Lars von Trier is a controversial enough director without words like “misogyny” and “torture porn” turning up in reviews of his movies. But precisely these things are being said about his latest film: that it’s misogynistic, dull, thoughtless, and glorified pornography. After viewing it for myself, I’ve decided these responses are thoughtless and dull, not the film. The truth is that Antichrist is one of the most provocative and layered films I have ever seen.
If the plot and background to Antichrist are completely foreign, here’s an outline: two characters, known only as He and She, lose their child in an unfortunate moment of neglect. She falls into a deep depression, which He tries to cure by recourse to his experience as a professional psychologist. In the process of healing, He decides to take her into the woods so that they can visit a familiar summer retreat (conveniently called Eden) and confront the fears She has developed since her child’s death. In the process, themes of nature, human nature, science, death, misogyny, sex, and fragility are touched upon, as well as dreams, good, evil, mythology, and even love. Part horror film, part psychological drama, and part art for art’s sake, Antichrist almost literally has it all, and it has it in abundance. Stupefyingly, some critics have chosen to focus on what amounts to approximately four or five minutes of screen time in which genitals are openly displayed and violence is inflicted upon humans. It’s stupefying because these moments make up such a small part of the movie that one would have to be blind, deaf, and painfully dense to believe that they were all the film had to offer. Even if the sex portrayed in the film were somehow arousing, it would take up but the tiniest fraction of the film’s total running time. As far as background goes, Lars von Trier reportedly wrote and directed this film in the midst of a painful depression. It shows. And while it’d be easy to interpret the film as little more than the emotional venting of a troubled director, there’s so much more going on in Antichrist that I think such an interpretation would be both irresponsible and lazy.
Antichrist offers the willing viewer a lot. For one, it is a beautiful film, even with its violence and grotesque scenes of genital mutilation and unrestrained madness. I mean that in a few ways. First, and most obviously, the film is visually gorgeous. Lars von Trier renders the dream-life of his characters so vividly and hauntingly that they’re portrayal seems as central to the film as the characters themselves are. What’s more, I remember these moments of ghostly beauty more than I remember the blood and torture for which the film has unfortunately become known. More than one scene put butterflies in my stomach thanks to von Trier’s careful manipulation of colors, the almost obsessive attention he pays to motion, and the superb use of sound throughout the film. But beauty isn’t the only thing Lars paints beautifully. The grief, pain, and despair of his characters are also convincingly translated into unforgettable images. Second, the film’s many themes are wonderfully complex. Half the fun of watching Antichrist consists in deciding for yourself precisely what all the images and events mean. Sympathetic critics have noted similarities between von Trier’s method in this film and David Lynch’s and that comparison isn’t without warrant. For the duration of Antichrist von Trier deals in symbols and esoteric currency not unlike the kind found in Eraserhead or Inland Empire. But, while Lynch embraces the unconscious mind, Lars at least half-fights it. Antichrist may be a symbolically rich film, but it doesn’t explore the world of the unconscious mind as deeply as Lynch’s films do and it refuses to dive into surrealist territory as fully as Eraserhead and Inland Empire both do. Nevertheless, it is a sophisticated and layered film that demands an intellectual effort. Viewers will undoubtedly get out of it precisely as much as they put into it.
Still, as far as directing goes, Antichrist is far from perfect. Some of the editing choices von Trier made are confusing and distracting. For instance, his decision to chop up many of the conversations between She and He is very frustrating, especially since it only serves to emphasize the fact that one is watching a movie. Were the performances in the film not as outstanding as they are, his constant movement and use of the zoom button might have been disasterous. There are also some strange special effects employed throughout the film that seem like little more than directorial contrivances. With all the fantastic lighting and angles von Trier uses, one would think he’d have no use for unnecessary (and minimal) post-production effects. I also question how necessary some of the graphic violence is. Other directors have exhibited violence and put it to cinematic use more successfully without having to show even a single drop of blood, but von Trier’s M.O. has always included shock value. Noticing only the grotesque elements in Antichrist is tantamount to not watching the movie at all.
But, as I’ve said, there’s more to the movie than visual beauty, philosophy, sexual organs, and blood. Antichrist also contains an amazing performance from Charlotte Gainsbourg, who outshines veteran Willem Dafoe in each and every scene. Dafoe isn’t bad in his portrayal of an emotionally cold and distrubed husband, but Gainsbourg dominates the film with her presence, whether she’s shrieking and stabbing or struggling through a mournful daze. It can’t be easy work wondering about without pants on and simultaneously pretending to be a psychotic woman who has used her guilt and suffering to rationalize her hate and mistrust for all women, but Gainsbourg does it frighteningly well. I flinched during some of her appearances and often winced in pain with her. Watching the film isn’t easy, especially because Gainsbourg’s character abuses herself both physically and psychologically.
And that brings us to the accusations of misogyny Antichrist has received. Both Dafoe’s and Gainsbourg’s characters are undoubtedly misogynistic. And there is no question that misogyny is one of the film’s central themes, but I never once thought that Antichrist itself advocated hatred for women. If anything, Lars von Trier mocks and destroys the very idea of misogyny by demonstrating just how ridiculous, base, and unfounded it is. He identifies it almost as a cancer and consequently unveils all the illusions and myths that go into it. Can humanity surpass its tendency to violence, can science really answer all of the questions we have about ourselves, and can men and women co-exist without demonizing each other are all questions that Antichrist asks. It does not, however, ask whether or not women are inherently evil. I have to think Lars von Trier thought the answer to that question was obvious. Evidently some of his critics don’t think so.