Lars von Trier's 'Antichrist': joke or masterpiece?

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It's the least summery thing you'll experience all month: Lars von Trier's 'Antichrist' is a hellish exploration of grief that shocked and wowed audiences in Cannes. Dave Calhoun invites seven experts to watch the film and share their reactions

Lars von Trier’s ‘Antichrist’ is a film that’s impossible to ignore. From the moment that the director of ‘Dogville’ and ‘Breaking the Waves’ announced that he had made a ‘horror film’ while suffering from depression, those who follow the career of this Danish artist and provocateur were intrigued. Would it be horror in any conventional sense? And then came the trailer. What were Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg doing in a haunted forest? And whose hands were caressing them as they writhed about in the soil.

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The 'Antichrist' panel after the screening

 

 

 

 

 

 





Then it screened in Cannes and split audiences down the middle. Von Trier gave a press conference at which some attacked him for using extreme imagery of genital mutilation, while others defended him for creating a daring and poetic portrait of grief and division within a married couple whose young son dies after falling from a window as they make love next door.The film arrives in cinemas having been passed uncut with an 18 certificate. We invited seven experts to watch the film and tell us what they thought.

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The actress


Emily Watson’s first film role, in 1996, was in Lars von Trier’s ‘Breaking the Waves’.
‘It’s very strange for me watching Lars’s films: it’s like meeting a member of your family. I instantly understand the language of what he’s doing and how he’s doing it. It almost makes me feel a bit vulnerable in a strange way.

'I found the film very powerful. I also found it disturbing but not because of the horror elements. Those are kind of preposterous, but that doesn’t bother me because the string he hangs everything on is always pretty preposterous – but the flesh of it is always truthful. I think Charlotte Gainsbourg was phenomenal and whether all the stuff in the film is meant to be real or imagined, sensible or not, the psychological journey she goes on was totally involving. I found it scary, but then I’m a complete wimp.

'I don’t know if “like” is the right word, and it made me giggle occasionally, probably for the wrong reasons, but it was very affecting. Is it misogynistic? Willem Dafoe doesn’t come off very well either, does he? That’s the thing about Lars. He’s sitting up there in Denmark and laughing at us all because your reaction says more about you than about the movie. It was the same with “Breaking the Waves”. Some found it deeply cynical, others had a religious experience. It was all about you, really.’

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The director

Pawel Pawlikowski’s films include ‘My Summer of Love’.‘It was worth seeing. As a director, don’t see Lars as a kindred spirit, but he’s definitely a point of reference in the landscape, he pushes boundaries. It stirred me up: I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I didn’t reject it as a big spoof as some have. The set up at the beginning was a bit clunky as some of the dialogue was awful and the acting ropey, but then it enters that parallel world in the forest, and the transition into the imaginary world is beautifully done. From then on, it’s an elemental struggle, which was totally gripping: suddenly you realise why he's cast these particular actors, they are wonderful, they become part of the landscape. He’s made something very personal. 'Some say it’s misogynistic, but it’s such a private world and we should respect it as an artist’s world. His films are not mass films, let’s keep them in proportion. It’s not like he’s made a propaganda film about women. He’s inviting us into a private sphere and we can take it or leave it. It’s genuine and authentic, and that means a lot. He translates these struggles between the male and the female psyche, and the strange interdependence between the man and the woman, and this dance of death, which defines a lot of relationships – he translates it into something poetic and visceral. We should react to the film in the way we react to a poem.

'Certainly there are some faux pas in the film, like the talking fox saying “chaos reigns”, which is so pompous and puerile, but we should take the ridiculous with the sublime. In the end, because he touches on something genuine, I forgive him. This makes cinema worthwhile.’

 

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The horror expert

Nigel Floyd is a critic who writes about horror for Time Out.‘I don’t think “Antichrist” is horror with a capital H. If anything, I would say it’s a supernatural psychodrama.It uses genre tropes to set up situations. After the initial period where she’s in hospital, you get a scene where the couple drive over the bridge into the woods and they go to their isolated cabin, which is a classic horror convention. But the bottom line is, this is no more a horror movie in the traditional sense than “Breaking the Waves” is a melodrama and “Dancer in the Dark” is a musical. Von Trier uses a generic framework to make a film about his preoccupations – as usual.

