Upon its limited cinematic release, Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist provoked much controversy, and you don’t have to journey long into his diabolical, symbol-ridden fairytale to understand why. Yet to dismiss the picture lightly is a mistake, for this difficult, grim, and challenging story, though sometimes frustrating, is worthy of closer attention at a variety of levels.
Von Trier, like a sadistic child with a captured insect, playfully prods at the moral sensibilities of his viewer within the opening minutes. During a beautifully filmed black and white sequence, played out against the aural canvas of Händel’s Lascia ch’io pian, Willem Dafoe (nameless throughout, credited only as “He”) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (“She”) engage in a bout of explicitly captured sexual intercourse, whilst a terrible tragedy unfolds in grim parallel. The session is not only shocking for its unflinching witness of a fully aroused male penis achieving entry, but is also notable for the somewhat feral nature of the activity, a nature that, as we shall see, sets an important backdrop for the rest of the film, a film which is awash with heavy symbolism, disturbing thematic subject matter, and uncomfortable commentary on man and woman, and the two’s inherent and insurmountable incompatibilities.
As the couple try to rebuild their lives after the tragedy (which is itself a beautifully shot but desperately cruel shock to the tortured viewer), Von Trier compresses the scope of his study even further by incarcerating us into the claustrophobic cell of their relationship; as the couple follow a funeral procession and She collapses, we come to realise that we cannot clearly see anyone’s face, save for He and She; everyone else is a blur. On one level, we understand that nobody else’s grief can be seen relative to the bottomless grief of the couple, but on another level we are told what we need to understand about the relationship between Man and Woman as represented by He and She; they are the truth of this tale, and they are the only people we need to be able to see clearly. It’s no mistake that our two subjects are nameless; their names are meaningless when we realise their role.
The core gender differences begin to cause wounds as the couple’s responses to their grief are polarised. He runs to the sanctuary of reason, rationality; his response is one of intellect and thought. She, whilst initially numbed by grief and prescription drugs, responds emotionally, with screams, anxiety attacks, self-harm, and, sometimes, cruel spite. She also demonstrates, much to the disappointment of Him, a yearning for raw and urgent sex. He accelerates his efforts to try to teach rationality and objectivity to Her via the tools of his profession as a therapist, but whilst his ill-advised approach in counselling his partner brings some short term successes, it ultimately paves the way for a gruesome and disturbing journey into a vicious and sadistic realm where the ultimate extreme of gender difference is realised.
Antichrist has caused controversy mainly for its graphic and eye-watering depiction of extreme violence and mutilation; it has even, misguidedly, had the lazy “Torture Porn” label thrown its way. Whilst the mutilation scene is indeed one of the most brutal and disturbing moments ever committed to film, the symbolism, and some of its implications, is far more controversial. The sleeve cover art lets a clue slip; the “t” of Antichrist utilises the gender symbol for woman; is woman the antichrist?! As He continually sketches out Her psyche in the shape of a triangle (itself a symbol surely, and with three points; the three family members? The “three beggars”?) and desperately tries to track down the pinnacle of her deepest fear, he runs through a number of possibilities. Is it Satan she is afraid of? Is it the Garden, the place where her fears are based? Is it nature itself?
For Von Triers though, nature is female; “Mother Nature” is assigned its matriarchal moniker for a reason, and it is nature that ultimately assists Her with Her grim work. After Her initial phobia of nature, she eventually embraces it, and uses it as a bed for her frantic sexual desires and perversions. Amongst the animals she becomes beast, and rejects the remaining vestiges of reason and rationality that He seeks to use to calm her. It’s this vision of the female that is surely the most controversial, and the most provocative; the female as unpredictable, emotional, violent, spiteful, cruel, and perverse. Whilst diametrically opposed to this, the male is not afforded complete sympathy either; He is emotionally retarded, unable to connect to his family or his grief, lacking empathy, arrogant and superior, and detached to a degree that is both dangerous and staggering. She prods spitefully at this detachment, this nature that her gender supposedly defies her from understanding.
