"Antichrist" was one of 2009's most controversial films, simultaneously outraging critics at the Cannes Films Festival who decried its perceived misogyny and developing a small following cult following of fans who embraced the movie's mantra of "Chaos reigns." Then what happened?
Well, it's 2010 and the world (and when I say "the world" I mean the internet, of course) has since moved on to this year's batch of films that are considered shockingly offensive or borderline-pornographic. Now that the hubbub over Lars von Trier's latest film has died down, perhaps it's time to take a more level-headed look at "Antichrist," which as luck would have it is streaming in high definition via Netflix.
This is not, I repeat "not," the feel good hit of the year
The world of "Antichrist" is comprised entirely of two people, played by Willem Dafoe and singer/actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. They both give phenomenal performances. Dafoe is almost a parody of the ultra-rational psychoanalyst type. After the loss of their child, he buries his own grief deep inside and takes up the task of "healing" his wife to distract himself. Dafoe adopts an extreme clinical detachment towards Gainsbourg, believing he can cure her depression with pyramid charts and fear exercises.
Some of these scenes are hard not to laugh at: instead of comforting or consoling his wife, he views her like she's part of a control group or medical journal study. Considering that Lars von Trier himself suffers from extreme depression and at least some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, it's not hard to imagine that he's projecting much of his own experiences with doctors onto Dafoe's character. In fact, I spent much of this movie shaking my head, thinking "Trier must really hate his therapist."
Husbands-to-be, take note of everything Willem Dafoe does in this movie
and then do the exact OPPOSITE in real life
Charlotte Gainsbourg is incredible here. Anyone who has listened to her music knows that she has a soothing yet distant, chanteuse-like quality to her voice and it's used quite effectively in "Antichrist." A scene where she is hypnotized to recount her nightmares of traveling through the woods is made highly poetic by the dream-like visuals unfolding onscreen and Charlotte's lulling tones.
Towards the end of the film, when Gainsbourg is asked to summon all the fury of her feminine rage, she really gives her all…no, I mean, really. She goes farther than just about any other actress would have and was clearly fully committed to the role. It's a fearless performance.
Don't fuck with Charlotte Gainsbourg
For a film that seeks to expose the evil inherent in nature and the darkness waiting for all of us there, it's worth noting that "Antichrist" is an almost paradoxically beautiful-looking movie. Although I suppose even that fits the theme of the film, with nature luring us into a false sense of security with its outward appearance.
But there's no getting around it: as photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle, "Antichrist" is gorgeous.
Mantle has previously lensed "28 Days Later," "Julien Donkey-Boy," and "Dear Wendy," all visually striking works. He shot "Antichrist" primarily using Red One cameras, the digital camera that is helping make high-definition digital photography extremely affordable for independent productions.
This is a (relatively) low-budget film with photography that rivals most any Hollywood film. But even amidst the serenity of our characters' surroundings, Trier is quick to peel back the skin and reveal what lies beneath: a stillborn deer fetus, blood-sucking ticks, battering acorns, and a wounded fox who charmingly informs us that "Chaos reigns!"
I'm not gonna lie, this little guy is probably my favorite part of the movie
Don't be misled by the hucksters at Entertain Weekly or Rolling Stone: the fact that "Antichrist" has been likened to "torture porn" is more of a comment on our sensationalist, headline-grabbing media than it is on the film itself. Guilt-wracked, cathartic self-mutilation is about as far from the questionable merits of Eli Roth's "Hostel" as you can get; about all they have in common is the use of special effects prosthetics and make-up.
That said, there are certainly times in "Antichrist" when Lars van Trier could toned things down a bit. If you have to go so far as to hire "porno body doubles" for scenes that your actors won't film, then maybe it's a sign you should suggest rather than depict during that particular scene. Considering how far Dafoe and Gainsbourg are willing to go for Trier's art, I don't think that's an unreasonable request (or a call for self-censorship).
I would do anything for your art, Lars von Trier...but I won't do that.
I.e. show my balls onscreen
The audience for this film is admittedly slim. It's too thoughtful and intentionally-paced for gorehounds and it's too graphic for arthouse critics. All that's left are those viewers who are interested in a "transgressive horror film" and who are willing to experience Trier's bleak, neurotic view of the world without passing immediate judgment on the man.
John Waters said it best when he named "Antichrist" one of his top ten films of the year: "If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, [Antichrist] is the movie he would have made." This is a film about making love in Satan's womb. Enter at your own risk.