Director: Lars von Trier
Seattle, the present day. An unnamed married couple (officially referred to as ‘He’ and ‘She’) make love. At the same time, unknown to them, their young son manages to escape from his cot and fall from an open window, dying. She, grief-stricken, collapses at the funeral and is hospitalised for a month. He, a therapist, is concerned at the care and medication she receives and decides to treat She and help her overcome her grief pattern. He discovers that Eden, their country home, is part of She’s fears. Last year, she had visited with their son to work on her thesis. He decides they should both go to Eden so that she can confront these fears.
She appears to improve after initial difficulty. He discovers the research that she had been working on in the attic; gynocide, the abuse and violence aimed at women over the centuries. He has kept the autopsy results of their son’s death from her, who had suffered from a foot deformity. Photographs suggested She made their son wear his shoes on the wrong feet during the last Eden visit. After having sex, She crushes He’s genitals with a wooden block, and whilst unconscious, she drills a hole through his leg, attaching a millstone. He attempts to escape, though She eventually finds him, dragging him back to the cabin. She performs a genital mutilation upon herself, before He strangles her to death, burning her body, then he escapes from Eden.
There was only one talking point at Cannes 2009. Only one film divided the critical community to an almost unprecedented scale. That film was ‘Antichrist’. Whether it was the seemingly inappropriate acknowledgement and tribute to Tarkovsky or the director’s own general arrogance about his own film, von Trier managed to annoy most of the critics at Cannes. Naturally, with the wider cinema release in the UK, there’s been a hysterical reaction from many British newspapers. This is nothing new; von Trier’s been here before. Even the Palme D’Or winning ‘Dancer in the Dark’ (2000) received adulation and scorn in equal measure.
But none of this suggested the reaction to ‘Antichrist’, where critics’ accusations of misogyny became far more commonplace, although personally, I don’t readily accept these allegations. The previously mentioned films, and also ‘Breaking the Waves’ (1996) and ‘Dogville’ (2003) feature the suffering of women as their central theme, often violently, graphically so. But is depicting this violence the same as sympathising with it? I don’t think so. Where these accusations of misogyny might acquire more credence with ‘Antichrist’ is when She embraces the evil that she believes women are capable of, seeming to reiterate the prejudices of the material she’s been researching. As much as the graphic violence, it’s these ideas, which are more ambiguous than usual for von Trier, that make the viewer rather uneasy. Many critics are all too ready to dismiss the film as nothing more than a rather elaborate joke, which I think gives these critics a convenient excuse to refuse to engage with the film, to contemplate its difficult ideas and subject matter.
How much of a genuine interest there is in psychology in von Trier’s film is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it’s just a device to frame his film around. But there are some ethical issues raised; the monstrous ego of He, deciding that medical professionals can’t treat his wife, that they just want to keep her drugged rather than deal with her issues, that of course, only he can work through. Does He by this measure represent the historical repression of women? Ultimately He becomes the tip of the fear pyramid he develops to measure what she is afraid of. There’s also the fact that He is himself fallible, failing to live up to his own expectations, allowing the personal and professional relationships with She to blur (they continue to have sex after their therapy has commenced as She sees sex as the only means of dealing with grief). Is there a sense that He brings the explosion of violence waged against him upon himself? There’s no real easy answers in this film; whether that’s because von Trier has constructed his film with great intelligence or because it’s more of a muddled, contradictory mess is open to the viewer’s interpretation. It all depends on how you normally get on with von Trier, I suppose. He’s a difficult film maker to sit on the fence with.
What no-one can possibly dispute though is that the film is a visual tour-de-force. Working with Anthony Dod Mantle, who’s worked on previous Dogme films but of course won an Academy Award for his work on ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008), von Trier has conjured a striking look that’s very much influenced by Tarkovsky, flying in the face of those who mocked his tribute to Tarkovsky in the closing credits. The mark of the Soviet master is everywhere, with various shots seemingly lifted wholesale from his films, such as the wind sweeping across the grass at Eden, borrowed from an iconic shot in ‘Mirror’ (1975). Each of the specific chapters in the film, including the prologue and epilogue (von Trier’s been using this concept since ‘Dogville’) has a unique visual style and colour palette. The prologue, shot in black and white in extreme slow motion (which includes a penis as its second or third shot!) looks terrific, although it almost descends into a parody of a sensual lovemaking scene. Maybe that’s the point. Symbolism is everywhere, based usually around nature. The three beggars (rabbit, deer, crow) become integral participants in the film, almost stalking He and She, influencing events, although we probably see them in more unflinching detail than one would wish for. This nature symbolism is a more reassuring flipside to the intense levels of violence.
Because of the divisive nature of ‘Antichrist’, the reviews will overall look mixed, though it’s anything but an average film. It’s impossible to sit on the fence; it provokes a strong reaction all too easily from the viewer. It makes for uncomfortable viewing, even though there’s plenty to admire about it. This is ambitious film making, featuring an excellent central performance from Charlotte Gainsbourg (which was awarded with the Best Actress accolade at Cannes, almost a throwback to Isabelle Adjani’s manic, hyperactive performance in Andrzej Zulawski’s ‘Possession’ (1981), which was also awarded the same prize) and is constantly visually dazzling and distinctive, yet it’s easy to have reservations about whether the film’s ethical and moral perspectives really bear scrutiny, and it’s these that are far more concerning than the violence on show, though most critics have rather hysterically concentrated on the latter, which is surely no worse than seen elsewhere (even in art cinema – Bergman’s ‘Cries and Whispers’ (1973) featured genital mutilation).