TAKE 1: FRANCES MORGAN
In the brooding forests of the Pacific North West, a middle-class couple, played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, struggle to come to terms with the accidental death of their young son. It soon becomes clear, however, that grief is not the only opponent they face: malign, supernatural forces assail both protagonists, first implicitly, then with shockingly violent results, unleashing ancient evil, nature’s chaotic cruelty and primal female fury.
If the above précis sounds more like a by-numbers synopsis of a certain type of American supernatural horror movie than Lars von Trier‘s latest release, it is because Antichrist almost is one of those films, such is its adherence to middlebrow horror convention, and this is one of the most disorienting, frustrating things about the film. As Gainsbourg and Dafoe’s isolated cabin retreat becomes a hexed hell, one can almost tick off distinguishing features: the lost child as catalyst for terror; the family in conflict; the failure of institutions (in this case, cognitive therapy) to deal with evil; the reverberant folk memory of witch-hunting and devil worship; the uneasy truce between humans and nature; the vengeful or possessed woman who deploys torture, violence and voracious sexuality; even the obligatory hide-and-seek sequence of pursuit, capture, conquest and escape that concludes most horror films.
And yet, of course, although von Trier has used the genre to host the themes of suffering, manipulation and control that are echoed throughout the majority of his films, Antichrist is not a genre film. An efficient mainstream horror - and even the extreme body-horror films of Takeshi Miike, whose Audition (1999) springs to mind during Antichrist‘s latter segment - uses a particular pace to take us from unease to terror, from suggestion to gore, and, while not exactly hiding its political, sexual or religious intentions, will veil them enough with plot and action that they simmer more potently beneath the surface. This art-house take on horror does not work in that way, because its slower rhythm and self-aware script promotes an analytical response in the first instance - which is one way of saying that I spent much of Antichrist wondering why exactly von Trier had made the film; trying, in a sense, to justify to myself its disjointed structure, its choice of predictable esoteric material and, inevitably, the director’s seemingly infinite fascination (to the point of fetishism) with female suffering, which is combined here with clichés of female sexual power and its destructive intent. That this last might be a comment upon mainstream horror’s latent misogyny seems reasonable, for there certainly are distinct flashes of irony throughout. It is really only when the environment takes precedence and the setting emerges as a character in its own right that the questions stop, and Antichrist seems more than a sadistic exercise in style.
Von Trier’s citation of August Strindberg’s Inferno as an influence is perhaps not surprising. First published in 1897 and based on his journals, Inferno captures the author at a time of psychological crisis, which prompted a fascination with alchemy, dreams and the occult. It is a paranoid, claustrophobic read, imbued with a strange sexual tension, but it is also strikingly effective at summoning the sinister aspects of a place. A passage where Strindberg experiences a walk through a village as a visit to hell brings to mind von Trier’s impressive visions of the forest as charged with dark symbolism; a place visited in dreams and fantasy. The most effective of these scenes, in which Gainsbourg carries out a therapeutic visualisation exercise, has a kind of psychedelic resonance that is highly convincing, and more disquieting than much of what follows, perhaps because it hints at our fears and desires without seeking to scrawl their names in letters of blood.
TAKE 2: DAVID WARWICK
Controversial director Lars von Trier returns to the spotlight with Antichrist, a film sure to generate curiosity first, confusion second, and strong opinions third.
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe play the only two characters – a couple mourning the accidental death of their son. Both are grief-stricken, but particularly Gainsbourg, who is quite overwhelmed by the loss. Fortunately (or not), Defoe is a trained therapist and prescribes for Gainsbourg a trip to their holiday cabin, where she is to face her fear of the woods. When they arrive, however, the atmosphere of the cabin is disturbing for both of them, and Gainsbourg’s condition proves more complex than Defoe had anticipated. Their convalescence quickly descends into madness and violence.
It isn’t clear, at first, exactly what Antichrist is. It’s not a horror film (because it’s not scary) and it’s not an art film (because it couldn’t be further from a work of art). It’s tempting to say that it’s just bad, just a hideous mess, and leave it there. But of course that wouldn’t do.
A lot has been made in the press about Antichrist‘s gruesomeness, and certainly, if it is anything, it is gruesome. The film’s unflinching close-ups of human mutilation are not only amongst some of the most extreme and unpleasant in the whole of cinema, but also some of the most pointless and gratuitous. The two naked, blood-splattered actors run around copulating and torturing each other, and it just doesn’t make any sense. It’s not a detached psychological deconstruction of power and sado-masochism, like Pasolini’s masterful Salí³, and it’s not a tense, titillating game of cat and mouse, like the hateful – but at least fathomable – Saw films.
Perhaps the talking fox has the key to Antichrist, when it pops up in the middle of the film and tells the audience that ‘chaos reigns’. Perhaps all the violent nonsense is profound because that is how life is. This would certainly seem to be the idea, especially given the film’s closing dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky (a dedication quite, quite deserving of the boos and belly laughs that it received at Cannes and elsewhere). Von Trier seems to want to follow Tarkovsky in dynamiting truth, and scrutinising the vague, misty appearance of reality, stripped of its bourgeois tint. Such pushing to the limits of consciousness and to the ineffable, however, tends to dramatically shrink the line between masterpiece and nonsensical garbage. Von Trier has walked this line before and, with The Idiots at least, made excellent work. With Antichrist, however, he has fallen into the stink. Beyond the simple fact that it doesn’t make any sense, every aspect of the film is also wildly overdone and off-key, from the leaden dialogue, to the gloopy, gimmick-ridden cinematography.
Watching Antichrist, one gets no sense of the artist grappling with his materials, trying to strike a balance between order and chaos. Instead, von Trier seems a confused and desperate director, whose latest film has completely evaded his control. Having made good work in the past, he may well make good work again in the future, and should he do so, Antichrist may come to be seen as an intriguing low in the director’s oeuvre. Considered on its own however, Antichrist is utter nonsense, an irredeemable mess, and one of the worst films I have ever had the displeasure to see.
Read our interview with Lars von Trier.