Danish auteur Lars Von Trier has made a career out of controversy. Films like “The Idiots” in which perfectly sane people act like the mentally handicapped for artistic purposes, or “Manderlay” in which he attempts to prove that African Americans yearn for, and therefore doom themselves to perpetual slavery, are magnets for dissection. His newest work, “Antichrist,” begs for similar treatment. Von Trier contends that the film is a sincere horror picture about how the universe was not created by God, but rather by Satan, and thus nature itself is evil. But like most of his films, his comments usually cannot be taken at face value. This film can’t be nailed down by any one interpretation, and to take a cinematic prankster like Lars Von Trier at his word would be an error in judgment, and would never capture the vast beauty or revulsion the movie conjures up.
The film is built of two characters, He and She, played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, both of whom create harrowing portrayals of two deeply damaged individuals. He is a pedantic, overly cerebral psychoanalyst and She is a wounded woman working on her doctoral thesis. They are married and they’ve just lost a child, the death of which opens the film in a prologue that is so crisply photographed in luxurious black and white the pathos of the images gives way to awe; another filmic prank as the audience is taken in by the beauty of the picture while witnessing the horror of a young child’s death, making the viewer question if the soothing images soften the blow of the tragedy or heighten it.
Following the death She falls into crippling depression, and He, being a learned man and always smarter than the doctors who are treating his wife, decides they should go to the place she fears most – their cabin in the woods. While at the cabin, which they call Eden of all things, She seems to get better, but after He learns what her thesis is about his analytical side takes over and gets him into some real hot water – the masculine, unfeeling brain repeatedly creating the situations that threaten to destroy him.
The year previous She had taken their child to Eden in an attempt to concentrate on her thesis, which revolves around the Evil inside Men that has sought to degrade and punish Women for their femininity. Through her research she has become convinced that since Man is born from Woman the Evil inside them comes from Woman. This process is natural therefore nature itself is the root of this evil, thus nature is Evil. Sound nuts? Maybe.
As She quickly becomes unhinged the central question of the film becomes clear – who is the titular Antichrist? Is it “Woman” as She has come to believe? Or is it Man, who in his misogyny has convinced Woman that she should hate and fear herself? Or is it “Nature” who created this inherent dichotomy in humanity? Despite his own comments Von Trier’s film leaves the answer up to the viewer. Like true art this film is a question mark, not a period.
“Antichrist” is filled with mind-blowing images, and even some unintentionally funny ones, though throughout it is never for the feint hearted, (during the screening that I attended more an a couple woman walked out). By placing full screen sexual penetration less than a minute into the picture, and finishing off with graphic genital mutilation it is hard to tell if Von Trier is sincere or laughing at us from behind the screen, however with all of it’s controversy, all of its ambiguity, he has created a film of undeniable power. It is interesting, moving, and punishing, but “Antichrist” is also a film for which the terms “Good” or “Bad” don’t apply. To brand it with such a label would be to disregard its many layers.
El Luchador Rating: 4 out of 5
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)