Every now and then I find myself watching the latest movie that’s getting all the hype and wonder why it is that I feel like I have to take one for the team. Having now sat through Lars Von Trier’s latest, Antichrist, I give serious consideration to telling you all to fuck off because I don’t owe you a thing. But that wouldn’t be fair because no one is forcing me to sit through this stuff and no one is forcing you to read this, so I guess morbid curiosity, as usual, gets the best of me.
Film buffs have been losing their collective minds about Antichrist since its premier at Cannes. If you know anything about that premier, you’re probably just as excited as the rest of us to set your eyes on this troubled little flick. The Cannes jury hated it on such a deeply personal level that they awarded it an anti-award and accused Von Trier’s movie of being an expression of his innate hatred of women. People have been reported to have fainted during the screenings. Reviewers are split almost evenly down the middle in terms of opinion, yet those opinions manage to be equally extreme. Those who review it positively absolutely love it while those who reviewed it negatively want to kill it with fire. Where do I land in this tricky forest of opinion? Read on and you’ll find out.
He and She are too busy having sex all over their house to notice that their three year old son managed to navigate his way out of his crib, through the baby gate, up on to a shelf and out an open window where he falls to his death. As you might expect, the guilt and grief of just such a tragedy is too much to live with and She collapses under the unbearable weight of her own self-loathing and despair. He, her therapist husband, takes exception to the means by which her therapist is treating her and decides to treat her, himself, which leads them out to a remote cabin in the middle of a dense forest that they call Eden. Eden seems to harbor a paralyzing fear that She can’t seem to bear and it is here that the two of them will lose their god damn minds as the strange nature around Eden gets under their skin.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my mind around Antichrist. I’m not a big fan of Von Trier. I think his movies, on the whole, are fucking boring. But if there is one thing that I hunger for in the genres, it’s when directors come along to dabble in them while having previously dismissed them as megaplex trash. Von Trier has flirted with horror in the past but never taken it head-on. Antichrist remedies this. But buyer beware, I’m fairly certain that this is Lars Von Trier spitting in everyone’s face. Fans of his work are going to find themselves challenged and even the most jaded horror fans are going to find themselves unsure of how to process Antichrist. There is nothing in the world quite like it.
Few movies out there are able to fill me with dread like Antichrist. Everything about it is so masterfully manipulated that even the quiet moments are soul-grinding affairs, waiting for the hammer to drop. Dafoe and Gainsbourg take what is easily the most hardcore script of their careers and manage to translate Von Trier’s tortured words to the screen with the greatest of ease. She, constantly consumed by her guilt and grief, is perpetually in a state of flat-line despair, desperately struggling to find a way to cope with the ultimate loss. He remains composed throughout, hopelessly holding her hand through his menu of coping exercises and psycho-babble, putting off his own feelings of loss in order to try and get her under control. It’s not really clear what’s going on and you’re fooling yourself if you think there’s anything in here to explain anything, by the time the credits roll, you’ll be just as lost as I am and probably prone to nightmares.
Antichrist takes the expectations of us, the viewer, and cranks them to their logical extremes. It as though Lars looked at his options and thought, “You want a fucking a tragedy? I’ll give you tragedy! You want a fucking horror movie? You don’t know true horror. You want arthouse? Take this, you pretentious shits!” And then proceeded to write a movie about loss, suffering and a woman smashing a man in the balls so hard that he ejaculates blood. Believe it or not, this happens in graphic detail and it’s not even the worst of what Von Trier has on the menu. Nothing is ever implied, you get up close genital mutilation and body horror that trumps anything that the Saw movies could throw at you. Not even the August Underground movies or Subconscious Cruelty go here. Yet, as awful as these moments are, the true horror takes place in the subtleties and nuances of the movie. The score is a crushing, subsonic nightmare, no doubt put in place to rattle your unconscious and keep you off-balance. Single frames of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s horrified expression are inserted here and there. Gainsbourg’s performance is also entirely too real to watch and if anyone sells their performance in this movie, it’s her (even though 99% of the movie is only Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg).
In the end, the only thing clear about Antichrist is that it’s unclear what any of this shit has to do with anything. The coda finale is a left-field arthouse maneuver that is supposed to be selling you on this idea that the movie is about more than two people whose lives are ruined, entirely, by the death of their son. There’s a lot of backstory implied here that something genuinely awful happens in those woods as a subplot about the previous summer spent writing her thesis in Eden with their then living son resurfaces time and time again to sow suspicion that either the woods are home to a primal evil or that She has been out of her mind for a lot longer than you might suspect. Don’t expect Von Trier to go all Hollywood on your ass and explain himself, though. That is so beneath him. Simply put, Antichrist is one of the most challenging, visceral, uniformly unpleasant pictures I’ve ever endured and I’ve seen some extreme shit over the years. Von Trier, an outsider invading the horror genre, has taken his out-of-step approach to filmmaking and crafted one of the most original and effective horror movies of all time. It is deeply unsettling and horrifying by the strictest definition of the word. If I ever have to see it again, it’ll be too soon.