Lars Von Trier must have one hell of a sense of humour. I’m not saying that the Danish director’s films are funny per se (actually, that’s not the case at all). However, I can’t help but suspect that the filmmaker waits outside of screenings of his films, waiting for viewers to rush out in tears, angry disgust, head-throbbing confusion, or perhaps even stifling their own sick. Then, I imagine the baby-faced Dane releasing a happy chuckles knowing that his work is done. His latest film, the hilariously controversial Antichrist, has already, and will continue to elicit all four of the aforementioned reactions for as long as there will be people to watch it.
The film holds claim to having one of the most notorious screenings in the history of the Cannes film festival, where it debuted last year. Following claims that Antichrist was misogynist and evil, Von Trier replied calmly, and surely: “I am the best film director in the world”. Having finally seen the film (and believe me, I have been looking forward to this for a while), I can comment on whether these claims hold any water. Firstly, the film is neither misogynist nor evil, but it certainly deals with both of these concepts in a more confronting fashion than perhaps cinemagoers have ever seen. I do not think Von Trier is the best director in the world, but I certainly believe that he thinks he is. In fact, no one could have made this film unless they truly believed they were the best filmmaker in existence. It is unrelenting, terrifying and profoundly powerful. And it is really, really ballsy; a claim that viewers will recognise as being highly ironic considering the ball-related events that take place within the film.
Antichrist is divided into four chapters, book ended by a prologue and epilogue shot in brilliant black and white and super slow-motion. The picture begins with He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) making passionate love while their toddler escapes from his crib and accidentally falls out of a window to his death. The couple, riddled with guilt, fall apart. She is prescribed anti-depression medication, but He (a psychiatrist himself) believes it’s unnecessary. According to him, grief is a product of fear, and He decides to treat her himself by making her confront the things She find’s scariest. She reveals her fear of the woods (prophetically named here: Eden) where she spent some time writing her thesis on Gynocide (the systematic extermination of women due to the suspicion that they are evil). This, He decides, will be the location of her treatment. He will regret this decision immeasurably.
When watching any film, I do my best to write down notes for my review. Traditionally, the better the movie, the less notes I write. I have a lot of notes on Antichrist, but that doesn’t mean I think the film is bad. It’s hard to even call what I’ve written down ‘notes’. They are the equivalent of a nightmare journal that I might have kept under my pillow as I slept. As I write my review, I’m struggling to make sense of what I had written. It seems like I didn’t so much watch a film as experience a particularly nauseating fever dream. “Did these things actually happen?” Of course, to call the film a nightmare is to call it an unmistakable achievement, and perhaps even a masterpiece. Few films have inspired such gut-churning dread in me. I can think of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (which is the cinematic equivalent of a sorrowful, drug-induced panic attack) and Dario Argento’s Suspiria (which is scary enough as it is, but is also so garishly colourful it could make your eyes bleed).
The film does indeed feature two sequences that will live on in cinema infamy (scenes that would make Jigsaw himself flinch in disgust). Describing them on paper would elicit nothing but laughter. That goes for much of the film, from the film’s seemingly pretentious B&W prologue (inspired by Barney Gumble’s short film Pukahontus?) to the bizarre reveal of the movie’s tagline: “Chaos Reigns” (which bizarrely makes the film an interesting companion piece to Fantastic Mr. Fox – discuss!). But these moments are startlingly effective within the universe created by Von Trier. Aided by two (initially) grounded performances by Dafoe and Gainsbourg, the film conjures up the overwhelming sensation of grief and terror and hits you right in the gut. It’s as visceral as filmmaking gets. Whether the increasingly confounding events actually make any narrative sense is hardly important. Once you feel your mouth salivating in preparation for vomit, the film has succeeded.
Gainsbourg’s is worthy of a paragraph of praise alone, so allow me to wax lyrical for a moment. The actress intricately navigates the most complicated performance I’ve seen, perhaps ever. She must hit every beat, and be everything. She has to be fragile, sweet and sexy; then cruel, and dour, moving on to insane calm; finally evolving into the epitome of pure evil. Once again, I won’t reveal the events in the film that compliment her evolution, but it’s fascinating to plot the trajectory of her performance. At once subtle and completely over the top. The things she is asked to do require blind bravery. The fact she has not been nominated for an Oscar for this role almost proves the Oscars irrelevancy.
Now, despite the brilliance of Gainsbourg’s performance, many of the film’s critics have focused their scorn on Von Trier’s depiction of She. Is She supposed to be the defining woman? Perhaps. If so, the film is not exactly complimentary towards females. It’s not hard to see the links between this film and the story of Adam and Eve, which also suggested that the evil in the world was birthed from woman. Yes, She and Eve might both be the villains of their respective stories. However, Antichrist does not place all the blame on womankind; the roots of She’s eventual transformation into an evil monster can be directly traced back to He’s stifling oppression, masked as concern. He promises to fix her, having spent years inadvertently destroying her; resenting her relationship with their son, and later blaming her for his death. She suffers a panic attack and he insists to her: “Let me help you breathe”.
Earlier I mentioned Von Trier’s hilarious quote from the Cannes film festival. After proclaiming himself to be the best film director in the world, he also said the following: “I’m not sure if God is the best God in the world”. Is this quote the key to unlocking the meaning of his film? Perhaps Von Trier is not directing his scorn at woman or man or even humanity, but instead at Christianity. It could be argued that the story of Adam and Eve instigated centuries of Gynocide. Imagine He as representative of the male-led institution of Christianity, and the violence eventually brought against him by She begins to make sense. This film doesn’t claim women are the Antichrist. This film wants to be the Antichrist. Von Trier wouldn’t have it any other way.