directed by Lars von Trier
(Zentropa, 2009)

My guess: Lars von Trier had a hell of a time defending Antichrist against feminists and women in general. I'm not inferring that it was deserved, and I'm not saying that I have any proof of such altercations, but the film has some mighty daring sentiments. Even I couldn't be sure if von Trier was against or advocating what turned out to be a blatantly negative view of female human nature.

Antichrist focuses on the idea of nature as evil, nature as the scythe of Death. Split into chapters, the Prologue shows us a little boy -- enticed by fluttering snowflakes -- fall out of an open window while his parents have sex in the next room. We understand that the little boy's death was an accident. It was one of those unfortunate tragedies we read about in the snippets lining the bottom of our morning newspaper. But the film suggests an irony that the act of the boy's creation ultimately kills him. Nature in every sense has been an accomplice.

The parents, He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), are left to deal with life after their child's death. Escaping to a cabin in a place they call Eden, He and She are consumed by their pain until their sanity becomes as unstable as the wilderness around them. But it's not as simple as that. It would be so easy to write Antichrist off as a horror movie, a thriller, an artistically developed Saw, to those who have yet to see it.

Please realize that there is gore, and von Trier doesn't shy away from it in the name of "art." If anything, the nauseating acts of mutilation performed by He and She parallel the majesty of von Trier's cinematography. Which is, by the way, beautiful beyond words.

The film calls everything into question from the murderous nature of snowflakes to that of human nature -- a woman's nature, to be exact. It sounds almost silly (I mean, snowflakes, really?), but Antichrist is the farthest thing from a joke. The intensity of the film could make a person emotionally crumble in their seat. Von Trier takes us on an excruciatingly slow decent into madness in which we have no outlets: there is the couple, the wilderness that surrounds them, and their pain.

Unlike its gore predecessors, Antichrist is deliberate with every wound and mutilation performed by He and She. The horror of the film isn't a cheap tool at the mercy of a shock-tolerant audience; it is a valuable contributor to the underlying message. We aren't watching a clitorectomy because it ranks high under the category of Stomach Churning. The act means something to Her, in terms of coping with her personal guilt, and to the film, itself.

Her study of gynocide (the historical medical abuse of women) foreshadows, what seems to be, the ultimate idea of the film. Even though von Trier doesn't hold the parents accountable, he allows She to contort herself into the evil-doer. We are trapped with Her maddening self-blame through flash-backs and pictures. Greedy for an orgasm, did She watch her son fall to his death without as much as a word? Was that what really happened? ... Wait, rewind!

But we can't, and we're not supposed to. We are stuck with Her second-hand visions of the events.

His role of "good guy," which allows him to be the permanent victim and receiver of our sympathy, only enforces the idea that She is homicidally insane. As a psychiatrist, He is repeatedly trying to save Her through therapeutic exercises, talks, sex and secrets while She sexually and physically abuses him. It's not a coincidence that the setting is called Eden, and, in the end, he must "save" both of them from herself through any means necessary. Perhaps just like men "saved" women from the inherent evil of their sex (i.e., their sexual organs) through gynocide all those years ago. It was, after all, for their own good, wasn't it? Women are basically evil, right?

However, von Trier takes the idea one step further, because She takes the genital mutilation into her own hands -- it is her way of punishing her sex and her sexual appetite.

Personally, I don't have any quarrels with von Trier, because I can't know for sure if this film represents his viewpoint or if it is a commentary on the viewpoint of others. The film is a fascinating look at the extremes of self-blame and guilt, and there is so much to take in that I could probably write three more reviews focusing solely on the other aspects of the film. So, go see it, simply because something this lush and horrifyingly insightful doesn't come along all too often.

review by
Molly Ebert

23 January 2010

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