Into the Wild
The new film from the creator of Breaking the Waves
by Jason Blair
ANTICHRIST: Written and directed by Lars von Trier. Cinematography, Anthony Dod Mantle. Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe. IFC Films, 2009. Not rated. 104 minutes.
|Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist
Among the things you should know about the Lars von Trier film Antichrist is that the movie, which contains scenes of wrenching beauty and gruesome violence, lists among its credits a “misogyny consultant.” The film about is about a married couple, He and She (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg), who, after their son falls to his death while they’re having sex, take to a cabin in the woods to treat She’s grief. He is a distant and condescending therapist, the kind of rationalist know-it-all who takes a beating in every horror film. She is an academic whose expertise is gynocide, or the systematic killing of women based upon their gender (such as the witch hunts of Early Modern Europe). That She submits to He’s course of treatment (which involves a lot of walking around in the woods) is an early indication that in Antichrist, plot will be an afterthought. It’s also the first hint of He’s painful road ahead: Emotionally and physically, She is so unpredictable that she could conceivably inflict great pain on them both. When the torture inevitably comes, it’s unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Hence the need for hiring a misogyny consultant.
At this point, assuming you’re still reading this, you aren’t including Antichrist in your weekend plans. For some of you, that would be a mistake. The film is relentless in its portrayal of She’s grief, but consciously, even pathologically so: The longer they remain in solitude in the forest, the more She comes to view nature as “Satan’s church,” a place of death and deformity and decay. She loathes herself even as she embraces her role as an agent of profound evil. By the final act, She’s self-hatred is so complete that she mutilates not only He’s private parts but her own, but not before performing a leg-hobbling operation on He to which Stephen King’s Misery can’t hold a candle. (Or a maul.) Within the film, there is nothing redemptive in her transformation from patient to perpetrator, from victimhood to violence, but there is something bizarrely logical and even necessary in her horrific acts. It is precisely because these events aren’t casually depicted — in other words, von Trier is carefully aware of She’s descent — that Antichrist is impossible to dismiss. Antichrist might be morally reckless, but von Trier is in full command for much of this harrowing film, which easily is his most realistic since 1996’s Breaking the Waves.
I won’t defend Antichrist further than this, nor will I reveal what further terrors it contains. Gainsbourg and Dafoe give the performances of their lives, in particular Gainsbourg, who was honored at Cannes for her role as She. I can’t imagine a more natural performance. Photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire), who used state-of-the-art digital cameras for the production, Antichrist is technically superb, with rich, dense colors and angelic ultra-slow motion never before seen in feature film. Once again, however — I’m thinking of Dancer in the Dark — I find von Trier needy and a bit of a showboat as a writer/director. There’s no doubting his facility with language and imagery, nor can it ever be said he isn’t a fully engaged filmmaker. But he underestimates the value of restraint. He is constantly confronting and purging restraint from his films; to my mind it’s the quality they need the most. Late in the film, when She has grown tired of He’s lectures, she exclaims, “You couldn’t leave it, could you? You had to meddle.” A bit of self-analysis, it would seem, from a director who knows himself, but should know better.
Antichrist opens Friday, Dec. 4, at the Bijou.