Antichrist, the movie that has divided critics and shocked the excitable crowds in its infamous premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is all that you've read and more. It's a film worthy of lengthy treatises and careful analysis just as much as it's a deliberate exercise in the art of provocation. Lars Von Trier knows this. The first flicker on screen reads 'Lars Von Trier' 'Antichrist'. No directed by, no possessive form, merely a statement. For at least 95% of the population, that statement is destined to become fact. Anyone capable of bringing a story this horrific, this visceral, this uncompromisingly dark to the screen, must simply be Satan incarnate.
At its most basic, Antichrist is the tale of a couple experiencing some marital difficulties. Yes, this is the biggest understatement of the century for a film that plunges its viewers rapidly through all nine circles of hell, but believe me when I tell you the core of the plot is remarkably simple. A married couple loses their son, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) experiences intensely traumatic grief, He (Willem Dafoe) attempts to help her through it via cognitive behavioral therapy (which Von Trier himself, a victim of intense phobias, is no stranger to). In his attempts to treat her, they travel to Eden, their cabin in an isolated woods. Needless to say, his plan backfires. To the extreme. There are no subplots, no extra characters, no distractions. The viewer is fully immersed in the intense despair and emotional darkness of the situation. It weighs heavy, slowly building in tension to an explosive second half. This isn't a movie you can (or should) walk into blindly. It's also not a film most people should ever consider even watching. Seriously. If you aren't sure about it, don't watch it. Don't even start watching it.
To say Antichrist is the most effective horror movie I've ever seen is a truth, but a misleading one. The horror in this film is one governed by chaos and despair. It's a film with the potential to psychologically damage its viewer. The gore is too abundant for the average art house Von Trier fanatic, the artier elements, and severe emotional component, make it inaccessible to the average gore-hound. There's nothing fun about this film. It's emotional pornography. Graphic on all counts. Antichrist puts you through a wringer of shock and pathos. By the time [spoiler alert] Gainsbourg's deranged character screws a grindstone to Dafoe's leg and performs an epically disturbing bit of of his and her's on-screen genital mutilation, jacking off a prosthetic that spits blood and semen, you should be terrified. Not because it's especially frightening (though it's certainly more than a little cringe worthy), but because the film has established itself as existing in a world entirely without limits.
Strangely, in spite of the innumerable horrors, Antichrist is an incredibly beautiful film. Quite literally stunning. In many ways it's a spectacular achievement. The acting, unrehearsed, is electric. Charlotte Gainsbourg's portrayal of grief and madness spans far beyond basic histrionics. Her anxiety is palpable. She shakes, contorts, and fully puts herself at the mercy of the film. If she's ignored by the Academy this year in favor of that Hilary Swank bio-pic, it'll be a travesty. Additionally, Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography is lush and dazzling, capturing the disquiet of nature and the eerie calm of the waking dream sequences. Slow motion hasn't been used to capture such remarkable results since Neo manipulated the matrix. Acting and visuals aside, there's something amid the madness and mythology that resonates as true.
Antichrist is a startling cinematic representation of the deepest depths of despair. It's nihilistic, brutal, and filled with the heaviest of tragedies. Of Von Trier's films, this is perhaps his strongest statement, certainly the most effecting. Where Dogville and Dancer in the Dark feel less like films than textbooks on film theory, Antichrist is a solid work, and in many ways a perversely entertaining piece of cinema. It keeps the tension up and the viewer thoroughly hypnotized. Early claims that this was the director's on-screen mental breakdown are valid, though if this is the product of insanity he should consider reaching the event horizon more often. At the Chicago International Film Fest screening I attended, Dafoe spoke of his knowledge of Lars Von Trier's struggles with depression and the director's rather wry outlook on the film. The way Dafoe sees it, any issues of the director's rumored misogyny are to be disregarded. Where the female issues presented in the film leave room for discussion, Gainsbourg's maniacal grief seems an expression aligned with the director's own psychology, not a debilitating fear of female empowerment.
An exercise in cruelty and profound despair, its been days since I've viewed the film and I can't seem to shake it. Every scene is burned into my memory. Its left its mark. I'm both in awe and thoroughly shaken. I can't recommend Antichrist to you. You have to make that decision on your own. As suggested, there's nothing pleasant to be found here, even the folkloric animals leave a bad taste in one's mouth, and for those dealing with psychological issues of their own, avoidance may be, no, is the best policy. What I can say is that the film is jarring, an impressive reminder of the power and capability of art and the reach of cinema. I've a new found respect for Von Trier's creative vision and his fearless execution of a story set so deep dangerous terrain. When the credits rolled I applauded like my life depended on it.
4.5 out of 5.
Read all of Wilde.Dash's reviews at Love & Squalor.