Whilst She had previously studied misogyny for her thesis, the film’s commentary itself seems to be, at its core, fundamentally misogynist, and this is perhaps the greatest challenge for viewers. Is Antichrist a work of misogyny in its literal sense, a declaration that woman is forever irrational, emotional , cruel and spiteful, despite the best efforts of the rational man? Or is the whole piece a clever satire on lazy gender stereotypes? It seems conceivable, since it gazes back all the way to the other notable He and She and the primary root of all gender differences; the country retreat where Von Trier’s horror unfolds is Eden, which is, inevitably, surrounded by a Garden. What better religious allusion than that where the original She submitted to temptation, against the better advice of Him, and brought shame upon Herself and Him?
Shelving the controversy for now, there are many scenes of sweeping beauty and glorious showers of vivid colour that contrast the filthy black rivers of the grotesque, the gruesome, and the hideous. The deep emerald forest enshrining the Garden of Eden, for example, is shot in all its natural magnificent splendour, and provides a breathtaking ethereal dreamland for the expeditions of visualisation that She travels whilst battling her phobia. And the shot of Dafoe standing beneath the raining acorns is magical and bizarre, and yet unsettling, too.
Antichrist is a difficult work to assess. Clearly, people have tried to tag the “horror” genre title onto the film, yet it’s not a satisfying choice. Whilst the events are clearly horrific – especially the initial tragedy that triggers the disintegration of the couple’s relationship – this is not conventional horror and it refuses to play by any such rules. The monsters here are those of reality, the emotional pain is real, and any fantastical elements are implied rather than stated.
It’s also difficult to assess a film that has no sense of boundaries and, indeed, one which attempts to push and traverse any limits wherever possible. Perhaps this is little surprise, since Von Trier was raised in a home where boundaries were considered surplus to requirements, but it leaves the viewer with something of a sense of uncomfortable flux, where it’s difficult to secure points of reference, absolute certainties, and any tangible sense of empathy with the characters. The other impact here is that the film loses a consistent pacing; since the extremes can be unleashed at any time with little or no respect to the flow of the plot, the pace of the story feels jerky and uneven.
Some may also see the movie as pretentious and contrived, and become irritated with the overuse of conspicuous and blatant symbolism, even if the meanings aren’t always clear. The focus upon symbolism and the commentary on gender difference sometimes leads the characters to behave in a way that feels unnatural; His continued rational detachment even in the midst of pain seems incredible, despite its loyalty to the statement of the film.
Whatever the controversy, extremity, and limitations of Antichrist, the picture is impeccably shot, superbly acted, and undeniably powerful. This isn’t a horror film, there aren’t any monsters, but there are monstrosities; the workshop in Eden, for example, where the monstrous id unleashes the full extent of its cruelty and sadism, is a place that haunts the mind even as the film ends. The most substantial criticism is the overtly implied misogynistic commentary, yet even this is open to interpretation, and the most important value that this film owns is that no matter what your personal response is, no matter whether you loved it or loathed it (and it certainly seems to polarise people in such fashion), you will find yourself talking about it long after the film has finished. For that reason, if you’ve got an open mind and a strong disposition, Antichrist is a film you really have to see.
Many people have criticised Antichrist, but even the most ferocious detractors tend to acknowledge the supreme quality of the filming. British Director of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle deserves high praise for performing his duties to a level which has helped to produce a visually stunning result. The visualisation sequences in particular are dazzling. It’s fascinating to hear Von Trier talk about the techniques used in the included commentary, and it’s particularly interesting to hear his self-deprecating tone when he talks about what could have been done better. Regardless of your thoughts on the film’s content, it’s difficult to imagine how the images could physically have been filmed with much improvement.
