by Tony Dayoub
There have been movies that continue to intrude on my psyche weeks after first having seen them. Movies that despite my initial negative opinion so surprised me with their subtle way of insinuating themselves into my thoughts that I couldn't help but reassess them. But there's rarely anything subtle about Lars von Trier's Antichrist. The film is like a bully that bludgeons you into submission when it really doesn't need to. Lars von Trier is known for his desire to take risks. Sometimes they pay off, like in the wonderful theatrical staging of Dogville (2003). But Antichrist betrays its director's lack of confidence in his own proven ability to move you.
The unnamed He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) grieve over the death of their son, Nic. His death is depicted during the film's tragic and beautiful prologue (black and white, slow motion, with an opera piece playing over it), in which He and She make love as Nic climbs out of his crib and out a second story window, falling to his death. Distraught, She is hospitalized for over a month, medication interfering with her natural grief process according to He, a rational psychiatrist. Trying to help her get through the grief proves futile in their modern surroundings. She's natural inclination is to replace her despair with the ecstasy of sex. He convinces She to go to Eden, their cabin in the ominous woods, in order to help her start to heal. But the intuitive She is skeptical, and fearful of the woods, which she senses are evil... with reason as it turns out.
At various stages, the evocative imagery reminds one of The Shining (1980), Don't Look Now (1973), and Blue Velvet (1986), all movies that deal with a child in different stages of jeopardy. Like in The Shining, where Kubrick imbued the Overlook Hotel with an animosity through effective use of the camera, von Trier and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle frame the woods in distortive widescreen lenses that seem to animate the trees with a sense of foreboding. There is that sinking feeling that She is becoming possessed by the evil nature of the woods, as Jack Torrance was by the Overlook, and that it stimulated abusive behavior towards her child in the past. Like the role Venice played with regards to the grieving couple in Don't Look Now, the woods become a battleground for the couple against the invasive evil that is trying to fill the void left in their lives by Nic's death. Scenes like the one where She begs for He to hit her during lovemaking remind us of Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet who is pushed into using violent sex to "heal" Dorothy Vallens' grief over her absent son. He is goaded into giving into She's competing desires for pain and sex to quell her sadness. And the camera dolly into the grass, burrowing deep into the dirt reminds one of the same shot in Lynch's film, both symbolizing the underlying evil ever present in our lives.
But those parallels, which read quite elegantly on paper, are inartfully presented by the director due to is hamhanded method of delivery. The symbolism is a bit on the nose, don't you think? He, She, and Eden... really? And the graphic sexuality that punctuates the film throughout is a bit distracting. A scene of penetration is ill-suited in the prologue involving Nic's death. Oh, wait... that's the point isn't it. BONK! Bonk on the head if you don't get von Trier's comment on sexuality as the root of gender dissonance. Don't worry he'll continue to illustrate it in even more pronounced ways, literally attaching a millstone to one character late in the film, and graphically depicting genital mutilation late in the film if you still haven't gotten it (in a scene that shocked even the seen-it-all New York audience at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall).
In the end, Antichrist seems to be two films duking it out to see which one will prevail. One is a quite stirring psychological meditation on the loss of a child. And the other is a misogynistic film designed to titillate with no discernibly loftier goal than the average horror film. I'm not sure that either film overcomes the other.
Antichrist is available on demand from IFC Films on October 21st, and opens in select theaters on October 23rd.
Photo Credit: Film Society of Lincoln Center/IFC Films