“Can’t I just be afraid, without a definite object?”
How can Lars von Trier have a film at the Toronto International Film Festival without me making sure my butt is in a seat? The Danish maestro may not fly, so an in-person Q&A is impossible, (he did hold one via Skype the day after our screening), but talent seems to not care, flocking to work with the man. Willem Dafoe, getting to know the director during Manderlay, just happened to ask his agent what von Trier was up to, and so he made some calls to find out. It ends up that he was in the midst of a great depression and had written a script to hopefully turn that despair into something artistic. After taking a read through, Dafoe agreed to star, even though he knew Lars wanted to find his actress first. Thankfully, that woman ended up being the phenomenal Charlotte Gainsbourg, so all worked out in the end. Antichrist is much talked about, controversial, and a feat of pure artistic genius. Utilizing just these two actors for the duration, von Trier’s very personal journey towards redemption and retribution comes to life; a tale of two parents finding out that maybe nature is really a creation of Satan and not God. This goes for the trees, the forest, the animals, and most especially human nature—that of sexual urges, the abstraction of love, and the turmoil of guilt and how it can ravage anyone’s soul.
Separated into chapters, introduced by full-frame textural paintings with hand-scrawled titles, it all begins in glorious black and white slomotion—simply gorgeous to behold. Set to a classical opera piece, we catch abstract glimpses of Dafoe and Gainsbourg’s couple in the midst of sexual acts in the shower and after. The water falls over them in sharp clarity, each drop visible, bottles fall as limbs flail, and we see their toddler son escape from his crib. Stunning in its simplicity and starkness, it is as though we are watching moving photographs, each short vignette a static shot of contortion and physicality dramatically slowed to a crawl. This prologue is explicit—complete with a shot that almost guarantees it an NC-17 rating—but still retains tastefulness in its art and beauty. This is the moment that sets up the entire movie, two adults making love while their young child decides to catch snowflakes out the upstairs window … you can imagine the result of that and the feeling of extreme guilt and sadness that goes along with it. We are only ten minutes in and already imagery is ingrained to our mind, the slow decent of a stuffed teddy bear and the puff of snow sent up as we watch from the window above.
The rest of the film is broken into the emotional steps a person goes through after such tragedy: Grief, Pain, and Despair. One more chapter is added before the epilogue, however, and it’s of the Three Beggars. As spoken in the film, “when the three beggars arrive, someone must die.” Religious undertones abound as the story progresses, Satan and God coming and going while Dafoe’s therapist attempts to treat his wife for the extreme depression she finds herself in. He needs to find out what it is that truly scares her in order to cure her, trying his best to be objective and keep his love for her away. Every time she comes close to really approaching the pain at her core she gives into her sexual urges to help forget the suffering and replace it with lust. The very act that brought them to where they are becomes her escape, but the knowledge of what happened when they last were together can’t be far from sight.
A sort of Eden becomes her pyramid top of fear: the forest and all it holds to frighten her so fully. Dafoe smiles because it is Gainsbourg that always wanted to go camping, even going away to a cabin with her son while researching her thesis about the genocide of women throughout time. You start to wonder about her mental state and when exactly it fractured. The thought of walking on the grass scares her so much that she just runs for the safety of the cabin when they arrive. It is there that the pure evil of nature takes hold of her, turning her into a beast of violence devolving any semblance of humanity she had left. You may have heard about the genital abuse and extremely uncomfortable moments of harsh mutilation, and I will weigh in by saying it is all true and just as harrowing as you might imagine. Here are the reasons for a son’s death, the body parts that take over, making all else seem unimportant against the sexual bliss of climax. Their sex organs are the murder weapons and have been throughout time. Hormones and feelings of superiority—males oppressing females back as far as can be remembered—equality unattainable strictly from what lies between our legs.
I hate to think too deeply into the true core of what is happening during the film and I’m sure von Trier would be the last to shed any light on the subject. Nature takes over and keeps the mind at bay, always stronger and meaner as a result. Once you remove your self from the constructs of man, from the city and all the creature comforts and ways to repent or cure, chaos truly does reign. However, moments such as Gainsbourg walking across a bridge in the forest, a long shot that fills the frame with trees, a purplish hue clouding the air as her body moves in extreme slomotion, call to mind pastel paintings worthy of gallery exposure. There is utter beauty amongst the depravity on display. With a final scene that’s unforgettable with its mass of faceless women rushing down a hill, or the white bodies buried underneath the ground that Dafoe crawls over to hopefully reach safety, you will be moved by a full range of emotion, from disgust to beauty. I may never want to experience Antichrist again, but that does nothing to lesson its absolute brilliance and creative courage to use imagery in order to send an audience to a place they try to avoid at all costs. Lars von Trier takes us into the hell of the mind and refuses to compromise by letting us out for even a short breath of air. I don’t think I’ve taken a deep breath since.
Antichrist 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½
Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival