Film review: Antichrist

Antichrist (2009) directed by Lars von Trier

Please note: This review spoils the entire film

No discussion of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is complete without mentioning two incredibly infamous scenes. Those scenes. Yes, those goddamn scenes. So it helps to move things along if I quickly describe them with perfunctory bureaucratic detail:

  • Scene One: Willem Dafoe’s character is attacked by his crazed wife, who crushes his genitals with a large wooden block. He passes out from the pain, upon which his wife then pulls out his penis and performs manual stimulation on him until he ejaculates blood. It spurts rather high into the air.
  • Scene Two: Later in the film, Willem Dafoe’s character is forced to watch the very same crazy wife take a pair of rusty scissors and perform female genital mutilation on herself. The camera zooms in on her nether regions (or rather, a convincing prosthetic crotch prop) and shows her violently cutting her own clitoris off.
  • Another graphic advisory warning: You also see Willem Dafoe’s naked buttocks throughout the film. And I mean a lot of his shiny, sweaty butt.

So, um, interested anyone?

Now time for a proper synopsis: After the tragic death of their child, an unnamed man (Willem Dafoe) and woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are confronted with the tidal waves of grief. In order to help his wife process her unbearable psychological pain, the man—who is also a clinical psychologist—takes her to their old cabin in the woods to heal. However, there are dark primal forces at play, both in the forest itself and within the souls of the characters as well.

Ever since I watched von Trier’s experimental film Dogville, a three-hour film set entirely on a black, minimalist stage with a punishing three-hour runtime and equally punishing moral content, I felt that I needed to check out Antichrist which is considered one of his most infamous works.

Despite going into this film knowing that it would contain quite intense content, I was simply wasn’t prepared for it. The warped visual effects, the haunting soundscape, and the brutal depiction of a mother’s soul-crushing grief… I have to be honest; I had trouble sleeping for two nights after watching this film. I’m not fucking kidding. It genuinely messed with me.

But here’s the thing: I kind of loved this film.

Dafoe and Gainsbourg are superb leads. The cinematography is somehow both disorientating and beautiful at the same time. For example, the black-and-white opening sequence, which depicts the parents’ child plummeting to its death in slow motion while an Italian aria plays, is aesthetically outstanding.

Antichrist is also sharply paced with a dense, symbolic screenplay. The film painfully meditates on the treatment of women in the Christian tradition. It inverts not only Genesis motifs, but also Passion and Resurrection imagery. Most of all, I loved how the disturbing animal imagery used throughout the film culminated in (what I can only describe as) the film’s hallucinatory gnostic mythos of “The Three Beggars”.

Screenshot from “Antichrist” (2009) trailer.
Chaos reigns…

But with that said, let’s not forget Antichrist is still a film that has sadomasochistic genital mutilation as a major plot device. It’s also a film about misogyny that struggles not to come across as a tad sexist. One of the major reveals in the film is that Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character, in the course of writing a thesis on gynocide (i.e. the killing of women for being female), began to embody the twisted beliefs she was studying. While this is an interesting idea—the internalisation of a society’s hatred by its very victims—the salaciousness with which the film depicts the true extent of her ‘feminine cruelty’ sat uneasily with me.

Another thing that occasionally threw me off was the film’s use of handheld, cinéma vérité camerawork. On one hand, this style is supposed to show human drama in a more raw and realistic way. But on the other hand, it’s also heavily used in the faux-documentary style of comedies such as The Office or The Thick of It. There were one or two times where the camerawork began to unintentionally veer into the latter category. For example, there’s a scene where the camera pans across a creepy attic and suddenly zooms in on a book bluntly titled “GYNOCIDE”. I actually giggled when this happened because the timing was so redolent of a punchline to a visual gag.

Further, the epilogue scene with Dafoe’s character limping along the forest while hundreds of women run towards him is a tad baffling. That brief shot of “The Three Beggars” looking at him, peacefully and approvingly, came across almost as self-parody. Was it meant to a bit mocking? Was von Trier just trolling the audience? I can’t decide…

So is Antichrist a piece of sick, misogynistic troll-cinema? Or is it a serious work of genius? The answer is ‘yes’. It’s a terrifying and challenging film that completely has my recommendation. But only if you can handle very, very extreme content and a very, very naked Willem Dafoe

“Nature is Satan’s church.”

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