Lars von Trier’s Antichrist will screen tomorrow night (sold out) and Saturday afternoon (as of this writing, seats available) at the New York Film Festival. IFC Films will release the movie theatrically on October 23.
For a while Antichrist is wonderful, a mature and gripping film—at turns fanciful and literal, pitting the rabidly emotional against the coolly rational—that grapples with the contours of grief, the effects of toddler suicide, the limits of psychotherapy and the dynamics of marriage. And then Charlotte Gainsbourg has to spoil it all by doing something stupid like cutting off her clitoris. With a pair of scissors. In extreme close-up.
Oh, right, this is a Lars von Trier movie—the Danish provocateur’s (gulp) “horror movie”.
Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe play She and He, unnamed parents who, in the film’s prologue, make love in the shower with the baby monitor on mute while their young son escapes his crib, watches them briefly and then jumps out a window to his death. From the start, von Trier is trying to nettle the audience: this opening is shot in elegant black-and-white slow motion and set to an ethereal Handel aria—what would amount to a spoof of the European Art Film, were it not so gorgeous—challenging us to appreciate the Beauty of that most Horrible thing: the (accidental?) death of a child.
From there, it switches to earth-tone-tinted color as the couple copes with their bereavement: He is a therapist, with a sonorous voice both comforting and condescending, who turns wife into patient, taking She off her prescribed meds and forcing her to confront soberly her pain and fear. (Gainsbourg’s subsequent breakdowns-beating her forehead against the toilet bowl rim, for example-put to shame the awards-baiting sham that was Sean Penn’s embarrassing Spectacle of Weeping in Mystic River.) They retreat to their summer shanty, called Eden (a blatant allusion for which von Trier apologized at his press conference), and the film slowly becomes a cabin-in-the-woods horror movie, sort of, a la Evil Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or Cabin Fever and Baghead—except the threat isn’t external, at least not entirely, but derives mostly from within, from the couple’s individual anguish and the resentments buried in their shared relationship.
Without ghosts, a virus or a weapon-wielding psycho with whom to face off, they’re battling nature itself, internal and external—”Satan’s church,” the cruel indifference of godlessness. They return to a primitive scene, The Woods (which, here, literally weep), to deal with their primal fears and feelings. “I’m outside,” He says, role playing as Nature, “but also within.” “OK, Mr. Nature,” She answers. “What do you want?” “To hurt you as much as I can.” And, wow, they certainly do proceed to hurt themselves and each other, culminating in that circumcisional, mutilative snip, while Mother Earth plagues them with symbolic reminders of their son’s fate: a baby bird tumbles from its nest; acorns assail the cabin’s roof; tree branches are felled by a storm—all dead things, falling. (He will also confront a talking fox. What a movie!)
Antichrist is conspicuously more filmic than von Trier’s recent features, which have tended toward the downright anti-cinematic: his last, The Boss of it All, chose its camera positions at random, through a computer program; the two before that, Manderlay and Dogville, did away with locations, featuring bare soundstages with chalk markings in lieu of sets. But this film depends upon no such gimmicks: the intimate dialogue scenes are shot in handheld close-up, evoking the director’s Dogme days. Then there’s that aestheticized opening, bookended by a similar epilogue, as well as wildly stylized scenes, shot in what looks like an ersatz forest lighted by Annie Liebovitz and drenched in Hammer Studios fog. In Antichrist, characters and storytelling trump von Trier’s preoccupation with the politics of form.
When von Trier arrives at the film’s third act, he largely drops the verbal sparring for physical battle and issues of mourning for sexual matters, like misogyny, the feminine revenge (watch out for the ejaculated blood!) and womanhood’s seemingly irreconcilable mother-lover duality; he mixes Biblical imagery with torture porn tropes while tinkering with the gender roles: Dafoe will have his gonads crushed and a hole bored in his leg, which is then penetrated with a grindstone on a shaft (the penis as excruciating albatross). Gainsbourg literally emasculates her partner in order to gynocize him, as she defeminizes herself. It would be easy to write off a lot of this violence as simple misogyny. But von Trier doesn’t hate women-here, as in many of his other movies (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville), he just takes depicting the cruelty committed against them further than most others would deem appropriate. At the same time, he smartly eschews glorification and fetishization; the director’s mad and mistreated woman, channeling Shelley Duvall in The Shining, stands in for mistreated women everywhere, and deserves our sympathies, though they may be ambivalent.
Von Trier’s hardly bearable ultraviolence, though shamelessly and shamefully incendiary, is ultimately pardonable, unlike Darren Lynn Bousman’s, because it is at least rooted in the well-developed characters’ psychology: it’s their mental problems manifest in violence, the inner made outer. (If we can appreciate if not forgive the Hostel series for its political undertones, we can certainly embrace von Trier’s film despite its unnecessary gruesomeness.) For all the provocative blood spilling, Antichrist at heart is a masterfully performed, exhaustible but thrilling portrait of a relationship. It’s just hard to watch the whole thing with your eyes open, because it’s so fucking gross.