Denmark, 2009, 117 minutes, Black and white, Colour.
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Dafoe.
Directed by Lars Von Trier.
At Cannes 2009, the crowds lining up to see Antichrist prevented this reviewer from getting in. Which may be a good thing, seeing it after all the initial sensationalism of the press audience, the booing, the condemnatory reviews, the controversial articles which spread like wildfire about the most violent, disgusting film ever seen in Cannes, often written by journalists – as in the UK Telegraph papers – who had not seen the film. In fact, regular attendees of Cannes could probably make a quick list of more controversial and violent films with their elements of disgust (Irreversible, Enter the Void, Battle in Heaven, Sin City, Death Proof...).
Lars Von Trier has been a subject for controversy for many years (and he has encouraged it). The 1997 Breaking the Waves raised questions about the treatment of women and raised the ire of many women in the audience. Dogville and Manderlay elicited the same questions. Even his Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, Dancer in the Dark, had Bjork as a woman condemned to execution. The Idiots alienated many audiences.
This review will try to look at Antichrist a bit more objectively – but, as a personal opinion, I would say that I admire the film very much.
A psychosexual drama
The film is a psychosexual drama with a focus on psychological disturbance and therapy. Of its nature, this leads into areas that are private to individuals or to couples. Nevertheless, there is always room for case studies. Even in the traditional teaching of moral theology in the past (before the Second Vatican Council), case studies were presented in the context of marriage, validity and reasons for annulment (which took the students into some detail about marital and sexual behaviour). However, this was a focus on the word, written and spoken, rather than on the image. The immediacy of the image for senses, emotions and thinking means a stronger impact. Many audiences prefer the word rather than being exposed to the (exposed) image. Some draw conclusions that presentation of such images is wrong. This may be a characteristic of religious people (of all faiths) and - there are cultural traditions to be considered as well. The English-speaking world has a rather puritanical heritage regarding sexual issues (which led to the permissive breakouts and reactions of more recent decades). Some are disturbed by glimpses of anatomical nakedness. Catholics in some countries have been influenced by Jansenistic reticence, their own form of puritanism.
The articles devised to create and maintain controversy about Antichrist have noted several 'shocking' scenes, the implication being that 'shocking' meant 'bad'. Some images that shock may have a good effect – a presupposition of Christian anti-abortion groups who show images of aborted foetuses to make their point.
The crucial questions of 'what?' and 'how?'
This always raises the question of what is presented and how it is presented. Theoretically, there is no limit on the 'what'. Every human experience, no matter how difficult, ugly or distressing, is a legitimate subject. The question is always in the how – and that depends on sensitivities, how people are effected (well or badly) by what is presented.
The scenes mentioned in articles for shock value from Antichrist (which does have male and female nudity throughout, though the characters are husband and wife and act as husband and wife) from the sexual aspect of psychosexuality are: a glimpse of a few seconds in the prologue of a penis penetrating a vagina; the wife masturbating (perhaps 15 seconds), an ejaculation of blood (10 seconds) and the vaginal mutilation by the wife, the cutting of her clitoris (fewer than 10 seconds). Except for the first instance, the other sequences come after one hour of the film and so have a context rather that being isolated incidents or scenes which come early without much preparation.
While the images have more immediate power and effect than words (which have just been read here legitimately), the proportion of time allotted to these sequences and their placement, mainly in the second part of the film, affect the how. The audience has spent an hour or more with the couple, has got to know them, been puzzled by the wife, shared their grief at the accidental death of their son, watched the husband (a therapist) try to help his wife with psychological exercises, discovered that the wife was writing a thesis on the historical treatment of women and been collecting images and articles in a folder titled 'Gynocide'. The film relies on dreams, and the transition from dream to waking. It also draws on the complimentarity between men and women both in love and in aggression. That already should have given the audience a great deal to think about before the 'shocking' scenes.
The references to violent scenes seemed fewer in many of the reports and articles but violence occurs more provocatively than the sex. The wife, in her mood swings, in her phobias, and with her background of gynocide studies, turns against her husband and physically tortures him, drilling a hole in his lower leg and attaching a millstone. He hides in a hole which she uncovers and she brutally batters him. Of course, this is shocking but is seen as the action of a woman becoming more demented. A reviewer can note that there was far more graphic physical violence depicted in the run of slasher and so-nicknamed 'torture porn' films, like (for 2009 alone), My Bloody Valentine or The Last House on the Left which were designed as entertainments or the French Martyrs which was intended as a philosophical/religious film on the limits of torture and transcending suffering).
