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Charlotte Gainsbourg as She in Antichrist, directed by Lars von Trier.
Charlotte Gainsbourg as She in Antichrist, directed by Lars von Trier.

Film Friday

It succeeds at being offensive, but fails in its ambition Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

Antichrist

  • Written and directed by Lars von Trier
  • Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe
  • Classification: R

Notorious for its scenes of mutilation and violence, Antichrist , the new film from Danish director Lars von Trier, is sincere in its desire to offend and also deeply ambitious. What we get is a narrative triple whammy: a domestic melodrama wrapped up in a horror film embedded in a mock-Biblical allegory, finishing with a rude splat of ultra-violence that puts all the Saws and Hostels to shame.

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The movie begins with a title card (Lars von Trier Antichrist) before slipping into the black-and-white prologue, a winter scene that plays like a pornographic Christmas commercial. As an aria by Handel plays, a sinewy couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) engage in slow-motion sex (real penetration!) in the shower. In the next room, their toddler, carrying his teddy bear, climbs out of his crib and then tumbles out a window through the fluffy snowflakes to his death, just as his mother reaches orgasm.

Yes, it's a fall and The Fall, where sex, guilt and death entwine. From out of the allegory, we head into the torment of grief. The movie (broken into four chapters with black-and-white bookends) picks up a month after the funeral in a hospital room with a nervous handheld camera, now in colour, probing the couple's intimate suffering.

The woman, credited as She, is experiencing what her doctor calls abnormal grief. He (Dafoe), a therapist, is scornful of the doctor's diagnosis and orders her to throw away her anti-depressants. As a cognitive therapist, He believes you can reason your way out of depression. Racked with guilt, she's also feeling compulsively sexual, but in his rational superiority, he denies her that comfort. "Never screw your therapist," he explains.

They go to their cabin in the woods, called Eden, where she spent the previous summer with the baby, ostensibly working on her PhD thesis. The thesis subject is "gynocide," a feminist neologism referring to the persecution and murder of women by men. (She accused him of finding her thesis "glib.") She quit working on it (only a room full of gruesome medieval illustrations remains) because the subject overwhelmed her to the point where she began internalizing the belief that women and nature are evil.

Some reviewers have declared that von Trier is a misogynist - The Ecumenical Jury at Cannes this year went so far as to award von Trier an "anti-prize" for misogyny - but this seems willfully obtuse. If anything, the narrative feels like Feminism 101: Centuries of patriarchal oppression, encapsulated in the Genesis myth that Eve allowed evil to enter the world, have taught women to internalize male hostility as guilt and self-loathing.

As is often the case with a Lars von Trier film, there is a point where you have to decide whether the payoff is worth the gimmick. In Antichrist , the moment he loses the audience is easy to identify. The husband comes across the corpse of a disemboweled fox in the grass. Suddenly the animal opens its mouth, and a basso profondo voice growls: "Chaos reigns." To paraphrase what Oscar Wilde said on the death of Dickens's Little Nell, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh.

True, Von Trier does his best to wipe the smirk off your face during the film's final act - with His and Her genital mutilations and the scary forest with its possessed woodland creatures. The epilogue, once more in black and white, is presented as demonic parody of the Saviour leading the dead to heaven. Appropriately, nothing is revealed.

The fault here isn't in the actors. Dafoe is stalwart as the unconsciously overbearing husband, while Gainsbourg makes a convincing journey from catatonic to hysterical without passing normal. Also, they're visually well-matched in their physical litheness and compelling sexy-ugly features.

The trouble is that Antichrist feels progressively symptomatic of a director losing heart. The later hallucinogenic sequences are clumsily realized, and in the hysterical last third, the film fractures into a series of stunts, provocations and shocks without conveying a sense of deeper malevolence. The viewer is less likely to be shivering in existential dread than trying to guess how those blood-spurting props work.

I'm reminded of something the late English actress, Katrin Cartlidge, said after shooting von Trier's 1996 breakthrough, Breaking the Waves , another sex-and-torture tale with a mystical bent. She described von Trier as a man who could repeatedly watch Bambi and cry each time. The insight seems pertinent to von Trier's woodland idyll, with its ghastly brew of sentimentality and sadomasochism. It can't be easy living inside Lars von Trier's head. Sometimes it's not that enlightening visiting there either.

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