Arguably the best review of Lars von Trier‘s latest film (by critic Kurt Vandemaele) included this sentence: “When fans claim only von Trier could make this movie, they’re forgetting only von Trier would want to make this movie.” Truer words still need to be discovered. Antichrist, the latest movie by von Trier, is one hell of a bad trip.
I must confess that I entered the screening room a bit bewildered: only a couple of days after seeing Final Destination 4 in a crowd of literally three people (a young British couple and me), I was back in my native country and noticed that beyond the first six empty rows every row had at least two people willing to sit through Antichrist. Only popcorn-selling blockbusters do better than this notorious combination of arthouse and horror. And that on a Wednesday night!?
Speaking of which, there aren’t many arthouse horror movies, but for some reason they like citing Tarkovsky as an influence. (See also: Calvaire.) Tarkovsky never really made a horror movie as far as I can remember, but his Solaris is an essential piece of Russian sci-fi.
Von Trier too was influenced by Tarkovsky, so much so Tarkovsky-like images are visible throughout the film and the end credits start with a dedication to the Russian director. This also means Antichrist has some of the most beautiful images you’ll see in a film this year. You don’t have to wait long for that: Antichrist shows its character from the opening scene. A wonderfully shot scene in colourless slow-motion details the couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) having sex while their toddler crawls out of bed, watches them, jumps on a table and out of the window. This is the film’s prologue, von Trier informs us by way of chalk on a blackboard. It seems von Trier still likes his by now regular ways of dividing his film in chapters and using lo-tech tools for his credits.
As I’ve mentioned, this happens in slow-motion, not exceptional for a film that is unpleasantly slow at times. Watching Antichrist does sometimes feel like an exorcism. Some scenes could’ve been cut from the film for speeding up the pace, but they do help the film in pinpointing the exact characters of the protagonists: the grieving wife and her husband, a psychiatrist. Against all the rules of the handbook, Dafoe (the film never mentions the protagonists’ names and the credits list them as ‘He’ and ‘She’) wants to help his wife overcome her mental pains from losing their son. He thinks it’s a good idea to take her to a place she has an irrational fear of, the woods where She and her baby boy went last summer to work on her thesis.
The thesis’s subject is “gynocide”, which the Belgian translator daftly saw as the English way to write ‘genocide’. It is not. If you don’t know what the term coins, by all means look it up before you watch the film as it is a crucial element of the film.
Antichrist owes its reputation to a couple of direct scenes. The opening scene with the couple having sex features a close-up of the penis during the act. Von Trier uses the same directness for the unpleasant scenes: His penis gets a rather rough treatment from Her. By the way, some people have wondered whether it’s possible to maintain an erection after being hit by a large object. I don’t know and I don’t feel like trying, definitely not after knowing how the scene ends. But that is not the worst scene, the film also includes a scene where (erm, how do I put this politely?) She brings a pair of scissors to her clitoris. Yes, it happens in close-up and no, it’s not pleasant to watch. (Said this reviewer after somewhat closing his eyes and feeling a kick in the back from the girl who sat in the next row.)
However, as crucial as these scenes are, Antichrist isn’t all about that and it would be wrong to remember it solely for the unpleasant scenes. (Much like Brando probably wouldn’t like it to have been remembered for being in that film with the butter.) Which leads us to another point: Antichrist is not a misogynist film. Those who think that have not understood it. (To avoid spoilers, I won’t elaborate on this though.) I do think the viewer should know the film includes a couple of shocking scenes because I think it would be toos shocking and wrong to watch the film without prior knowledge. Just as long as you know the film is more than that.
Which brings me to another film I had to think of while watching Antichrist: Takeshi Miike‘s Audition. It is a similar movie with a slow pace where nothing extraordinary happens apart from a long and horrific climax.
All in all, von Trier’s latest is not as bad as some critics say, nor is it his best movie, but it does include some of the best shots you’ll see the entire year and a climax you best don’t discuss at the coffee table the next day. Yes, it’s an arthouse horror movie, but it’s “horror of the mind” rather than spooky monsters. Know what to expect if you don’t want to be disappointed.