Antichrist (2009): Denmark/Germany/France/Sweden/Italy/Poland – directed by Lars von Trier
Not rated by the MPAA – contains… let’s not talk about it
Note: There are some mild spoilers in this review. It also discusses a few disturbing aspects of the film, though not all of them.
You’ve probably heard a lot about the controversy surrounding Antichrist, about its graphic content and obscene images. It certainly is provocative in its imagery and does not shy away from graphically displaying certain acts, but unlike a generic exploitation film it offers much more. In addition to being artistically presented it is also one of the most terrifying movies I’ve seen in years.
There are only two speaking roles in the entire film. They are credited as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg). In the epilogue (named and titled, like all of the chapters in the film) they are busy fulfilling their marital duties. Unfortunately, they are too caught up in each other to notice their son as he steps out of the window and crashes to the ground. The entire scene is shot like an art film, entirely in slow motion black and white, with an operatic choir providing the music.
Their son’s death affects them in myriad ways. He is a therapist and believes that the medication the doctor has supplied to She is unnecessary and perhaps harmful. He takes her home from the hospital and begins to treat her himself. He starts probing her fears and anxieties as her grief passes through different stages. One particular symptom She continually exhibits is a self-destructive appetite for sex.
Her greatest fear seems to come from the woods surrounding a peaceful cabin. The place is named Eden, and She and their son stayed there the previous summer while she worked on her Master’s thesis. Soon after, however, she became terrified of the woods. He’s strongest belief is that She needs to overcome her fear by realizing where she is most afraid and learning that her fear will not harm her. They embark on the trip and at the cabin He continues to do therapeutic exercises with her.
Up until this point the movie is relatively conventional. It is shot interestingly, with Lars von Trier going back to his Dogme days with some hand held cameras operated by people with nervous twitches. Interspersed are gorgeous shots of the actors and the scenery. There are some surreal moments along the way and some that are rather unsettling, but it’s not until the final half that the movie comes into its own. He meets some creatures in the woods, including a deer whose half-born foal still hangs lifelessly out of her back end. Meanwhile She becomes more unstable as He begins to piece together the reasons for her grief and Masters thesis, which she had abandoned months before.
I remember watching The Exorcist while I was in high school, and I remember noticing a pain in my head about halfway through. I looked down and discovered that my hand was propping up my head and was squeezing so tightly that it hurt. I hadn’t experienced anything like that again until Antichrist. During the majority of the opening sequence my jaw was wide open, and again during several more scenes later in the film.
There is a scene involving a fox that was one of the singularly most terrifying moments I’ve experienced in a movie theater. It is disturbing and unsettling, with familiar Lynchian rumbling sounds that never fail to fill me with dread. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an animal eat itself on screen before. As the film nears its climax chaos reigns and does not relent.
Watching the film in a theater late at night, with one friend and only two other patrons, was a remarkable experience. I’m not sure the emotional and visceral power of the film will be as great in a home theater system, though I believe it will still be an experience. The film is gorgeously shot and bravely acted. Lars von Trier manages to make his most disturbing and unsettling film since his mini-series of Riget I and Riget II, and it leaves those in the dust. It is a thoughtful movie, also, dwelling on a person’s fears and reasons for those fears. Some may find the movie too pretentious, but I would point out its technically proficiency and truly terrifying atmosphere.
I haven’t discussed many of the more graphic moments in the film. Antichrist belongs on a short list of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen, just beneath the likes of Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. It is a bit too long and thoughtful, however, for those looking for cheap exploitative thrills. Despite being a remarkable experience, the film is not for everyone. I watched it with the only person I would ever recommend it to, and am personally not too keen on revisiting it again anytime soon.