Much of the controversy surrounding the upcoming release of Lars von Trier’s outrageously provocative Antichrist has to do with two extremely graphic scenes of sexual violence. I was able to endure the first one – mostly because it caught me off guard, and I had no choice but to sit there watching it like a deer in headlights. But the second one – involving a rusty pair of scissors and a certain sexual organ (I’ll leave it to you to guess which one) – I saw coming a mile off, so I spent that scene studying my knees.
What I did watch I liked. Not in the “enjoy” sense of the word, but I appreciated what von Trier was doing. He takes the movie’s religious themes very seriously. Some audiences might think they’re being punk’d, but I don’t think so. In terms of Catholic imagery and iconography, he’s every bit as sincere as Mel Gibson – and perhaps twice as crazy.
The movie begins in devastation, and then spirals downward from there. He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) – we never learn what their names are – are making passionate love in bed. (For no apparent reason, the scene includes one of von Trier’s patented insert shots of unsimulated sex.) While this is going on, their young son climbs out of his crib, crawls up to a ledge, and falls out of a window.
The mother is inconsolable and has to be hospitalized. Using his expertise as a psychoanalyst, he attempts to talk her down from her depression. At least, I think that’s what he’s doing. In the way he delivers his lines, Dafoe kinda makes you wonder about the guy’s motives. We think, “If I had that voice in my head, I’d probably go crazy too.”
He suggests they drive out to their cabin in the woods, which is named Eden. But nature is the last thing these people need; nature is Satan’s playground. How do I know this? Because the fox with the exposed entrails told me so.
What actually happens in Antichrist is loopy and over-the top; what matters is HOW it happens. The dream sequences are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Von Trier and his cinematographer, Oscar winner Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire), overcrank the camera and shoot from way overhead. The effect is like stepping into a waking nightmare. When Stanley Kubrick was filming The Shining, Stephen King accused the legendary auteur of making a movie that would “hurt people.” Sometimes I wondered if von Trier was trying to do the same thing.
At the Cannes Film Festival, Antichrist was named “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world.” I honestly don’t understand this charge. The women in Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and Manderlay are all victims of degradation. He’s saying women are sometimes victims of violence – especially sexual violence; how does that make him a misogynist? (If he was saying they DESERVED it, then that would be something else.) I don’t see how Antichrist is any more or less misogynistic than von Trier’s previous work.
More than a religious allegory or a battle of the sexes, the film works best as an all-out shocker – thanks in no small part to two of the most extraordinary performances in horror-movie history. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is a genuine experience – an almost unprecedentedly wrenching one. I recommend seeing it in theaters. You don’t want to miss seeing all those people covering their eyes and running for the exits.