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Sunday, 28 November 2010

Antichrist reviewed by David Hering

Directed by Lars von Trier
Released in 2009
Certificate: 18

It takes a lot to truly scare a film critic. In July 2009, there was an audible rustle emerging from the British press about a film that - having just undergone (as is traditional in this country) a moral barracking from certain newspaper columnists who hadn’t actually seen it - had been presented to them for apparently more discerning critical analysis. From the subsequent reviews, it soon became evident that here was a film that disturbed these critics by striking at the very heart of their greatest insecurity: they couldn’t tell if the director was being serious. Lars Von Trier, Danish filmmaker and a notorious trickster figure principally associated with the founding of the infamous Dogme 95 movement, had returned from a period of self-imposed exile with a film so apparently outrageous and horrific that opinion was split over whether he could possibly be conducting an almighty stunt. Critical bets were duly hedged.

I’m going to lay my cards unambiguously on the table, and if I’m wrong I don’t care. Antichrist is not a stunt, a joke or a trick. It is, instead, one of the most sincerely and horrifically rendered depictions of depression and the attendant problems of curing said condition ever crafted for the cinema. It is also a brutal examination of the sexual politics of control, one that spares neither viewer nor director. One critic likened the film to ‘a punch in the face of respectability’, perhaps noticing the connection between the climactic they-won’t-show-that-oh-wait-they-just-did scene of genital mutilation and the razored eyeball in Dali and Bunuel’s genuinely trickster-like Un Chien Andalou. For me, the atmosphere of horror in Antichrist is far closer to the intense claustrophobia of Polanski’s Repulsion or Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, less a cinematic practical joke and more of an unflinching exploration of what it is to truly, deeply hate or fear oneself or the one you love.

A couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) grieving over the accidental death of their toddler retreat to a forest cottage to soothe her sense of guilt and grief but in the process of healing (he is a psychiatrist) release some horrendous violence that seems to emerge as much from themselves as the natural landscape around them. Upon this plot is hung an alternating series of increasingly unsettling sequences, some of them entirely without dialogue, others crammed with screams of grief and agony and desperate psychiatric words of comfort, and Von Trier (mirroring this structure visually) alternates the use of extreme macro-close ups of objects – grubby flower stems in a murky vase, the base of Gainsbourg’s neck – with broad, cool forest vistas.

It begins to emerge that the relationship between Dafoe and Gainsbourg is suffering, though Von Trier deliberately makes obscure whether this results from their bereavement, his attempts at psychological control, their denial of the horror of human and animal nature or, latterly, what appears to be her mental derangement. The viewer is consistently unsure whether evidence of Gainsbourg’s instability is in fact being perceived through the filter of Dafoe’s concern or desire for control over his wife, or in fact whether it is Dafoe who is suffering from delusions. His now-infamous encounter with a wild fox, who speaks the words ‘chaos reigns’ (an image far more disturbing on the screen than on the page) is an important moment; is Dafoe learning to relinquish control, or is he in fact more unstable than his wife?

The horrors of the final reel – which rightly elicited audible gasps from the cinema audience when I saw the film – have, perhaps inevitably, come to dominate discussion of the film (it is these scenes that our self-appointed moral guardians heard about – as opposed to saw). However, placed within the context of what has come before, the terrible acts committed by both Dafoe and Gainsbourg are absolutely located within the structure Von Trier has been employing. These violent scenes deliberately reduce the relationship to a basic, archetypal sexual struggle as well as a grotesque elaboration (in much the same manner as Takashi Miike’s masterful Audition) of the misogynist fear of the ‘natural’ urges of womankind that pervades the film. Some have suggested that this means that the film itself is misogynist. I would entirely disagree (and direct said complainants to the films of say, Michael Bay if they want to see real, undisguised female objectification). A film about misogyny is not the same as a misogynist film.

Antichrist is strongly reminiscent of Andrej Zulawski’s absolutely demented 1981 film Possession (for which the word ‘unclassifiable’ could have been invented). Indeed, the male and female roles – taken in Zulawski’s film by Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani – follow similarly (borderline supernatural) trajectories of hysteria and desperate attempts at control. Both directors claim that their respective films emerged following traumatic incidents – in Von Trier’s case depression, in Zulawski’s case an acrimonious divorce. However, Zulawski plays his heavily allegorical tentacled creatures and set-piece marital arguments more deliberately broadly than Von Trier, and with an explicitly political nod to the partition of 1970s Europe. Von Trier, it seems, is reaching for something more archetypal and mythological – control employed by men towards women, and of the destructive, uncaring power of a natural world ‘red in tooth and claw’.

Not enough has been said about Antichrist’s visual and aural techniques. Von Trier and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle immerse the viewer, through deserted or mist-strewn landscapes, in a sense of dread and foreboding. Von Trier also employs some extreme slow-motion camerawork, most notably during the prologue depicting the death of the couple’s child. This extraordinary five-minute sequence, entirely in slow-motion, lensed in a luminous black-and-white and set to Handel’s ‘Lascia Ch'io Pianga’, exemplifies the combination of beauty and unbearable horror that will follow. It finds its equally horrifying counterpoint in the film’s epilogue (also in slow-motion black and white), in which hundreds of faceless women march, ghost-like, through a woodland clearing, a scene easily as disquieting as any act of mutilation that has gone before. Von Trier also employs an extraordinary sound design to aurally relate the devastating effects of grief and depression. Recalling the work of David Lynch (particularly the score for Eraserhead) and more recently Gaspar Noe, physically unsettling heavy bass-tones mingle with piercing frequencies and rumbling, industrial grinding underscores, acting both as a rendering of the aural hallucinations of some states of depression and also a visceral tool for immersing the audience in the film’s oppressive atmosphere.

The film is dedicated to the memory of the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, and this often undiscussed gesture reveals much about Von Trier’s ambition. In addition to a strong physical resemblance between the chaotic forests of this film and the blasted ‘zone’ of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Von Trier is also invoking the allegorical landscapes and deliberate composition of Tarkovsky’s films. Most importantly – and this is where, for me, the allegations of Von Trier’s trickery fall down – this is a very sincere dedication for such an allegedly glib filmmaker to make. One could hardly call Antichrist the culmination of Von Trier’s career in the way that, say, Inland Empire seems the culmination of David Lynch’s – his output is too varied and scattershot for any one film to act in such a way, and in fact Von Trier has tackled horror before in his excellent 1994 TV series The Kingdom, though that was a story with a heavily satirical and often broadly comedic edge. In fact, Antichrist bears a stronger relationship to the relentless melodrama of Von Trier’s Dancer In The Dark, a film whose reputation – derailed by the publicity surrounding the director’s fights with star Bjork – will surely recover in the years to come. Many critics feared a stunt on that film’s release too, and muttered through their notices. As here, their loss.

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David Hering is writing his PhD thesis on American Literature at the University of Liverpool. His reviews have appeared in the Journal of American Studies, Movable Type and He is the editor of the essay collection Consider David Foster Wallace: Critical Essays (2010).

David Hering has co-written a new independent horror film called 'Holmewood' with Richard Hughes, directed by Jonathan Hall. The film will have a special screening at Crosby Plaza Cinema on Thursday 2nd December at 5.30pm, cast and crew will be present.

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