Reviewed by Gareth Jones
Starring Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Directed by Lars Von Trier
Never one to step away from controversy, Danish director Lars Von Trier pushes the boat out farther than ever with his latest work, Antichrist.
Split into four chapters (“Grief”, “Pain (Chaos Reigns)”, “Despair (Gynocide)” and “The Three Beggars”) with an epilogue and prologue, the story itself follows He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a couple grieving in the aftermath of the accidental death of their toddler son, Nick. To save his wife from impending complete mental breakdown, psychiatrist He decides to remove her from hospital and treat her himself. This involves taking her to their woodland cabin, Eden, to face her escalating fear of nature, conquer her grief and ultimately save their relationship. Things don’t go quite so well, however, as He finds himself locked in a losing battle which escalates to extremely bloody levels.
Anyone who has previously been exposed to Von Trier’s work will know not to expect anything particularly straightforward with regards to Antichrist’s storytelling, and even those who despise his earlier works will be forgiven for expecting something special mere moments into the particularly astounding “Prologue” section of the film. The only part to include a musical soundtrack besides the “Epilogue”, the opening of Antichrist is hauntingly beautiful – a black and white, slow motion sequence set to “Lascia ch’io pianga” (from the Opera Rinaldo). Timing and cinematography here are both magnificent, chronicling the fate of young Nick as his parents engage in sexual intercourse (including a censor-busting close-up penetration shot). Unfortunately, once this has passed things move steadily downhill.
The script itself is full of nonsensical, meaningless waffle – in fact, it makes up the vast majority of it. Willem Defoe comes out shining despite this with his layered and subtle portrayal of He however Gainsbourg, almost from the beginning, becomes one of the most irritating, insufferable on-screen presences of recent years. Her actions rarely appear to occur through grief (until the climax), making her constant sniping and condescension feel like nothing more than the actions of a spiteful and unlikeable woman.
Antichrist has a very “mad at the world” (and a more than slightly misogynistic) feeling behind it, with Defoe’s character gradually discovering the corruption at the base of nature itself before finally becoming a target of it. This of course isn’t presented by anything as straightforward as an actual animal attack or anything of the sort (this is subtle art house cinema) – instead, each chapter is punctuated by an encounter with a wounded or dying animal including an unbelievably ridiculous mutilated fox mouthing “CHAOS…REIGNS!” as Defoe looks on incredulously. Lines such as “Nature is Satan’s church” also do nothing more than invite a stupefied frown.
The pacing of Antichrist is numbingly slow, almost comatose, with nothing much particularly occurring for most of the runtime. The first chapter sees not much more than He attempting to quell his wife’s panic attacks and sexual advances, and the occasional artsy shot of woodland used to break up scenes. This laborious tempo continues throughout the rest of the film and, at times, threatens to drive the audience to the same limit of insanity as Gainsbourg’s character as they wish for something, anything, of actual substance to occur. It never feels like a film with a “deliberate” pace – merely a rambling attempt to pad out a story as much as possible. Anthony Dod Mantle’s spellbinding cinematography proves to be one of the only main reasons to continue watching…well, besides the much-touted brutality which populates the final act.
The violence in Antichrist is horrifying in its sexual nature, with a later scene seeing He partially raped, smashed in the groin with a log then masturbated while unconscious until he ejaculates blood – all in loving detail. After this, his psychotic other half drills a hole though his leg and attaches a grindstone as a symbolic “ball and chain”. The climactic scene includes a revelation explaining the sexual targeting of She’s violent behaviour, spotlighting the twisted reasoning behind her actions as she (again, in graphic close up) mutilates her own genitals with a pair of scissors but ultimately it all just feels like shock for the sake of it.
If it weren’t for the overt pretentiousness and strained imagery, this may have been an involving and genuinely horrifying exploration of the depths that a crumbling relationship can be drawn to through grief. In the end, though, it’s a warbling, emotionally impenetrable mess that runs at least twice as long as it ought to. Being too artsy for the general horror crowd (even those like myself who do enjoy the more cerebral and character-based offerings of the genre will have their patience sorely tested), and simply too extreme in the depiction of sexual violence for most other audiences means that Antichrist struggles to find a place for itself. In all honesty, it probably doesn’t deserve one except for Von Trier’s private screening room, or as a show reel for the aforementioned stellar cinematography and Defoe’s performance.
Critically, the film has already received returns from both ends of the spectrum, which is representative of just how much this is going to divide audiences. It’s one of those movies whose fans will claim the naysayers just don’t “get” when, in truth, it’s not particularly hard to understand. It just isn’t very good.
2 out of 5
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