'Antichrist' is an Ambitious, Audacious Masterpiece


Director: Lars von Trier
Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Dafoe
Rated: Not rated
Studio: Zentropa Entertainments
Year: 2009
US date: 2009-10-23 (Limited release)
UK date: 2009-07-24 (Limited release)

It's fairly obvious that vision is in short supply in Hollywood. Just look at what passes for art among the mindless mainstream movies that make their weekly pilgrimage to your local Cineplex and see if it's not true. We live in blank, bland times. But there's something that goes hand in hand with imagination and daring, a word that many misconstrue as consistent with arrogance, pretention, and ego. Some even use it as an excuse for limiting clear creativity. Yet "audacity" is equally lacking in today's motion picture landscape. Few filmmakers simply take their ideas and run wild with them. Typically, they simply slink along, looking to make their money before moving on to the next journeyman job.

To put it mildly, Lars Von Trier is not your typical anything. Over a career that has seen him embrace the strictures of the no-frills Dogme '95, dabble in TV terror, and defy convention with musicals and haughty historical period pieces, he has avoided easy description as his films have lacked commercial consideration. Now comes Antichrist, a work of unqualified brilliance - and impudence. Some have even dubbed it the most misogynistic movie ever created. Actually, it will probably stand as Von Trier's masterpiece.

A married couple experiences a horrific tragedy when their infant son leaves his crib and crawls out an open window, falling to his death. Overtaking by grief, the mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) spends over a month in a mental hospital while her therapist husband (Willem Dafoe) disagrees with her chemical course of treatment. Removing her from the facility and forcing her to do away with all medication, he feels he can talk her through the pain. When she reveals an unnatural fear of the woods surrounding a cabin in a place called Eden, he decides to take her there.

Initially, she is frightened into a state of near inertia. He finds her anxieties almost comical. Slowly, they begin to probe her wounded psyche. But as her attitude improves, he begins to suspect something sinister. Indeed, she has used her research into historical crimes against women to conclude that the female gender is inherently evil. It's become her post-motherhood mantra. He believes that is utter nonsense - until his wife turns violent, physically, emotionally, and above all, sexually.

Absolutely stunning in its visual flourishes, horrifying in its aggressive violence, and knowing in its psycho-sexual philosophical bent, Von Trier's Antichrist is simply astonishing. It's a structured walk through one woman's terrifying mental breakdown, a deconstructed cry for relief and understanding. So obsessed with birth and biology that the symbols practically stand up and shout their intent, this is New Age therapeutics as Grand Guignol geek show.

It is obvious what Von Trier is messing with - what happens to a "mother" when she loses that title (perhaps by her own actions, or lack thereof) - and along with the awkward supposition that history has prove the woman wicked, he intends to explore every possible angle of attack. That's why we get sequences of passion, bloodletting, comforting conversation, and unhinged insanity. In the end, he offers no real conclusions. Instead, we see one couple completely disintegrate over the impact of grief, and wonder what will come next.

Like Dante's Inferno, what we wind up with is a literal trip through Hell, a beautiful, beguiling place that holds many horrific truths barely simmering under its lush surface. Several times throughout the course of Antichrist, Von Trier pulls back the curtain to reveal the redolence underneath. Limbs are hacked. Body parts are beaten. We aren't supposed to take what happens to the characters as being wholly realistic. Instead, the moment they leave their quiet urban apartment and head into this mythic wilderness, the lens purposefully distorts to argue against authenticity. It's a piece of filmic finesse that happens several times during the story.

Unlike Breaking the Waves, which took an almost documentary approach on a similar subject and theme (human degradation and the females role in same), we get the kind of aesthetic aggressiveness that makes Antichrist another 'love it or loathe it' extreme. The prologue with its abundant monochrome slow motion is so remarkable, so hypnotic in its carefully composed presentation that we are instantly taken aback by its power. It’s shockingly handsome. Luckily, the rest of the movie lives up to this opening promise.

Indeed, the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (Oscar Winner for Slumdog Millionaire and previous Von Trier collaborator) deserves considerable praise. There are times when the movie almost stands still, the filmmakers using their incredibly long holds and static shot framing to build a considerable amount of texture and suspense. Of course, there are also handheld close-ups and action elements that tend to forward the film's intimate, in your face nature. Along with the amazing work by Gainsbourg and Dafoe, Von Trier creates an insular realm where his dream logic and nightmare scenarios can play out - and the results aren't always pleasant.

Both actors are required to bare everything onscreen - from their bodies to their souls - and they do so magnificently. Some will still be bothered by the narrative's lack of crystal clarity. Others will take the obvious step and scream 'hate'. But there is an intriguing middle ground which suggests we are watching Dafoe work through his emotional attachment to his wife and dead child. The violent struggle to resolve same appears to be part of the movie's motive. The finale foretells his decision.

By delivering a faux horror film that's as much about the bloodletting as it is about the basis for all human fear, Lars Von Trier provides a statement so profound, so difficult to embrace fully and honestly that Antichrist will leave many confused and angry. It will be seen as a blight, as exploitation disguised as artistic arrogance, all meant to cover up that most typical of complaints against the director - he hates women. But even as it embraces a similar stance and offers up one character's physical proof of an anti-female agenda (Gainsbourg's final act is too horrific to even consider calmly), it's obvious that this movie is merely a meditation on what's it's like to give birth, to lose said biological immortality, and wonder if it was such a horrible crime not to care.

When our heroine argues that she's afraid of Nature, that it's "Satan's Kingdom" on Earth, her husband translates that as a simple statement of self-loathing. For more than 90 minutes we've watched as she acts out on such irrational, apocalyptic ire. By the end, Antichrist suggests that almost anything is survival - except, perhaps, the battle within. It’s one cosmic war that never produces an actual victor.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.