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Lars von Trier
’s ‘Antichrist’ twice now and experienced such wildly different reactions to it each time that you might want to consider this review as written in sand, not stone. The film is equivalent to witnessing a wild fight between strangers. It pulls you this way and that and convinces you of different versions of the truth. Its provocations repel, while its honesty attracts.
Von Trier never makes the same film twice. Yet once he finds a new theatre for his stories – whether it’s the musical (‘Dancer in the Dark’), the Brechtian morality play (‘Dogville’, ‘Manderlay’) or, as here, the horror movie – familiar ideas come bubbling to the surface. He’s interested in the control of women by men. He’s interested in how power emerges, persists and perverts. He’s interested in how we, as an audience, process these ideas and the emotions they provoke. Discomfort, too, is a well-used weapon in his armoury. He likes to shock, and there are moments in ‘Antichrist’ – not least two featuring genital mutilation – that threaten to mask the film’s serious side. In person, von Trier displays paradoxes that spill over into his work. He’s the reticent artist who thrives at Cannes press conferences. The loner who loves a crowd. The reclusive showman. No surprise, then, that the study of grief in ‘Antichrist’ is quiet and sensitive, while some of the telling is loud and grandstanding.
On the surface, ‘Antichrist’ is a horror movie about a married American couple – he (
) a therapist, she (
) an academic – who retreat into a forest called Eden to work through their grief after the death of their son. The opening, black-and-white prologue is a thing of shallow beauty as we watch this pair make love (with a thrusting shot) as their child falls from a window. This initial slickness will surprise those familiar with von Trier’s down-and-dirty style, although much of the rest of the film is a more earthy mix of greens, browns and blues.
Grief overcomes Gainsbourg, while Dafoe tries not to mix business and pleasure by treating his wife as both patient and lover. He fails. The mood is claustrophobic as we’re stranded with this couple in despair. Some of these early entirely domestic scenes, although piercing in their sadness, drag a little, especially as some of the dialogue feels false. But there’s no doubting the power of Gainsbourg’s performance, nor von Trier’s sympathy for her, as Dafoe insists on dragging his wife through therapy. Nor is there any doubting von Trier’s attitude to Defoe’s trade: he thinks it’s a sham.
The film moves beyond realism when Dafoe asks his wife to imagine ‘Eden’. It’s best to read this as an invitation to a parallel world – a psychological one – as they travel to a metaphorical cabin in the woods. The forest, the cabin, the animals (including a ridiculous talking fox) are familiar horror symbols, but the gender war is pure von Trier. The forest turns on the couple, while the couple turn on each other. The results are so hysterical that what we witness feels most like a piercing primal scream from within von Trier. At some points it feels deeply feminist, at others deeply misogynistic, although the overriding feeling is of sympathy for the wife and antipathy for the husband – plus pessimism about humans in general. Yet there are moments that defy any clear reading. This is a film best viewed with reason switched off.
What can we take away from it?
A troubling but refreshing sense of an artist uncloaked. A violent conflict of ideas and images. A certainty that von Trier loathes therapists. A suggestion that a man can do his worst to a woman and still come across as a messiah. But any logical, unified theory? Any neat conclusions? Any satisfaction from loose ends tied and questions answered? Forget it. It’s just not that sort of film.
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