The movie is presented in 1080i format, but any potential reproduction issues from the interlaced format are imperceptible. The transfer is flawless, with no noise, interference, or distortion. From the outset, image quality is immaculate; as the opening scene plays out the slow motion droplets of water falling from the shower are almost tangible. Movement is smooth, clear, and graceful; when the couple ride the train and She gazes out of the window, the haunting faces emerging from the rapidly moving forest are vividly presented and then gone in a flash.
The film uses a number of different styles for specific scenes, and colours are presented well throughout. The opening and closing black and white sequences are crystal clear, with firm and clear separation between the shades. The sections of the film that deal with He and She in their grief-stricken relations are intentionally more muted (to a subtle degree) than the black and white sections, yet the black sections in these scenes are reproduced with absolute solidity, which is essential for portraying the atmosphere of vacuous bleakness that surrounds the two. Graininess makes an introduction for the abstract body imagery whilst representing the anxiety attacks, an intentional technique that is again used with purpose and direction.
Colours are rich during the Garden of Eden scenes; when She lies back in the grass to conquer her fears, the colour palette is varied and vibrant, and once again separation is striking and clear. The muted blues of the visualisation sequences are also effective.
The disc is encoded for region B.
Audio is presented in a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1. The soundtrack to the picture is aurally stunning (see the featurette The Sound and Music of Antichrist for more details of what went into it), and the reproduction does not disappoint. There is no audible noise, hiss or distortion, and all sounds are clear. The rich yet delicate orchestral score is clean and vibrant, and provides a superb accompaniment to the colourful visuals.
Subtitles are available for Danish and Italian viewers.
There’s a generous host of extras on the disc to satisfy fans who want to learn more about the movie. What’s quite handy is that most of the featurettes (nine in total) are between five and twelve minutes long and are accessible separately, so you can select the area you are most interested in without having to wade through a long featurette in one sitting. For instance, in The Evil of Woman, it’s interesting to hear some of Von Trier’s responses to accusations of misogyny, and his assertion that he does not perceive women as any more evil than men.
Other highlights include The Three Beggars, which gives a fascinating insight into the methods used to film the animal sequences (humanely, one might add), including a hilarious section that demonstrates how Willem Dafoe was filmed in the hole with the flapping, pecking bird for company.
Eden presents some background for the cabin used, which is apparently 100 years old, and Behind the Test is a real hoot, just to witness some poor guy standing motionless having acorns poured onto his head! There are also segments dealing with the impressive special effects (it’s reassuring to see a dummy of the victim of the tragedy early in the picture) and the beautiful soundtrack (including the inventive methods used for creating the sinister sounds that underpin the darkest moments).
Best of all is the footage from the Cannes Film Festival, where a British Daily Mail journalist quite literally demands, repeatedly and self-righteously, justification from Von Trier for making the film. Perturbed momentarily, Von Trier deals with the question in the best conceivable manner, by turning the situation around on our arrogant gentleman and silencing him, to the amusement of all present.
There’s a trailer for the film too, plus film commentary with Von Trier and Kent University Professor Murray Smith, who excitedly talks styles, techniques, and meanings with Von Trier as the movie plays out.
Less a product of entertainment and more a catalyst for epic discussions on the most fundamental of subjects – that of the differences between the sexes – Von Trier’s Antichrist is a visually stunning, mentally challenging, grotesque, hideous, and partially pretentious piece that flows in uncomfortable staccato fashion. The scene of mutilation is sickening and upsetting, but the contrast with the richly colourful countryside and the beautiful orchestral soundtrack means that there is as much beauty here as there is darkness. You may not enjoy the seemingly misogynist overtones – though it’s open to debate as to whether this is face-value misogyny or a satirical representation – but one thing that’s certain is that the superbly crafted film-work deserves the best possible reproduction. Therefore, despite its drawbacks and failings, if you’re brave enough to take Antichrist home for keeps, the Blu-ray edition will provide the most satisfaction for your depraved, tortured, yet discerning eyes.