Antichrist (2009)

Antichrist first published by Film4

Summary: Maverick Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier tells a traumatic tale of mental and marital breakdown in the deep, dark woods.

Review: “There is nothing atypical about your grief”, declares an unnamed cognitive therapist (Willem Dafoe) to an unnamed patient (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who also happens to be his wife, and whose grief is, at least in theory, equally his own. Yet in Antichrist, the latest film from Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, this psychologist’s optimistic, even arrogant belief that anguish can be measured, quantified and rationalised will be sorely tested as both he – and viewers – will be taken to the very depths of human despair and depravity, and left there without a meaningful map to find the way back out and home. 

If Antichrist deals with raw, primal emotions, its formal prologue (introduced, like all the film’s sections, with an intertitle scrawled in childish crayon) is, both in Freudian and Biblical terms, the ultimate primal scene. A toddler climbs out of his cot, watches his parents having explicitly presented sex, and then climbs past three toys (labelled ‘Pain’, ‘Grief’ and ‘Despair’ – also the titles of subsequent chapters in the film) to an open window from which he plummets, with unnerving serenity, to the wintry street below. Shot in a hyper-detailed slow-motion monochrome that captures every waterdrop and snowflake, and set to the Baroque strains of an aria from Georg Friedrich Händel’s Rinaldo, this heady mix of sex and death, voyeuristic taboos and the Fall, is all the more horrific for its coolly aestheticised stylisation – and for ending not, as might be expected, on the orgasmic faces of the parents or on the limp body of the child, but rather on the incongruously domestic image of white clothes spinning in a washing machine. 

Antichrist is indeed von Trier’s first foray into the horror genre – but not so much the horror of cheap frights and bogeymen in cupboards, as of the imagination’s capacity for violence, perversion and destruction. As the therapist/husband chirpily reminds us, “what the mind can conceive, it can achieve” – and this is a nightmarish film that will present the darkest thoughts and feelings of a traumatised subject (or two) as narrative actions on screen, realised in Anthony Dod Mantle’s crisp, occasionally warped, colour digital cinematography. 

Like the couple in Don’t Look Now (1973), this husband and wife will travel to a place where they will face unresolved feelings of anxiety, guilt and recrimination over their child’s death – but if the isolated cabin in the woods, along with its attached toolshed and its spooky attic (fit for a mad woman, or a witch), is familiar from any number of horror movies (or indeed children’s fairytales), there are also broader resonances at play here. The very name of their woodland retreat – Eden – suggests something of Original Sin about all the carnal transgressions on display, as does the wife’s insistence that “nature is Satan’s church”. Here evil, if it exists at all, is taken all the way back to its primary Scriptural source – while the film’s title and the casting of the man who once played Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) points to the ordeals of a newer Testament. 

There is, indeed, no shortage of flesh-rending ordeals in Antichrist, although it remans unclear whether all the physical suffering and genital mutilations are meant to be taken at face value or as cathartic dramatisations (‘like rôle playing’, to quote the husband) of pain that is really internal. After all, how literally can one take a film that features a talking fox, a crow that will not die, and a constellation that (expressly) does not exist? Von Trier marks his sylvan gardens as a playground for hypnotic states and slips of the mind, where history, myth, biology, psychology, astrology, religion and sexuality all vie as ideological frames for the (in)human drama that unfolds. It is a symbolist’s dream, or at least nightmare, which must be traversed and experienced in order to move on – but instead of giving us somewhere to go, von Trier takes us round in circles, until we too are trapped in the dark forest, sharing in the self-torments of these lost souls.        

Antichrist was both written and filmed by von Trier when he was still recovering from his own crippling depression, and the film enabled him to work though his personal issues (including a disinclination ever to direct again) while affording him a controlled and mediated arena in which to explore the outer limits of misery (indeed, the film references Rob Reiner’s Misery in its later scenes), fear and therapy itself. As the final credits roll, one can almost hear the director cackling demonically and declaring, like Gainsbourg’s character halfway through the film, or like Alex at the end of A Clockwork Orange (1971), that he is ‘cured’. Von Trier, you see, is back – as contradictory, confounding and confronting as ever.    

In a nutshell: A beautiful battery of depraved images and irrational associations, Lars von Trier’s two-handed essay in horror is as distracting and deadening as depression itself. 

© Anton Bitel