realizes what she’s done, she severs her clitoris with a pair of scissors and then becomes violent again, only to be strangled to death by Dafoe, an act here less of violence than liberation.
But the film is so dreamlike and rife with layered imagery that the nature of shared reality within the film’s events is up for debate, and it in the end seems less relevant as a linear story than as a progressively steeper mood piece of almost insurmountable darkness. The director himself referred to it, somewhat self-deprecatingly, as “a very dark dream about guilt and sex and stuff.” That more or less nails it, and if you’re willing to go along for that sort of a ride the movie’s sumptuous, although it’s important to make a distinction of the kind of guilt Von Trier speaks about: this is grief, of a sort usually alien to the movies because any expression of it might seem trite — and in the hands of some directors, a story drawing a line between this matter and sadomasochism would be a fatal mistake. It may be the most praiseworthy element of this stunningly inventive, expressive near-masterwork that by confronting its characters’ emotions head-on, with no apology or gentleness or careful self-censoring, it captures something shatteringly human, looking past and beyond all of the mutilation and talking animals and other such bells and whistles.
But bells and whistles mean something in a Lars von Trier movie, and much like the subsequent Melancholia, Antichrist finds the already great storyteller suddenly a new master of awe-inspiring visual beauty. No matter how oppressive or hopeless the story becomes, and it gets awfully thorny, Antichrist remains a feast for the eyes — there’s even something formally audacious and cinematically virile about the scene in which Gainsbourg gives her husband a handjob just after she’s crushed his testicles and he ejaculates blood. It sounds like the very definition of bad taste; it isn’t, it’s an act of John Waters outlaw cinema lensed with the careful haziness of romantic Hollywood. More obviously, as the fantasy world that the couple inhabits grows more invasive, the visuals are ever more hauntingly pretty and delicate, and the ordinary forest they inhabit is a quietly glorious setting to begin with. One doubts that any movie that’s caused such consternation has ever been so close, spiritually and aesthetically, to a Renaissance painting.
Or maybe something a bit more surreal. Trier dedicates Antichrist to Tarkovsky, but it’s hard not to relate the symbolic fervor and sense of primordial angst back to Bunuel and Dali’s L’age d’Or; the difference is that for Trier, everything’s in service of a specific story, a specific mood. And he’s so single-minded about it that some of his wilder tangents — the fox that announces to Dafoe that “chaos reigns,” for instance — seem less like gaffes when paired up with the stunning sense of atmosphere Trier uses to signify the pregnant fear in the woods, the fully absorbing and uneasy sense of place, right down to the pervasive sound of acorns falling on the roof… That sense of doom adds up to the kind of sensory overload and overwhelming aural experience movies too seldom harness their power to give; one imagines that a theatrical viewing of Antichrist is akin to seeing 2001 with a fresh audience: the fury and awe that must greet an act of absolute pure cinema. And this is a filmed dream designed to delve deep into you and fuss up your prejudices and reactions; if you’re like me, you won’t stop thinking about the movie for days after seeing it.
Trier’s of course helped immensely in the creation of this all-encompassing world by two of what I’m quite prepared to call the best acting performances in all of cinema. Dafoe only tentatively suggests the man falling apart inside that the script implies, but he does so just enough to sense how desperate he is to hold it together to keep confidence for the woman he loves. But Gainsbourg is absolute fearless magic; she upholds the now decades-spanning trend of actresses extracting their career-best performances in Trier’s films. You’d need to travel back to Joan Fontaine in Rebecca to find a piece of acting so admirably rooted in its cinematic setting, so spontaneous and crafty, so direct and unafraid. If she never made another film, I believe this alone would be enough to provide her celebration to last a lifetime. It’s not Falconetti but it’s as close as we’re going to get, I feel. You come away with this supreme bewilderment at the level of control she exhibits; every movement of her eyes, her facial muscles, the subtlest tics of her body seem so deeply and darkly a proper reading of the grieved mother in the script. It’s as if she doesn’t merely act a part but becomes the human crafted by Trier; that’s startling, and remarkable, and almost inexpressibly moving.
As mentioned before, one could spend a lifetime debating analysis of this film, which is another measure of its genius — it’s not a blank slate upon which we can form our far-flung ideas, it’s simply full of ideas and images and tangents that add up to a thrillingly open-ended creation. An interpretation that did not occur to me on seeing the film, but that I find intriguing, is that Dafoe’s character is the one slowly driven insane by grief, that Gainsbourg progresses normally but Dafoe seems to unravel starting at the halfway point, which fits with his tightly wound exterior — note that we’re always with him when we witness the “three beggars,” the dying or injured animals that manifest the cruel undercurrent of the forest — and that his exposure to his wife’s research conflates with this to lead to his own misogynistic conclusion and finally to murder, which in turn upholds the text. The final scenes are a hallucination. I don’t know that I entirely agree with this line of thought, but it functions persuasively; I’m more of a mind that this marriage is simply a tragically good one polluted by grief and doubt, that the escalation is an external depiction of an internal hell through which the parents must force themselves. But any interpretation is equally valid, and there’s no real value in debating what’s “real” or not here when the cinematic achievement is its non-specificity, when we know all we need to know: that this film is a stunningly beautiful, difficult, strangely seductive exercise in deepest melancholy and desperation, that it’s sad and pretty and scary in almost equal proportion, and that Trier (at least in this writer’s opinion) has at this point every right to obnoxiously proclaim himself the world’s greatest director. Again, I may not agree, but I’m not very far from agreeing.