The 53-year-old Danish film director Lars von Trier has been accused of many things including being a self-publicist and a misogynist. Antichrist (2009) is his most sincerely tormented work to date, written as a means of conquering his state of mind while he was going through a period of severe depression and mental turmoil! He has a fixation with female victimhood that runs through the three films I am familiar with, Breaking the Waves (1996) Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Dogville (2003). Known for being provocative he stated to a press conference at this 2009 Cannes Film Festival ‘I am the best film director in the world shifting the boundaries of the film making, but still keeping within, the cinematic tradition’
Touted by its publicists as one of the most controversial films since A Clockwork Orange (1971), This latest film from von Trier has been attacked on all sides because of the nastiness of certain scenes. Opinions about the merits and demerits of Antichrist vary a great deal amongst the critics. Certain critics including Bryan Appleyard from the Sunday Times have created the outcry that von Trier was looking for, ‘to stir jaded sensibilities through shock in an age stunned by screen violence’. Controversy to one side we must not dissuade auteur’s like von Trier or in fact Tarantino from making unique work that attracts argument, discussion and in some ways the way we look at things. As veteran producer Tony Garnett’s recent widely circulated comments on the BBC drama hierarchy stated, ‘If you want to make dramatic fiction for the screen, you must first strangle your creative impulses’
Antichrist is to be experienced rather than understood, it tells a story of two characters ‘He’ (Willem Dafoe) and ‘She’ (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who, following an unthinkable tragedy, try to find a new meaning in life and in their life together. ‘He’ is a therapist, ‘She’ a scholar with an unfinished thesis on witch-hunting through the ages. The setting is a forest, a mental landscape as well as a physical one described as ‘a Satan Church where chaos reigns’ The story is made up of a Prologue and an Epilogue, with four chapters in between entitled Grief, Pain, Despair and The Tree Beggars.
Charlotte Gainsbourg jumped at the chance to play ‘She’ von Trier admitted that she proved to be absolute miracle in the film, hardly having to coach her as she was so well prepared. This movie would have been a great challenge to any actress but Gainsbough claimed she had a lot of hang-ups as an performer, including not being able to cry on screen, but she has since stated that this film had liberated her. It also gained her the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
A truly beautiful film, Antichrist is well acted by both Gainsbourg and Dafoe although it is a film to be appreciated rather than enjoyed. The prologue is one of the most poetic and terrifyingly beautiful sections of film. Shot in slow motion black and white, a married couple make passionate love in the bathroom of their fourth floor apartment. Their wee son Nic opens the gate of his cot; see’s his parents as he passes the open bathroom door, climbs on to a table beside an open window knocking over three figurines marked Grief, Pain and Despair. Its snowing as he falls from the window to his death accompanied by his woollen rabbit. The complete scene is in silence except for the aria from Handel’s pastoral opera Rinaldo. Yes some of the scenes are graphic, yes the subject matter is very strong, yes the film is hard to watch at times, but I’m glad was given the chance to see this truly amazing film. Only time will tell if this is von Trier’s masterpiece.
As I said previously interestingly the film divided the critics with such varying comments as: The film will haunt both your days as well as your dreams. The most shocking movie ever shown at Cannes. A grotesque masterpiece, unconventional. Profoundly serious, very personal. Peerless imagery of startling beauty, one of the most beautiful looking films ever made. Needlessly graphic. I’ll leave the last word to Kim Newman film critic ‘Von Trier’s self-conscious arrogance is calculated to split audiences into extremist factions, but Antichrist delivers enough beauty, terror and wonder to qualify as the strangest and most original horror movie of the year’
(This ramble was originally written in September 2009 but never published. Since then von Trier has made two further films in what he calls his “Depression Trilogy” Melancholia in 2011 and now Nymph()maniac (2013) which I will publish tomorrow).