Lars von Trier’s Antichrist gained instant notoriety after a Cannes screening that ended in hisses and boos and everything short of vegetables hitting the screen. You hear about these things and you’re reminded of the reception of Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, which shocked audiences in 1929 with surrealist editing and an eye-slicing scene; surely, after all these years and everything that cinema has produced, no film could be so bad or offensive or shocking.
And Antichrist isn’t. But it does go pretty far. Lest anyone wander into a screening unknowingly (spoiler alert), there are two shots towards the end of the film that few will forget, even though they may want to: an ejaculation of blood, and genital mutilation with a pair of scissors.
Until then, however, you’ll be wondering what all the fuss is about. Antichrist opens with a prologue in wonderful extreme-slow-motion B&W: He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) make love in the shower, while their son plays with a teddy bear, opens his bedroom window as snow falls in front of him, and falls to his death.
Now begins the grieving process, presented in four chapters: Grief, Pain, Despair, and The Three Beggars. You’ll note there’s no Recovery. She seems to be taking it worse than He, who is a therapist. He thinks the doctor is drowning her in pills; he’ll be able to cure her better. He makes a triangle chart of her fears: in the middle is nature, at the top a big question mark.
So naturally, He takes her to an isolated cabin in the middle of the woods to begin the healing process. It’s called Eden; I wonder if that’s a clue. An hour into the film, it’s all talk with little to maintain interest outside gorgeous cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (who won an Oscar last year for Slumdog Millionaire) and surrealistic flourishes, including a talking fox who mouths “chaos…reigns.” It would all be unbearable if not for the slow-burn dread, the knowledge that something shocking is coming up ahead.
Then, lo and behold, a plot develops; I was more surprised at this than anything else in the movie. It’s the one thing we can grasp on to here, involving She and the son at Eden some months ago, a novel she was trying to write, and nothing less than the evil nature of women. Afterwards, you may feel this was a horribly misogynistic film, but that’s just von Trier’s biting sarcasm in regards to the usual horror-movie devices.
It’s this plotline that turns the last half hour of Antichrist into an engrossing, provoking, surrealist horror-thriller. As a whole, this is still a von Trier film, so it works more as an exercise than a narrative work; still, I was surprised by how effective – regardless of shock value – the ending was.
This is nevertheless a tough sit, and while I appreciated the film I couldn’t possibly say I enjoyed it; yet it grows on the mind, and I appreciate it more now while thinking back on it, even while writing this review.
You would imagine a two-character piece would rely on its actors, and this film is no different: both Dafoe and (most impressively) Gainsbourg give immersive, fearless performances that include scenes of simulated sex (and shots of hardcore penetration that I assume employed the use of stunt doubles) that are anything but erotic.
An ending scroll dedicates the film to Andrei Tarkovsky, an odd choice; Antichrist feels like it owes a lot more to Ingmar Bergman.
Perfect antidote to the film (and you’ll need one): Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus, recorded by Gainsbourg’s parents, Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg.