I see a lot of films in a year. A self described “film nut”, my favorite genres tend to be horror, indie, and whatever falls under the category of extreme mental anguish (you kids call that a mindf*ck these days, don’t you?). When I got wind of Lars Von Trier’s latest film, Antichrist, I was able to quickly discern that I was going to get a dose of all three, so suffice to say I was invested in checking it out as soon as I saw the first trailer.
However, even a brief glance over the film’s performance at Cannes last year clearly communicated that it was not for the weak of heart or stomach. If you’ve already read any of those reviews, you already know some of the film’s most shocking moments (and that movie poster with the scissors makes instant, if not nauseating, sense to you). Luckily, I purposely skipped these writeups as I knew I wanted to see the film and did not want to be spoiled, so when the Blu-Ray was recently released, I was able to experience every moment as it was intended — with no idea what was to happen next.
Hit the jump for a few words on the Blu-Ray, but mostly for all the words in my head I’ve desperately needed to say since trying to absorb the experience I had while watching Antichrist. Be warned though — major spoilers follow.
From the outside, the tale told in Antichrist seems a fairly simple one. The story focuses on two unnamed characters, played stunningly by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Williem Dafoe. The film starts out with the couple having what looks to be some fairly hardcore sex (and speaking of, please be ready for a penis plunging into vagina shot in the first sixty seconds, as it does happen) while their young child wanders around the house on his own. You’re painfully aware of what is about to go down as the child wanders to an open window and gazes out at the falling snow. The scene is also shot in slow motion and set to beautiful music, evoking that perfect state of pathos in the viewer as if to contrast the violence of the sexual union and her son’s tragic end. It startles you right off the bat — but Von Trier has only just gotten started.
While Williem Dafoe’s character only cries once, while following his son’s coffin to the burial site, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character suffers a complete mental breakdown. She collapses, only to spend a month in the hospital. When she awakens, her partner makes it clear that he does not trust the analysis of the doctors, and since he is a therapist, he will treat her himself and will not allow her to take the medication she was prescribed. The style of the film is so absorbing that its easy to miss the details the first time around, but at this point the male and female characters begin their march towards very specific definitions, a theme which we will see brutally elaborated as the story unfolds.
Through the man’s analysis, we deduct that the woman seems to be suffering panic attacks and violent bouts of fear and stress that are somehow connected to a cabin in the forest that she went to the summer before with their son. Called Eden, she went there to write her thesis, which delved into the history of witchcraft and the evils women committed in the past. In a particularly heartless turn of events, the man decides that to go into the root of what is bothering the woman they must go directly into it, and they trek out to this cabin in the middle of nowhere so she can confront her terrors. Essentially, these two are Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but they will face consequences far worse than eating forbidden fruit.
From this point on, the events which take place in the woods only show a slow spiral downwards further and further away from sanity. The woman remembers (the previous summer) hearing her child’s voice crying in the woods, but finding him safely playing inside the cabin. Meanwhile, the man sees glimpses of a deer with a dead fetus hanging from its rear in a decaying sac and a fox chewing out its own innards. Every frame of the film is rife with symbolism and concepts, almost too many to really absorb in one viewing. You have a general idea of what’s going to happen, but even then, the way things turn out are still a shock. Even the last frame of the film leaves you thinking — what does it mean to the character involved? And to me as a viewer?
It’s also worth mentioning that the female character of Antichrist is portrayed as being a fiercely sexual creature. The movie opens with sex, she repeatedly tries to initiate intercourse with the man before they leave for the cabin, and this frenzy seems to heighten after they go to Eden, with her begging the man to hit her during sex, deserting him when he won’t do it and masturbating furiously on the forest floor, and finally coping with her own sexual guilt by genitally mutiliating herself. The profile that she seems to fit at first is one of a passive female, yet her sexual desire is raging. Is it a morphed form of her grief? Or is this violent hunger simply an expression of a craving to be further dominated?
Surely some would perceive this portrayal the female as some sort of sex-crazed animal as a further offense on Von Trier’s part. For some people, a film like Antichrist is an instant turnoff. It’s artfully shot, it uses classical music, and it’s brutal in both the level of physical and mental violence it shows to the audience. Many reviews call it “art trash” and slander Von Trier, calling him a misogynist of the highest order. It’s undeniable that the male and female of Antichrist play traditional stereotypical roles: he’s rational, thinks he knows better, and tries to take control of the situation without regard for her needs as his wife, while she is passive and emotionally unstable. Many feminists crow that portraying a woman in this light is misogynist all on its own, but since I am not a feminist, I see this character from a different perspective.
I believe the woman of Antichrist is a sort of conflicted Madonna. We never learn anything about what she was like before her child died, only that she was working on a thesis about the history of woman labeled as “evil”. A scene later in the film indicates that she may have been battling madness before her son died, and that the research on the thesis left her feeling as if history pointed in the right direction — rather than provide evidence against woman as associated with evil, she felt the opposite. It’s easy to see her as a crazed murderer late in the film, as she attacks the man and attempts to hold him captive. Personally, I saw the path to her loss of sanity very clearly, and there is some sadness in watching her become the absolute worst embodiment of the stereotype — the smothered, lost, hopeless woman — one can possibly imagine.
The Christian author Tertullian wrote about “the crimes of women” in the 2nd century, using these words: “You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert – that is, death – even the Son of God had to die.” Von Trier uses this concept and painfully exposes how this line of thought played a role in destroying a woman’s sanity.
While many viewers feel Von Trier reinforces misogyny with this film, I feel he uses it as a painful example of the tragedy that can ensue if the sexes continue to act out the roles defined for them by parts of our human history. Each time a man asserts his control over a woman with no regard for her needs, he resurrects the emotion that Tertullian put down on paper hundreds of years ago. And each time a woman allows for that passivity and refuses to claim her real self and therefore her own needs, she risks allowing the belief of the message that she is eternally guilty and should percieve herself as evil to further pervade her consciousness. Neither man or woman is evil here — but as illustrated in the film, these roles can drive human beings to madness.
In case you don’t know Italian, the Lascio Chi’o Pianga aria from Handel’s Rinaldo that opens the film contains telling lyrics. “Let me weep over my cruel fate, and that I long for freedom” is one of the lines sung in the piece. In the last scene of the film, the man leaves the forest after strangling the woman and burning her body, and as he climbs up a hill he finds himself surrounded by scores of faceless women, moving past him soundlessly. Perhaps if we let ourselves succumb to these unspoken stereotypes of our sexes, we all becomes faceless in that we allow them to cover who we really are — and that is a thing we must not do.
The Blu Ray presents the film in startlingly crisp high definition, and considering the way the film looks, it was meant to be seen this way. The extras also shed some more light on the circumstances surrounding the film, including Von Trier’s admission to suffering from clinical depression prior to and during the making of. However, he was quoted at Cannes as boldly stating (while laughing) ” I am the best film director in the world.” While I wouldn’t go that far, I would say that his striking vision certainly puts him among the bravest and most unique working in his field. If you can manage to stomach what most shy away from and enjoy films that provoke you to think, Antichrist won’t fail you.