Von Trier's skill
What has not been discussed sufficiently in most articles on Antichrist is the skill with which Von Trier has made his film. Much has been made of his experience of depression and the writing of the film helping him to come out of it. The depression experienced by the central characters does illustrate this quite vividly and persuasively. However, much more should be said about the opening and its effect: it is shot in black and white and in slow motion with Handel's Lascia ch'io piange being sung – while the parents make love, their little son comes out of his playpen, is fascinated by his toys, goes to the window where it is snowing and falls to his death. This is superb film-making and gives a more profound perspective on what follows.
The film is divided into chapters including grief, pain and the reign of chaos. This stylisation of the contents and the development of plot and character mean a studied approach by the audience. With the husband being a therapist, much of the earlier part of the film consists of exercises that he asks his wife to do so that she can surface her fears, face her grief, face the challenge of love and the marriage. This asks for a psychologically alert response from the audience, a sympathy with the characters as well as a critical look at the methods and whether they concur with the husband's approach or not (and whether, ethically, he should be treating his wife, a point that is made a number of times).
This is the context for the graphic sex scenes that have been singled out.
Von Trier is also Danish and shows a Scandinavian sensibility which tends to be grim, frank and earthy.
Religion, myths and symbols
The other pervading aspect is the religious/mythical background that Von Trier brings to his film, drawing on dreams and the traditions of interpretation (and there are many dreams which blend into the waking action of both husband and wife). The woods where the couple have holidayed and go for this therapy is called Eden. They are a new Adam and Eve, but they are fallen and are attempting (unsuccessfully) to regain their innocence. There is a great deal of discussion about nature both in the sense of the natural world as well as of human nature. The wife says that nature is the church of Satan, that it is destructive. The devil has already been present in her life. Then we see the images of the presence of the devil in the past, especially in the destructive treatment of women, and witches, in past centuries. Husband and wife discuss this misogyny and whether women have been considered evil or saints (a frequent Von Trier subject). One hopes that the film audience is paying attention to these discussions and assessing their meaning and value rather than concentrating on the shock scenes.
Von Trier has often been interested in religious dimensions of human nature and there is a credit here for theological advice. Venturing into interpretations of Genesis and the nature of evil and Satan leads to theological questions if not answers.
Animal imagery, real and symbolic, is used all through the film, Genesis symbols, as are this new Adam and Eve in their Eden. A fox, a deer and a bird all seen to give birth. The fox says that 'chaos reigns'. The husband in hiding is threatened by young chicks.
Tragedy and pessimism
Ultimately, Von Trier's vision veers towards the tragic and the pessimistic. It is the woman who is full of guilt at the death of her child, taking on the responsibility. She projects blame and indifference on to her husband. She has some moments of healing and love then loses them. But, perhaps this is also an effect of her studies, her becoming aggressive and attempting to destroy her husband only to destroy herself. He is the one who comes out of Eden. To what? There is a final image of couples on a hill and a long shot of crowds of people streaming up the hill. Does this mean that the film, despite Von Trier's intentions, is misogynistic? Some commentators have noted that female symbol on the t of the title drawing the conclusion that woman is the antichrist. Rather, it would seem, fallen nature, the church of Satan, is our antichrist.
Antichrist is not the ugly, simplistic film that word of mouth seemed to indicate. Von Trier does not offer pat answers to the issues he raises. While one might argue about the 'how' of presenting some of the issues and images, Antichrist has a great deal to say that is worth considering.
In Cannes, the president of the Ecumenical Jury, added a postscript to the awards. Speaking for only a minute or two, he rather ironically, even playfully, mentioned that the jury was awarding an antiprize to Antichrist, citing disapproval of Von Trier's treatment of women. This announcement was seen by journalists as something of a 'stunt'. And so it was. However, if you google, in English and French, Ecumenical Jury and Antichrist, more than 80 pages come up, mainly with a repeated story, sensationalising it and quoting Thierry Fremaux from the Festival direction, who was present at the award ceremony, as being 'furious' and, allegedly, criticising the president of the jury, director Radu Mihaleanu, of advocating censorship.
Reviews of the film in the trade magazines tended to be negative and mocked Von Trier's dedication of the film to Tarkovsky.
The articles seemed to be making a carnival out of a stunt.