The opening sequence of Antichrist is an oscillation between, “oh, isn’t this lovely” and, “oh c’mon, give me a break.” In many ways, it’s a fractal for the remainder of the picture, as well as Lars Von Trier‘s entire career to date. Every frame in the destined-to-be-debated Antichrist might sever audience reactions more precisely than its notorious scissor wielding sequence, but there is no denying its visual appeal. It has a video-game-like clarity that pushes digital to a place celluloid snobs never dreamed it could breach. But while the images are breathtaking, the content is often cheesy, overwrought, and borders on parody.
This is Von Trier’s world, and just how seriously we‘re supposed to take things is something we’re never going to get a concrete answer on. And if concrete answers are important to you as a film goer, then avoid this like an adaptation of Gertrude Stein by David Lynch, because you won’t find any. Antichrist is a symbolist romp whose crux might be that Christianity, mythology, and psychology are the afterbirth of nature and that nature is bad — very bad. Or it might be a nightmarish romp through Von Trier’s battle with depression, anxiety, and childhood trauma, and that un-resolved mommy issues are also bad — very bad. But whatever it’s really about, since none of the events can be taken at surface, very bad things certainly do happen…very, very, bad things.
Like previous Von Trier fever dreams, Antichrist’s plot is secondary to genre games and twisted psychologies. Here, in full-on horror mode, a couple simply dubbed “He” (an eerily symmetric Willem Dafoe) and She (a brutally-beautiful Charlotte Gainsbourg) retreat to their cabin in the woods after the tragic loss of their child. Then things get a little Roman Polanski, then a little Eli Roth, and then for many, downright un-watchable. Playing with genre like this is old hat for LVT, but whereas something like 2000’s Dancer in the Dark deconstructed the American TV police thriller cliché, Antichrist proves to be the real horror-dea l— it is genuinely scary, channeling more Dario Argento than Foucault. Acorns and wet leaves will never be the same.
Within this house-of-horror framework lives the Freudian nuances: The child falls to death after watching his parents do the deed in slow-mo black and white, and then hits the ground in sync with mommy’s orgasm. She, unable to recover, is encouraged by He to go under his care, since He’s a shrink, and claims to know best. Taking the cognitive road, with both of them ironically agreeing that Freud dead, He encourages She to oust her grief by confronting her fears. And what does she fear most? Wait for it… Eden. Yes, while many of Antichrist’s metaphors are opaque, some stand out like a shiny red apple.
Eden, aside from its overt biblical significance, is also what the couple have dubbed the forest surrounding their rural retreat, and the spot where she was working on obtaining the forbidden knowledge of Christian gynocide (note the Y), along with its witch trials, and medieval mistreatment of women. And as far as Christian, or mythological, imagery goes, there is enough here for countless future undergraduate courses on everything from feminism to Nietzsche — from whom the title of the film has been plucked — to pick over. That, and there’s enough torture-porn to ensure plenty of audience gasping and running for the doors.
But whether the film is anti-Christian, (which it is), or anti-women, (it’s probably that too), isn’t really the point, or even that interesting. What is relevant about Von Trier, and always has been, is that he forces us to have uncomfortable conversations. Who else could brew questions on the relationship between early Christianity and paganism alongside a tabloid-ready shocker of a film complete with a punk-rock attitude and a soundtrack by Handel? It’s less of a film than a medieval painting, which is equal parts Paul Verhoeven and Dante Alighieri. If the aliens landed tomorrow and wanted to know what Lars Von Trier was all about, God help us, this is what we’d show them.
View the trailer, and additional video below. Antichrist opens in limited-release in theaters tomorrow.
Cannes 2009: Antichrist Press Conference