Danish provocatuer Lars Von Trier makes his long awaited return to the traditional horror film with the delightful head-scratcher Antichrist. Obliterating all expectations for fans of the seminal TV series Riget (The Kingdom) or anyone expecting a commercial horror film, instead we get a two character chamber-piece featuring handsome and unusual cinematography. Cinematic technique ranges from harshly lit and desaturated colours to extreme slow-motion, this is a far cry from the more naturalistic Dogme95 movies, or Brechtian sound-stage chicanery in Dogville and Manderlay. Like all works written or directed by the prolific auteur, they are high on artifice, yet still effective emotionally (viscerally) in spite of their obvious construction. This is the Lars Von Trier magic: Buttons are pushed, the audience is aware that buttons are being pushed, but we watch precisely to have our buttons pushed. Even something simple as having the actors sight-lines scrambled in quiet conversation is unsettling to anyone who watches a lot of movies; a ‘rule’ that is surprisingly not violated too often even by the so-called MTV-style filmmakers. There is a subtle (conscious or unconscious) effect of disorientation by having actors face the ‘wrong way’ within a conversation or quiet moment.
Like Bjork’s journey in Dancer in the Dark, whereupon humiliation and defeat are piled on top of one another to see if the audience can be broken on the long hard road to the inevitable, the grieving parents in Antichrist have their own dismal and Sisyphean path. Taking his wife to the source of her unspoken anxieties after the death of their child, a small wilderness cabin called “Eden” in an attempt to heal her of grief without pharmaceuticals offers the simplest of narrative. But the devil is in the details. Often naked, having sex or emotionally distraught (or all three simultaneously) this is a fearless performance from Charlotte Gainsbourg. Like many a woman in a Von Trier picture, she undergoes extreme amounts of suffering (often of the oblique, perverse variety) as the story unfolds. Some of Willem Dafoe‘s (seen a lot in the TIFF catalogue this year) best work to date is on display in an equally complex role that engenders (GASP!) even some subtlety.
Antichrist is broken into several chapters with a prologue and epilogue. Each portion has its share of surprising imagery, but nothing is more purely cinematic than the prologue wherein Von Trier manages, somehow to tell a very clear and concise story while shooting in a slow-motion aesthetic often used for a single high-impact shot (an explosion in The Hurt Locker or car crash in Sean Ellis’ The Broken). The tragedy that unfolds in the opening minutes is captured with Spielbergian clarity and Kubrickian detachment that prolongs the audience reaction to events that should grab any just about anyone on a fundamental level. From there, the couple retreat to their cabin in the woods to deal with her (note only two characters in the film are called “He” and “She”) physical paralysis and (unspoken, but obvious) his emotional paralysis. He is a therapist and delves into his craft to help her find some kind of sure footing. But Nature has other plans. The natural world around the cabin, the property ironically named Eden, which seems to be alive with narrative symbols: Grotesque animal births, falling bombs in the form of acorns rattling on the cabins tin roof, and Lynchian shots (and sounds) of implacable trees and murky waters. Playing on the other nature, Human Nature, sees her guilt (and perhaps his calm, even warm, hubris) threaten to overwhelm everything. To say that things get ugly, or that the relationship is doomed by the opening tragedy, is the understatement of the year. She uses sex to stave off her guilt, he attempts to refrain from sex altogether (albeit often unsuccessful) the pent up female sexual energy of this film could power a small city for a year or three, and perhaps to male viewers, aggressive female sexuality is as horrific as anything else on display in the film. The film is not bereft of ideas though. One such question asks what is worse, the casual brutality of mother nature, or the existential dread and violence caused by fear in human nature? That question is pretty much answered (in a number of ways) by the end of the film. I will not give things away here.
There may have been some burning of the midnight oil with Un Chien Andalou on in the background during the conception of this film. Von Trier has an ability to craft a dramatic and shocking image that pushes past Luis Buñuel’s surrealism and into realms of cringe worthy horror. There are many lasting images in Antichrist, and the scenes which stitch them together carry a palpable dread all their own with either a wooshing wind, a crying infant or low rumbling wail on the soundtrack. Like Gaspar Noe’s anti-riot technique inspired sonic-assault which opens Irreversible, there is almost a scientific way these primal sounds affect an audience member for maximum physical and mental effect. Yet there is always a healthy dollop of the recongnizable real amongst the symbolism or allegory. Makers of the usual torture-porn multiplex fare being released stateside should take note how much more effect ghastly gore has on the viewer when it is in service of on-some-level relatable situation instead of gameplay-gimmicks. Antichrist is a ‘real’ horror film because the effect on the viewer is actually quite horrific, rather than the ‘look down on it’ entertainment in the usual associated with many of the popular entries in the genre. Unlikely to be at a ‘theater near you’ either, the explicit sexuality of the most unerotic variety that punctuates the creeping sense of evil in Eden and the already infamous genital mutilation pretty much ensure that the audience is a very limited one.
There is not a lot of plot in Antichrist. It occasionally rears its head with an abandoned thesis of man’s inhumanity to women – from the Spanish inquisition to puritan witch-burnings – or the local flora and fauna assaulting the isolated cabin; plotwise this is a thought proving and quite upscale (and decidedly less fun) version of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. The loose story is quite gripping on the simplest of storytelling principles: What in the crazy-holy-hell is going to happen next? Couple that with all of the provocative imagery and grim musings on human nature and we have a whopper of a cinematic depth-charge to be dropped on even suspecting or willing audiences. God help those who go into this movie blind. Yea though I walk through the valley of the Shadow of … you get the idea.