“Sitting comfortably in a dark room, dazzled by the light and the movement which exert a quasi-hypnotic power… fascinated by the interest of human faces and the rapid changes of place, [a] cultivated individual placidly accepts the most appalling themes…and all this naturally sanctioned by habitual morality, government, and international censorship, religion, dominated by good taste and enlivened by white humor and other prosaic imperatives of reality."
— Luis Bunuel
It was impossible to approach Antichrist without preconceptions, even bias, based on the circus which surrounded it at 2009’s Cannes Film Festival. Reading some of the coverage which came from that event it seemed one was duty-bound to feel outraged by Lars von Trier’s film; whether at its arrogance, its ridiculousness, its sadism… the press had made it very clear to any would-be viewer that a tempered response was illegitimate. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s mutilation of first Willem Dafoe’s genitals and then her own must now rank alongside the sliced eyeball of Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) as one of cinema’s most notorious body-horror scenes - but it would be such a shame if von Trier’s film was remembered only on that basis.
There are sequences of great beauty in Antichrist. The opening, in which Gainsbourg and Dafoe’s She and He make love whilst their child steps from a second storey window to his death in the snow below is visually stunning. Shot in black and white by Anthony Dod Mantle (outdoing even his Oscar-winning work on Slumdog Millionaire (2008)) it is set to Handel’s Lascia Ch’io Pianga to spellbinding effect; those opening minutes should be enough to convince you that your presuppositions about the film are likely wrong.
Antichrist is not a body-horror film. Much as Eli Roth and the Saw films would like to be considered alongside it, Antichrist is a different animal. I watched the film on Easter Sunday, which may seem a perverse choice but proved to be strangely apt. Easter and the coming of spring is all about re-birth, rejuvenation and renewal, and von Trier is investigating all of these themes through the prism of a woman who has seemingly come to be terrified by them.
If the film has a thesis it is summed up with Gainsbourg’s line: “Nature is Satan’s church”. Whether because of the child’s death or some earlier incident (we are never given the full picture of what happened the last time She was at the cabin with her son) She is morbidly afraid of Nature, and specifically of its ability to reproduce. The acorn terrifies her as a symbol of the forest’s vitality and longevity, her destruction of both of their sex organs is incited by her fear of her own reproductive abilities.
Gainsbourg’s performance is outstanding. The role calls for incredible bravery and selflessness and she is absolutely unafraid to commit to every moment of her character’s bottomless grief. Her Cannes award for best actress is thoroughly deserved, and one can’t help but think that she would have been more widely lauded if the film hadn’t been ghettoised as a “horror”.
The overall effect of the film is to leave the viewer drained, von Trier having strung us along, built the tension slowly, and then unleashed a torrent in his last 20 minutes such that we are unlikely to recover for quite a while after the credits roll. It may be his finest film.