‘Antichrist’ is high art filmmaking employing the conventions of horror through a narrative of a prologue, four chapters and an epilogue. The film is a subversive study of despair and violence that displays some genuinely disturbing scenes yet some eye wateringly beautiful moments as well with director Lars Von Trier detailing with profound provocation the dark side of human emotions captured elegantly by Anthony Dod Mantle’s exquisite Red One cinematography.
A couple played by Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg retreat to a cabin in the woods after the loss of their child. The man starts to experience strange visions and the woman develops increasingly violent sexual behavior towards him.
The prologue introduces us to the nameless leads the only two speaking characters here credited simply as He and She a married couple who are making mad passionate love showed in explicit depiction as their young toddler son Nick climbs out of his crib and onto a desk by an opened window. Falling out of the window it goes unnoticed by his love making parents and just as the little cherub is about to meet his death on the snow-covered ground below the woman reaches orgasm. Shot completely in black and white slowmo and predominantly supplemented by the non-diegetic soundtrack of ‘Lascia ch'io pianga' this opening scene is as touchingly wonderful as it is tragically sorrowful. The child’s life ends during the very same sexual act his parents performed before to conceive him. Now so consumed with passion for each other it has brought his premature demise. Why does Trier have Gainsbourg’s character have her climax the exact same time her son is about to hit the freezing cold ground dead? Interpret what you will.
Now in full colour real motion with no soundtrack at all the first chapter ‘Grief’ deals with the aftermath of the husband and wife’s loss. At the funeral, She collapses and the mourners whose faces have all been blurred out gather around with two trying to help her up as her husband hurries over. She spends the next month in hospital falling in and out of consciousness with no concept of time. Crippled with grief when she finally awakes her husband a therapist arrogantly decides to treat her with psychotherapy due to his mistrust of the psychiatric care her doctors are giving her. Instead, he tries to cure her of her trauma rather than letting nature take its course letting his wife grieve in her own time. Before the end of the scene, the camera slowly zooms in on the stems of the flowers He had brought in for his wife which are now in water in a glass jar by the bedside. The camera stops when it has reached an extreme close-up of a blackened broken stem of one of the flowers. Decaying nature is the warning sign of death here.
Making little progress at home with She trying to free herself of her pain through aggressive sex with her husband/therapist eventually told by her He learns that her greatest fear is a cabin in the woods of a place called Eden. This is where She spent time together with Nick last summer while she was writing a thesis on gynocide (gendercide) concentrating specifically on femicide - the systematic mass killing of women. He decides to treat her with exposure therapy. When arriving in Eden and while She is sleeping He comes across a deer (symbolizing grief) and showing no fear of him the deer eventually turns to leave showing him a dead fawn hanging halfway out of its womb. Nature is now a potent force of evil that shows its true self to him and him only. He is the Antichrist of the title.
In the second chapter ‘Pain (Chaos Reigns)’ while continuing their journey to the cabin She starts to feel an overwhelming fear as they get to a footbridge and sprinting across it she leaves her husband behind. She is sound asleep when he arrives later that evening. He begins his exposure therapy treatment with his wife but she just becomes manic and more overcome with grief. He starts to experience sinister happenings going on around the cabin - acorns fall and hit the roof hard constantly and he awakes one morning to find his right hand covered in ticks. He also experiences another vision - he finds a fox (representing pain) disembowelling itself that says to him “chaos reigns”. The Eden here is not the pre-apple eating Garden of Eden from the Bible’s Book of Genesis but a representation of the post-taking from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. He has already committed the sin of not allowing his wife to grieve naturally before arriving and now nature will punish him.
The movie really starts to spiral down into the deep dark depths of the ugly side of humanity’s nature by the third chapter ‘Despair (Gynocide)’. Finding his wife’s unfinished thesis on femicide He is shocked to find the reason for her not finishing it finding a huge scrapbook full of various articles and her own notes on misogynistic subjects and drawings of witch-hunts. In her writings, He discovers that instead of a critical analysis She has actually come to believe the gynocidal beliefs that women are inherently evil and he angrily confronts her about it. During sex, She demands He hit her but he declines. Running out into the dark of night to a massive tree nearby She lies down in front of it and begins to masturbate. Eventually coming out after her, they carry on making love and He starts to comply with her wishes but she demands it harder. As they make love a huge number of human hands emerge from the tree.
Later studying Nick’s autopsy report He finds a disturbing revelation about his son that his feet were oddly deformed. Looking at photos of his wife and son together, he sees that in all of the pictures that She has put Nick’s shoes on the wrong feet. Having become very agitated by this he lets his feelings be known to his wife. He has realized her true state of mind and that he is the scapegoat and soon after, She attacks him. His therapeutic skills are out of their depth and now the true dark natures of humanity and the animal kingdom will now consume his soul. The roles are now switched - He was once the manipulator and healer while She seemed to be the damaged broken one but now He is the victim and She is the manipulator.
Before a script rewrite, the director’s originally intended revelation for the film’s end was that earth was created by Satan and not by God. The theme of the forest being a place of complete hell is still intact though with its consistent dreaded atmosphere encapsulating this human relationship. A relationship that has been strained to its limits by grief, pain and despair with the latter coming in the form of a crow as it gives away the hiding place of He to his attacking wife. The three animals are ‘The Three Beggars’ the title of the fourth chapter. If Lars Von Trier deliberately set out to anger his audience with the sequences of graphic violence from She’s attack onwards and if he set out to make a horror movie a genre that strives to scare, shock and disturb us then Trier has done just that.
I would not call the film misogynistic as other critics would have you believe as it is a honest documented account of tragic personal loss and misanthropy and a damning portrayal of psychotherapy realized with stunning surrealist imagery and two breathtaking performances especially that of Charlotte Gainsbourg in an absolutely emotional draining turn. ‘Antichrist’ might not be every genre fans’ cup of tea but it is definitely a curious hypnotic trip well worth taking at least one time.
**** out of ****
Dave J. Wilson
©2012 Cinematic Shocks, Dave J. Wilson - All work is the property of the credited author and may not be reprinted or reproduced elsewhere without permission.