Since viewing Lars Von Trier’s magnificent abortion of a film, Antichrist, I’ve scoured the media for a review that could properly summarize both the movie’s failings and the potency of its poorly-articulated themes.
Sigh. If you want something done right. . .
First, let me get one thing out of the way: this film is a disaster on nearly every conceivable level — direction, screenplay, cinematography, editing. . . . The movie’s shortcomings, like Satan’s demonic emissaries, are legion. Other reviews I’ve read have praised or vilified specific aspects of Antichrist: either they swoon over its “dream-like imagery” or they rebuke its graphic sexual violence and supposed misogyny.
To me, this misses the point entirely. To speak of Antichrist in cinematic terms is pointless. As a film, it is one of the most spectacular catastrophes from an ostensibly brilliant director in at least a decade. That said, I saw the movie a full two days ago, and have not stopped scrutinizing it since. So I guess Von Trier kind of wins.
Typically, I write reviews assuming zero reader familiarity with the work in question. That’s why the Devil invented critics: we’re here to provide an expedient overview and perhaps a little cultural or aesthetic context. In this case, however, I find no reason to give a narrative play-by-play. If you want to know what happens in the movie, you can read any number of other articles. Frankly, the Wikipedia entry will suffice. This essay concerns only the psychological, existential and metaphysical aspects of the film. I’ve encountered only one review that highlights the movie’s messages, and it’s perfectly Catholic. No real problem there, as Antichrist utilizes Christian dualism — good/evil/male/female/light/dark/Adam/Eve — as thematic pillars. Without giving an abysmal film more credit than it deserves, I can say that theological dichotomy is only one aspect of Von Trier’s clumsily executed statement.
I should mention that Antichrist stars only two people: Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe — the latter apparently will appear in any movie that allows him to either a) look pained, or b) get naked. Non-human stars include a decomposing fox that talks, a squawking raven and a doe with a stillborn calf hanging out of its deer-gina.
Antichrist is broken into four main sections: Grief, Pain (Chaos Reigns), Despair (Gynocide), and the Three Beggars. Although I said I would not remark on storyline, it’s helpful to understand a few key points. Gainsbourg plays She, a mother who has recently lost her toddler son in an unfortunate accident. The facts in this cinematically overwrought tragedy are these: An adorable blonde kid happily tumbles out of a snow-flecked window as his parents fuck to an ostentatious Handel aria. In donnishly austere black and white, no less. Trust me when I tell you that this all plays like a pornographic DeBeers commercial.
Dafoe portrays He — a smug, self-assured, therapist who has big-time PhD-envy that manifests in a cultivated mistrust of clinical physicians. His method of dealing with his wife’s incapacitating grief is to become. . . her shrink! She begrudgingly accepts this harebrained appointment, occasionally berating him for behaving indifferently until her psychological crisis. Bear in mind that the dialogue and acting here is like Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage as interpreted by Uwe Boll.
Dafoe believes that She will be cured by confronting her fears — specifically by joining him at their hardly-idyllic woodsy retreat, Eden (dig that symbolism). Because, you see, She had spent the previous summer there with her son while writing a thesis about the historic persecution of women. Please disabuse yourself of any notion that this in any way compelling. To the contrary, Antichrist is so on-the-nose that any attempt at invoking dread comes across as unintentional comedy. At least everyone involved in Caligula knew it was fucktarded. Von Trier seems to be utterly ignorant of his movie’s over-the-top fatuousness. So it’s really no fun for anybody.
Here’s the part of my critique where I get all post-grad on your asses. The following assessment concerns three core themes that essentially correspond to the Three Beggars motif (thanks, Lars!). Keep in mind that each of these abstractions are worthy of artistic exploration, and have, in fact, provided fodder for creativity since that pre-historic afternoon when cave drawings evolved beyond the representational.
Theme One: The suppression of feminine self-nature has serious consequences.
Dafoe’s character is a not-so subtle stand-in for the rational, masculine, categorizing, Apollonian intellect. His self-mastery comes at the expense of any true empathy beyond the casually pedantic. By willfully interfering with his partner’s grief cycle and insisting that she can be “cured” through adaptive therapy, he is playing with a Nature that does not correspond to his patriarchal conceptions of order. Even if He were more empathic, he could never fully know the level of bereavement that occurs when you are violently separated from a being you carried in inside you for nine months and subsequently nourished with your own life-sustaining secretions.
Theme Two: The unfiltered apprehension of Nature’s savage entropy will drive you fucking bonkers.
Once He and She are holed away in their sylvan anti-retreat, the movie goes from a close-focus examination of grief to a fumbling pageant of existential terror. While She continues to make “progress” toward His idea of psychological fitness, He is besieged by grisly and confounding revelations from Nature. These include the aforementioned talking fox, whose sole line, “Chaos reigns!” is destined to become the new “Dude abides.” As a steadfast representative of Western patriarchy, He of course ignores these signs until it’s too late. And by too late, I mean when Her nature aligns with all Nature and the cork comes flying off Hell’s house bubbly. There is a great deal of pointless back-and-forth about mankind’s ultimate nature (brutal and evil), and the feminine’s role in unleashing and perpetuating this debasement. Yet, despite having worked on a thesis cataloging the abuse of women through the ages, She readily accepts the designation of Woman as the Root of All Evil and takes her place at the infernal table at the head of which sits the Devil in his most multifarious guise: Nature. Again, if this sounds at all intriguing (as it did to me in about ten different reviews), I assure you it is not. Antichrist aims for the subconscious menace of Hour of the Wolf or Rosemary’s Baby, but it more closely resembles Blair Witch 2.
Theme Three: Punishment is the only salvation.
This is basically where all the explicit sexual violence occurs: cock-smashing; blood ejaculation; even a close-up, scissor-induced clitorectomy. I won’t bother with any more detail, but I do think the gory aspects of Antichrist are made far too much of. The reason for the gruesome sadomasochism is not merely to get people to go to an otherwise uninteresting movie. By showcasing these acts of savagery (initiated by She against He, She against She, and, finally, He against She), Von Trier is not-so-subtly revealing his ultimate point: beyond loss-inspired anguish and the anguish of existing in an unfathomably cruel and indifferent universe, there is the anguish of self-condemnation. You see, She was having sex when her kid fell out the window, so her guilt will forever be tied to the only means with which She and her husband can truly communicate: intercourse. As a party to their congress, He, too, is complicit — hence the dick-smashing — but She reserves the true blame for herself. Therefore, her final act of penance is to lop off the nub of her desire — her clit — which, from her distorted perspective, is the source of all guilt and remorse.
When the fox, deer and raven swing by for an utterly incomprehensible final act, it hardly matters. You never cared about these people, their struggles or their terminal unraveling. The only thing of concern are the themes, which are more than adequate fodder for art. From Mayan depictions of sacrifice to “The Scream” to Michael Jackson‘s deliberate facial disfigurement, human expression often evokes barbarism, existential terror and self-abuse. Even though Antichrist got me thinking about all this, it offers nothing in terms of greater insight or clarity. Nor does it effectively transmit the fear and confusion that accompany any proper journey through Hell. But hey, there is a talking fox.