***originally written 14 August 2009***
Antichrist is the latest film from Lars Von Trier, a horror piece that has courted no small amount of controversy for it’s explicit content. It’ll make you wince more than once. The basic outline is that a nameless couple – Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg – travel to a woodland retreat to come to terms with the loss of their infant son, who fell to his death whilst they were caught up in their own lovemaking. Once at their isolated and creepy locale known as Eden, latent psychological wounds and an evil presence in the woods conspire to bring about violent exchanges between the two.
Von Trier has been arch in the past (the jarring musical scenes in Dancer In The Dark, the blueprint Brechtian set design of Dogville), but Antichrist veers past all his previous endeavours with it’s strange collision of styles. Here, it’s the use of ultra-slow motion that punctuates the film, creating moments of extreme beauty, but bringing on unintentional laughs from an audience for the sheer staggering pretentiousness involved. The opening five minutes in which the child suffers it’s terrible accident are in crisp monochrome set to an opera… yet the whole thing feels like an advertisement for some classy, disconnected product. It’s undeniably beautiful, yet vacuous. Elsewhere, Dafoe is pelted with acorns whilst he stares meaningfully into the lens. The intent is to heighten the mood, the result is one of the most ridiculous images I’ve seen in a film. These are just two examples of moments where technique and impact are at odds. The film is peppered with them.
One of the most successful sequences is Gainsbourg’s vision of being in the woods before they even get there. Once the genuine event happens however, the feeling of dread never fully realises itself. You’re too busy being distracted by rippling visual effects and a sound design that can’t decide what if wants you to feel. The sound design however is responsible for one of the most effective chills in the movie, when the sound of acorns falling on the cabin roof at night is mistaken for footsteps within the darkened building. The problem with much of the remainder is the level of seriousness Von Trier tries to bring to the table. A talking fox is supposed to be menacing; it ends up just looking daft. The poor man is trying too hard.
The two leads (aside from the brief appearance of their child) have the entire film to themselves, and so a lot rests on their performances. Dafoe is reserved, held tight, and as such does fairly well with what he’s got to do, which for a long time isn’t really a lot. Gainsbourg has the tougher job of selling her character’s complete mental collapse into grief. It works. Mostly. The occasional lapse into soap-opera melodrama acts as another jarring aspect that pulls you out of the film a little.
By the final act of the film all hell has broken loose and Gainsbourg is bounding about like a whirling dirvish, inflicting tortures on her husband and herself – feeling bad about them – then doing some more. The genital mutilation scenes have gathered the most attention, but the absurd idea of attaching a man’s leg to a sanding wheel is delivered with perhaps the most stomach-churning brutality. In these scenes Von Trier has the audience – whether they want to be had or not. But afterwards, when you try to shuffle together the puzzle pieces there is very little logic in the film. I’m a big defender of surrealism, but it’s use here seems like a trap door. You’ve been following the path patiently, when suddenly the bottom drops out of the plot, and anything goes because, you feel, Von Trier can’t work out his motives.
In the end you get the sense that those shocking moments are there for no other reason than to garner attention.
I’ve rambled, but I’m trying to bring a coherency to Antichrist that I suspect it doesn’t have. It is occasionally brilliant, extraordinarily so. But as often as not it’s dull, baffling or worst of all unintentionally funny. Having attached her husband’s leg to said sanding wheel, Gainsbourg lamely admits that she can’t find the wrench to get it off again. Its a staggeringly dumb moment. And it sums up the whole film; a weird-for-the-sake of it, possibly pointless journey through scattershot moments of genius. The most frustrating film in the world.