Edythe Smith 12/10/2013
Antichrist is one of the most misunderstood films that comes to mind. Lars von Trier is perhaps one of the most misunderstood directors; often written off as an auteur with enough support and gusto to start a film movement (Dogme 95), but not enough modesty to disregard pretensions. The notion to be moved by this argument is null at best if one allows themselves to be absorbed by Antichrist and to accept it as something to be critiqued, if not admired. To do this, admittedly, requires more than one viewing—the first being one that inspired audiences to flock from their seats. This was no doubt due to the disturbing sequences of violence, grizzly eroticism and a message about female nature that was, to most, anti-women. This review offers a proposal to revisit the film with a pair of fresh eyes for those who have seen it and a theorized way to introduce yourself to it for those who have not.
There are many ways to reinterpret the film or to approach it with a more critical eye. The easiest would be to view it as a fairy tale with overtly religious overtones. Comparatively it's in the style of a German fable—which is always direct and quite bleak, and appropriate here since the majority of the film was shot there. Like a storybook, the film is separated into four chapters with a prologue and an epilogue. Title cards with primitive etchings set the precedent for something to be absorbed in pieces, later to be given deep thought. The prologue and epilogue are in black and white and set to Georg Friedrich Händel's Lascia ch'io pianga. In the prologue we find a slow-motion and dreamlike erotic portrait of a husband (Willem Dafoe) and wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the throes of passion. Meanwhile, their infant son wanders from his crib and nursery to an open window and plummets to his death—dying during his parents' climax.
Chapter One, Grief, is sustained by the differences between how each person handles the death of their son. The wife has been committed for a month and, to the husband's dismay, has remained heavily medicated. So, in a desperate and knowingly ill-advised move, he takes her off the medication and begins to treat her himself—being a psychiatrist and the person most familiar with her. Before long his attempts backfire and he tries to jumpstart her healing process by isolating her fears. At the top of her list is Eden, the forest where the two have a summer cottage and where she last worked on her abandoned thesis: the early workings of gynocide (the wrongful prosecution and/or murder of women). Though befuddled by her response, he takes her there in a valiant effort to expose her to her fears and get to the root of the problem.
Chapter Two, Chaos reigns, is the most mesmerizing of all the chapters. Its central space in the work allows one to absorb the stunning cinematography (provided by Anthony Dod Mantle); an overwhelming stream of imagery, metaphors and even a little dark comedy that more or less allow more contemplation and less writhing. Here we discover that the woods don't only affect the wife, but also the husband. He begins to see small but provoking terrors upon arrival and second guesses his stubborn beliefs that his fragile wife has merely gone crazy with grief. “Nature is Satan's church,” she tells him. Perhaps the moral of the allegory being that if you draw the female back to its roots (mother nature), you will unleash the Antichrist. This, it should be mentioned, is the key thing that gives the idea that women are being muddied. However, if you pay close attention to the chapter and the one following (Gynocide), you can begin to understand why this is not the case. It is all too easy to assume that the Antichrist being alluded to is woman.
The third chapter is where things go terribly wrong for the husband. He starts to discover more and more about his wife and the subject that she was more or less consumed by. He sympathizes with women deemed witches or persecuted just for being women, yet he doesn't seem to realize the ways in which he has persecuted his wife. For she is the “mad woman” in need of being “set straight,” and by being a man and thinking that he is eternally “right,” he has brought on a force so carnal and natural in the realm of nature that it is unrecognizable to his, and our, modern eyes. He has unleashed the core of woman, which to our sensitive rational, can be construed as evil.
Entwined into this is the story of the three beggars (also the title of the fourth chapter), which are similar to those found in the Russian folklore but here stand for pain, grief and despair and are manifested by animals in the forest. The most interesting aspect to this conclusion is the coyness of it; those who come away viewing the film as anti-women have sided with the patronizing husband's pain, while those who view it as almost feminist have a bit more understanding for the woman. It comes as no surprise that the majority of people that I've encountered who deem the film a masterpiece are women, myself included. An interesting point revisited in the film's overall critique is that the violence put toward the man was deplorable to most, yet we as a culture seem to have no problem seeing women raped and brutalized in horror, thrillers, or even dramas.
All this being said, there are many ways to break down the film—and this re-working of Adam and Eve in Eden just so happens to be one that is very accessible. Von Trier (who is Catholic) was reportedly going through a terrible depression during production and therefore there are moments of the film that do in fact serve as a looking-glass into the disturbed mind of a artist. But that isn't the entire picture. Here one can find outstanding performances by both Dafoe and Gainsbourg, breathtaking digital photography by Mantle and the kind of study on theism that is as visceral and involving as religion itself. While I don't recommend the film for a date night or positive mood-changer, I highly recommend it to those who are interested in Catholicism, Paganism and folklore.
Lars von Trier (Europa, Breaking The Waves, Dancer In The Dark) shook up the film world when he premiered Antichrist at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. In this graphic psychodrama, a grief-stricken man and woman - a searing Willem Dafoe (Platoon, The Last Temptation Of Christ) and Cannes best actress Charlotte Gainsbourg (Jane Eyre, 21 Grams) - retreat to a cabin deep in the woods after the accidental death of their infant son, only to find terror and violence at the hands of nature and, ultimately, each other. But this most confrontational work yet from one of contemporary cinema's most controversial artists is no mere provocation. It is a visually sublime, emotionally ravaging journey to the darkest corners of the possessed human mind; a disturbing battle of the sexes that pits rational psychology against ageold superstition; and a profoundly effective horror film.
- Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Dafoe
- Format: Color, Dolby, Widescreen
- Language: English
- Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
- Number of Discs: 1
- Rating: Not Rated
- Label: The Criterion Collection
- Release Date: 11/09/2010
- Run Time: 108 minutes
- Catalogue #: 542
- Audio commentary featuring von Trier and film scholar Murray Smith
- Video interviews with von Trier and actors Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg
- Collection of seven video pieces delving into the production
- Chaos Reigns at the Cannes Film Festival: a documentary
- A booklet featuring an essay by film scholar Ian Christie