'The question we have to ask ourselves when she uses the expression “nature is Satan’s church” is: is that in her head, or are the things she imagines actually happening? It’s sometimes hard to tell how seriously he takes his ideas. When the bloodied fox says “chaos reigns”, is that just a gag about the fact that Willem Defoe was in “The Last Temptation of Christ” in which there was a talking lion, or is it meant to be real? When the film starts, it looks like it’s going to be a straightforward, intense two-hander, like Bergman’s “Scenes from a Marriage”, but once they go to the woods, the tone shifts radically and there is the suggestion that something strange happened in the past, with nature saying to Gainsbourg: “I know what you did last summer.”’

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The feminist filmmaker

Kim Longinotto is a documentary-maker who has made films on subjects such as divorce in Iran and female circumcision in Kenya.‘Somebody said to me after the film, “Didn’t you think it was misogynistic?” and I was surprised. Sure, the female character was presented in a negative way, but you didn’t like the man either. For it to be misogynistic, there would have had to be a distinct suggestion that she represented all women, and it doesn’t do that. I think you’d also have had to have been on Willem Defoe’s side. In fact, we don’t get to know anything about him. He’s an emotional vacuum. He’s not suffering at all.

'I suppose people who thought it was misogynistic picked up on the fact that the title spells “Antichrist” using the Venus female symbol. I just thought it was too detached and dreamlike for you to get upset about it being misogynistic. It wasn’t pornographic either. With pornography there’s no story and just titillation, and it wasn't that at all. I wouldn’t recommend it to friends, but I wasn’t bored by it and am glad I saw it.’

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The 18 year old

Joe Toal is an 18 year old who is doing a film production course. The BBFC recently gave ‘Antichrist’ an 18 certificate.‘I’d seen “Dogville” and “The Idiots” before. I wasn’t a fan of either – I found them pretentious – and I preferred “Antichrist”. But I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it. The first hour with the couple talking was boring. But when they got to Eden, things got more interesting. I liked the opening scene with the baby falling out the window in slow motion – it was beautifully shot.

'I’d like to say I found the mutilation scenes shocking, but I’d read about the film – half by accident, half on purpose – before seeing it to get an idea of how graphic it was, so when it happened, I expected it. With “Antichrist”, I wasn’t as shocked as I was when I saw “Old Boy”. If I hadn’t read about it, I reckon those scenes would have caught me off guard, and I think I would have felt a lot more affected by it. I’m not sure if it’s a film I’d recommend to friends.’

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The family counsellor

Phil Roberts is a family counsellor who lives and works in London.‘I liked it – and I wasn’t expecting to. I liked the imagery, the palette: the blues, the greys, the greens. There were some horrible bits, but I liked it despite that. That said, I’m not sure some of it was justified – cutting your clitoris is not, in my experience, a typical grief reaction. The couple’s relationship didn’t strike me as very convincing. It was all about his control over her, him as therapist, her as patient. It was a parody of a marriage and a parody of a therapeutic relationship that didn’t ring true unless they were fucked up – which maybe they were.

"He ends up being this controlling, misogynistic therapist, but when at one point she seems to be feeling better, he’s not interested because, if she was cured, he wouldn’t have so much power over her. So he goes back to incapacitating her. Then, at the end, he’s a Christ-like figure. It’s an interesting image of a therapist: you’re either a megalomaniac who wants to inflict pain or you’re some kind of Christ-like redeemer. It’s not the best advert for therapists.’

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The visual artist

Georgina Starr is a film and performance-based artist who has exhibited internationally.‘When I talked about the film to a friend I realised I wasn’t describing a plot but a series of images and short vignettes – how you might describe a dream. It left me with stills, words and phrases, symbols and sounds rather than story. It feels like a poem or a painting.

'While watching the film, it reminded me of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. It’s a triptych from the early 1500s and is both a depiction of a fantastical world and an illustration of the religious beliefs of the time. The first panel shows Adam and Eve in Eden; the second panel is a panorama of bodies engaged in sexual acts alongside strange animals and hybrids; and the final panel is a “hellscape” portraying torment.’

'Antichrist' is released in UK cinemas on July 24.

Author: Dave Calhoun and David Jenkins. Portraits by Oliver Knight



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