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Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)


     By turns provocative, repulsive and downright elemental, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist churns with such a surfeit of unresolved energy that it’s likely to leave viewers dazed and confused by the end of its assault. For once, critics were right to be baffled by a movie at Cannes. Von Trier’s insane allegory is, by design, resistant to any definitive interpretation, whether it’s psychological, theological, or scrawled in a critic’s notebook. What the director conjures on screen certainly uses bold symbolism and blatant messaging, but the net effect of it is rather irreducible. Like one of the two characters in his film, von Trier seems at once to reject his own thesis and see it as a gateway to universal truths about the nature of man, the power of nature itself, and the role of women as mediators between the two.


     This remarkable, unusual movie is never obscure from a plot perspective. Von Trier has better ways to fuck with us. His film follows a symbolically unnamed man and woman (played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) from the throes of ecstasy into the throes of grief after the accidental death of their child. Much of the film involves his attempts to counsel her as she literally tears herself apart with sexual and maternal guilt. His choice in therapy is either staggeringly ineffective or tragically over-effective, depending on whether one believes psychology is an attempt to coax us into a comforting lie or a means of revealing truths about ourselves. As the film barrels toward a conclusion, it becomes increasingly difficult to differentiate victim from aggressor in their relationship. Von Trier presents a confounding interplay between psychology and psychosis, misogyny and empowerment, spinning a positively demented air in which it’s impossible to assign values, or even motivations, to the characters’ actions.


     For those looking for evidence of the film’s paradoxical nature, its mere title provides ample examples. It refers to many contradictory things at once. Nietzsche (whose name von Trier has used as an alias) wrote a famous tome, called The Anti-Christ, which, among other things,  argued that Christian man’s conception of God was too willing to overlook any destructive elements in His nature. The title of the film also nods toward a pagan, pre-Christian period, which the movie increasingly threatens to revert to. Certainly this same title could also be used to describe either of its lead characters. Both Dafoe, as far from Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ as possible, and Gainsbourg, whose character could be seen as a witch, fit the bill, depending on one’s point of view. The film’s credits even wink at its audience’s conception of its devilish director. The opening title card reads “Lars von Trier”. This is followed by a shock chord on the soundtrack and the title “Antichrist”, making the first moment of the movie an inescapable extratextual joke.


     Audiences who don’t catch that gag are in for a long wait before they are going to reach the next moment in the film that is likely to provoke even nervous laughter. The first half of Antichrist is as much a display of emotional suffering as its notorious second half is a parade of physical assaults. The early part of the movie, which takes place after an intensely stylized, intensely felt prologue, is a somber chamber drama that seems to have genuinely fallen under the spell of a deep depression. Its dialogue is relayed in muted whispers, and it only truly comes alive during moments of intense physical pain or pleasure. All else in this passage is both purposefully numbing and utterly unsettling.


     During these scenes, Dafoe’s character serves as the rational counterpoint to his wife’s irrational grief. At the same time, there’s condescension in his actions. He’s playing God here, insisting that there’s a meaning behind the suffering he inflicts upon his wife and persuading her that he alone is uniquely qualified to understand her and save her from herself. He detachedly asks her to explain her fears, which she feels deeply, but can’t put into words, setting up a dialectic between logic and emotion that will persist as the film plays out. As their extended therapy session moves to their secluded cabin in the woods, time and again, he’s confronted by the disturbing force of nature, but repeatedly chooses to ignore it. His hubris is unmistakable, but to many viewers it will seem a small sin when compared to his wife’s provocations. The director, however, may not agree. These scenes are less overtly scandalous than those that follow, but they are crucial to understanding what von Trier is attempting to do with Antichrist. The behavior of the husband certainly plays some part in pushing the wife over the deep end, and when she goes, she takes the film with it. At one point, Gainsbourg’s character explains, “That’s what fear is. Your thoughts distort reality,” bracing viewers for the literal and logical distortions to come in the film’s second half.


     From the moment we’re told that “Chaos reigns,” Antichrist dives headlong into madness with a level of vigor that few films have ever managed. As its plot spirals seemingly out of control, it grows increasingly unhinged. Von Trier uses subliminal imaging, Biblical allusions, subtle lens distortions, hypnosis, hallucinations, analysis, role-playing, blatantly Freudian moments and Jungian symbolism to forefront his dive into the psychotic, but the movie feels fundamentally at war with itself, refusing to favor one viewpoint or mode of interpretation over another. Past its midway point, the distorted lens effects have given way to full blown hallucinations, eventually taking viewers to a state where reality can’t be distinguished from fantasy. By the end of the film, when madness unquestionably reigns, the only way that Antichrist’s mixed signals seem to hang together are as a bitter rejection of us all – a stark realization that there’s something evil in our nature, and nature’s nature, that we ultimately can’t escape.


     A second viewing will help to confirm how thoroughly worked out Antichrist’s turmoil is. Details that predict what’s eventually going to happen are scattered everywhere. The water from the shower in the opening sex scene prefigures the rain of acorns later on. The camera zooms into the water in a vase in Her hospital room, indicating the murk lurking behind our idealization of nature. A series of extreme close-ups of Gainsbourg’s body parts shown in the first chapter as Dafoe explains the physical effects of her anguish is repeated at the film’s climax to chilling effect. Even the infamous close-up of His penis entering Her helps to prepare us for the body horror that is to come. Maybe, though, such order in the face of such willed chaos is an oxymoron. If so, that’s the only point on which von Trier’s film fails. Perhaps Antichrist would be stronger if it never made sense, or never felt “designed”. The sensation that von Trier has crafted such a deliberately contradictory contraption does on some level keep it from being the unbridled decent into madness that it needs to be, even as it redeems the director on some level, and allows his movie to emerge as a thoughtful work of art (as opposed to the ravings of a madman).


     Just as much as Antichrist is sure to provoke debate, it is likely to provoke disdain. Despite providing a historical context (both in the film and in his own body of work) to explain his misogynistic premise, von Trier has already been attacked as a misogynist. Such a reading of Antichrist is oversimplified. This is a movie that dares audiences to declare either one of its characters an aggressor, especially since it situates each of them in a realm that shows nature to be just as aggressive itself. Von Trier’s movie damns any who sets out to interpret it. Despite appearances, it’s a film that’s too thoroughly researched and technically sound to be sloppily improvised and too deadly serious and disturbing to be a complete lark. Like the fox that appears midway, simultaneously explaining and devouring itself, Antichrist is a singularly painful and self-defeating movie.



Jeremy Heilman