reviewed by Marc Glassman
Lars von Trier, director and script. Starring: Willem Dafoe (He) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (She)
Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, where four people fainted in the audience, Lars von Trier’s The Antichrist has been crowned the most controversial film of the year. A classic European art scandal erupted, with von Trier, the founder of the no-frills Dogme filmmaking school and director of many art-house successes including the Bjork-starring Dancer in the Dark, being denounced in newspaper editorials and defended by some sophisticated film critics. Topping things off, Cannes’ main film jury awarded their Best Actress prize to Charlotte Gainsbourg for her performance in the film while the festival’s ecumenical judges gave von Trier a special “anti-award” for misogynistic content.
The film starts off with a stunning tragedy. While a couple (He and She—they have no names) make love in the shower, their baby son unlocks his crib gate, crawls over to a table, knocks over three tin icons named “pain,” grief,” “despair,” and plunges out of an open window to his death. All, by the way, to the sounds of an aria from Handel’s Rinaldo.
After a scene in which She collapses in a crowd at their son’s funeral, the rest of the film is a resolute two-hander, with only the couple on screen. He is a therapist and decides that She should be under his care rather than the psychologist she’s employing. Despite misgivings, She agrees to follow his methodology, which involves exposure theory where she has to confront all of her demons. Responding to her fear of the outdoors and the recent past, they go to their cottage in “Eden,” where She had spent the summer with their child.
Divided into four sections, Grief, Pain (Chaos reigns), Despair (Gynocide) and the Three Beggars, the film chronicles the couple’s slow descent into hell. Nature is menacing in Eden, not restorative as it should be. The animals in the forest—an owl, a fox, and a fawn—turn terrorizing. Little progress is gained through love and therapy. She becomes worse over time, not better.
He finds the remains of her doctoral thesis in the cottage and realizes that the subject, gynocide, might be adding to her despair. Gynocide is the hatred of a gender and Her study had concentrated on the burning of witches in the Middle Ages.
Finally, violence erupts—appalling, terrifying savagery unleashed with brute force on both sides.
The Antichrist is not for the feint of heart. But is the violence justified? Was von Trier out to provoke a scandal and no more?
Though von Trier enjoys the role of provocateur, The Antichrist is an honest, though dreadful work. It evokes the painful excesses of Strindberg and Bergman. Through tragedy, these artists suggest, the power of humanity is asserted.
The Antichrist one of those films that will be studied in 50 years for its cinematic prowess, great performances—both Dafoe and Gainsbourg are top-notch—and anxiety-ridden scenario.
But right now? Let me be the first to assert–it’s not a date movie.