Is director Lars Von Trier the enfant terrible of cinema, or just plain terrible? Click here for the trailer
Antichrist arrives in Belfast's QFT with a notorious reputation because of some truly stomach-churning moments. A friend described it as ‘Don’t Look Now, with added female genital mutilation’. That's an interesting place to start with the film, not least because it deserves more than to be saddled with that particularly graphic millstone.
But yes, there are scenes that would make a blind man flinch. As well as a scene of appalling self-harm by Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character, there’s the moderately-sized matter of Willem Dafoe’s member. Cineastes of any calibre should be now be immune to sightings of the wrinkly one’s wrinkly one. A popular piece of Hollywood apocrypha tells of how Dafoe even tried to squeeze a nude scene into Finding Nemo.
Antichrist proves no exception, but to give you an idea of its relative shock value, I was actually relieved to see Dafoe's manhood because I was so fearful of what was coming next. With judicious squinting, however, such visual excess can at least be tempered. After a while the body-horror gives way to a more malevolent and disturbing cinematic experience.
Like Don’t Look Now, the film is ostensibly about the psychological processing of a couple’s grief, and how the untamed nature of that grief can unleash inner demons as real as any tangible, corporeal menace. But, being a Von Trier movie, it’s not really about that at all. It’s about nature, both human nature and nature red in tooth and claw.
Von Trier movies regularly dissect the constant battle between the genders, between reason and unreason, and morality versus amorality. Most of his films feature a vulnerable woman being exploited by a controlling male. Whether it’s the melodrama of Breaking the Waves or the movie-musical stylings of Dancer in the Dark, Von Trier unashamedly rehashes (or refines) his theme.
This latest version of his peculiarly Nordic and nakedly Strindbergian attitude to the disparity between the sexes happens to be a horror movie. This doesn't mean supernatural horrors lurking in the woods. Like the Jung-at-heart ironist that he is, Von Trier shows that the real terror lies within the self.
The plot is straightforward enough. A couple lose their son in tragic circumstances and retreat to 'Eden', their woodland cabin, in order to rebuild their broken lives. The therapist husband (Dafoe), treats his grieving wife (a disquieting performance by Gainsbourg) as her behaviour becomes ever more unnerving and erratic.
Using what appears to be a mish-mash of CBT and Aversion Therapy, he gets his wife to confront the fears induced by her grief. All the while his all-too-calm demeanour creates an unsettling counterpoint to her weeping, convulsive fits.
It is a classic Von Trier set-up. The rational (male) forces of psychoanalysis combat the feral, irrational (female) forces of ‘nature’. If he is making any comment at all – and it’s hard to ascertain – it’s that there is constant flux between the two forces. For an individual to be drawn absolutely to one at the expense of the other is fatal.
Like Strindberg, Von Trier has been castigated for placing his female characters in deeply unpleasant and degrading situations. During the filming of Dogville, star Nicole Kidman alledgedly asked him outright why he hated women so much.
In Antichrist there is much that could be construed as abject misogyny. But that is to overlook how Von Trier presents his men. Ridiculous, self-regarding, manipulative and ‘oh so clever’, as Gainsbourg frequently points out, Von Trier’s men are as much of a type as his women.
Von Trier's positioning of female sexuality as something to be feared - a near-primal, unknowable force - is perhaps more of an astute mirroring of engrained social attitudes than actual personal prejudice. But there is much more to this film than that.
Antichrist is dotted with mischievousness, such as the scene where cold rationalist Dafoe tells Gainsbourg he’s been having troubling dreams. She responds by saying it’s a pity modern psychoanalytic practice has done away with Freud, therefore rendering his dreams meaningless.
This mocks the arrogant certainty of Dafoe’s character and profession, as well as those who might read too much into Antichrist. However, this is disingenuous as Von Trier, the great provocateur, knows that his film will be scrutinised, despised and lauded. He has even said of the movie: 'I can offer no excuse for Antichrist other than my absolute belief in the film – the most important of my entire career!'
Important or not, Antichrist is a film that on occasion really irritates. The shocking scenes veer from plain old horrific to downright gratuitous. The wooden, stagey self-indulgence of a lot of the dialogue (and some appallingly contrived exchanges between Gainsbourg and Dafoe) are truly toe-curling.
And yet, the organically sensual menace of the living woods, the peripheral-vision wooziness, the unsettling imagery and the slow-building, ever-palpable sense of approaching menace all leave a dark twisted mark. Von Trier's film-making skills are often overlooked. His near-perfect rendering of the stop-start, off-kilter inverse-universe of the dream state makes David Lynch’s comparable sequences look like flashbacks in a Guy Ritchie flick. The opening scenes, in which the couple’s child falls to his death, have a power and poetry unlike anything seen in cinema for years.
Antichrist creates an emotional dissonance that is hard to simply shake off. Like the most vivid dreams, the more you try to make sense of the film the more confusing it gets. It is film-making at its most instinctive and visceral. How many movies, for better or worse, can claim that?
Von Trier’s ‘sickest movie yet’ proves him to be as playful and perverse as ever and somewhere between the two he occasionally strikes the cinematic sweet spot. Whether you see Antichrist as the crass indulgence of a degenerate director or the flawed work of a flawed cinematic auteur depends upon how receptive you are to the idea of film as a medium of sense and sensuality.
If you’re at all curious, Antichrist should definitely be seen. And if that means squinting at the screen or hiding behind your hands... well... I won’t tell if you don’t.
Antichrist is on at the Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast. Click here for listings.