I must admit to more than a bit of embarrassment at not having seen a Lars von Trier film prior to Antichrist. For those unaware, Lars von Trier is a Danish filmmaker who, among other things, was deeply involved in the Dogme 95 film movement, has the distinction of directing one of the few “mainstream” films to depict unsimulated sex, and is probably best known in the US as the director of the Bjork musical Dancer in the Dark. Oh, and he’s also been known to occasionally refer to himself as “the best director in the world”. Previously, I’d been a bit apprehensive about investigating von Trier’s output. It may have had something to do with the fact that the majority of his cult consisting of trendy name-dropping hipsters, and these folk and their interests tend to make me vomit profusely out of disgust. It may have been that I was far too busy drinking Rebel Yell excessively while watching Mythbusters reruns to do so. Who knows? The point is I was wrong. DEAD FUCKING WRONG. Antichrist may very well be the most important horror film of the last 20 years. Hell, 30 years, maybe more. No film I’ve ever witnessed has conjured that level of disgust and fear inside me before this piece.
I’d like to breakdown the plot, but I’m not sure there’s enough of a conventional plot to summarize. At the outset it’s basically a slow, quiet character piece involving the irrational fear and anxiety experienced by a mother (referred to in the end credits only as She, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), concerning a cabin called Eden she once visited, triggered in the wake of the death of her son. Her therapist husband (Willem Dafoe, likewise only identified in the credits as He) decides exposure therapy is the best course of action, so they depart to the cabin to attempt to force her issues to the surface. From thereon out, the film ditches narrative form and continues in a series of nightmarish episodes of increasing intensity.
Here the movie evolves into a surreal horror film operating on pure dream logic. The longer the couple remain in the cabin, the more sinister the surrounding woods become. Dafoe’s He attempts to cling to rationality as the environment around him becomes further inhabited by an indescribable malevolence. This culminates visually as He comes upon a fox rending its own innards, which turns to him, uttering the phrase, “Chaos reigns.”
Shortly thereafter, the film shifts gears yet again, as He becomes truly aware of his wife’s madness, she explodes into violence and the movie becomes something that falls squarely in the torture porn genre. The violence that follows ranks as some of the most explicit ever committed to film, including nothing less than genital torture and extreme self-mutilation. Yet where similar fare would be played purely for shock value by Eli Roth and his contemporaries, here it is presented for maximum dread, shot with an unflinching eye. You aren’t given even a momentary respite from the on-screen sadism; the camera lingers voyeuristically as von Trier visually skull-fucks you with one atrocity after another.
One point of controversy concerning the film is its perceived misogyny. The character of She’s delusions focus on a belief that nature is inherently evil, and that women, being more closely related to and symbolic of nature, are vehicles of said evil. Much has been said of this premise and how much von Trier shares this belief. Apparently, the jury at the 2009 Canes Film festival were so offended by what they perceived as the film’s message that they bestowed a special “anti-award” upon Antichrist for being ,”the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world.” Fucking philistines, I say. While misogyny may be a major theme of the film and a belief held by one of its main characters, calling the film (and by extension, the director) misogynistic is as ludicrous as labeling Kubrick a rapist street thug for A Clockwork Orange. One doubts a film such as this has a message at all. The grim visual nature of the film and its misanthropic tone likely have much more to do with von Trier’s emotional breakdown than with his attempt to further any kind of woman-hating agenda. During pre-production for the Antichrist, von Trier fell into a deep depression and even questioned if he would ever direct another film. Even during filming, he was often unable to even operate the camera, as his depression had not yet abated. Evaluating Antichrist in light of what led up to its genesis, I got the feeling I was not watching a film so much as bearing witness to an exorcism.
I really can’t properly articulate what a masterpiece Lars von Trier has given birth to with Antichrist. It’s an incredibly grueling experience, to be endured more than enjoyed. But if one were to judge a movie based on the response it elicits from its audience, than this would be a deeply significant work in the medium of film. And surely it is. As a longtime connoisseur of horror and exploitation cinema, I found it hard to imagine that any modern film could conjure fear in me, let alone the pure, slow-burning brand of terror this film offers up. As it veered from surreal supernatural horror to grim sado-porn, the feeling it invoked grew steadily from relentless dread to near full blown panic, then giving way to profound nihilism. If Freud and Lovecraft had a tear-soaked encounter in a public restroom, Antichrist may well have been the product of their union.
– Adam Rosina