Antichrist (2009)
By: Julian on November 28, 2009  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
Poster Art
Director: Lars von Trier
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Writer: Lars von Trier
Country: Denmark
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I often preface reviews in which I've scrutinised plot points in some depth with this piece of advice: a polite request that those who haven't seen the flick yet navigate away from the page. Antichrist is a movie that is best entered fresh, with no idea of how things are going to pan out and no pre-formed conceptions. While I'll avoid serious spoilers of the end destroying kind, but there are still details within that are better unknown for first-time watchers. This will be, however, a positive review.

Antichrist is a beast that I'm still trying to get my head around. It has roundly divided critics, most of them in extreme camps: Lars von Trier's latest film, though none can deny it's a controversial, provocative piece of work, is either a 5-star masterpiece or a 1-star dog. Although I'm probably a bit more moderate than that, I'm pleased to say my opinion falls more in the former position: if the film can be divided into two halves, the turning point being when the insidious nastiness explodes with a highly graphic ball-crushing/blood ejaculation, then the first is a slow-burn that occasionally tends on the insufferable, and the second makes for some of the most abjectly terrifying surreal cinema since Lost Highway.

One of the best scenes in the film, though, is its opener, which begins with the title card "Prologue": a black-and-white, slow motion scene playing out to opera in which our two protagonists, known only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who won Best Actress in Cannes for her role here), are first seen having sex (a scene of penetration is shown and I was stunned that this sort of thing is considered contextually justified: this was as gratuitous as any Eurotrash entry that had hardcore inserts and was consequently slapped with a ban by the Classification Board) while, unbeknownst to them, their infant drags a chair to an open window and jumps out, intercut with his mother's climax. It's an absolutely horrific sequence and it sets the mood of the entire film, chiefly because the theme of neglect and guilt is foregrounded: the muted baby monitor beside the copulating couple, Her unshakable depression that He, a therapist, tries to kick by spouting psychological rhetoric that consistently fails to sink in and photographic and medical evidence of their son's podiatric deformity, a result of Her consistent failure to put their son's shoes on the correct feet.

After collapsing at her son's funeral, She spends a month in hospital, taking all descriptions of antidepressants that He is highly sceptical of. Nursing a fractured relationship with his wife and fraught with profound grief, He attempts some exposure therapy by taking Her to a forest cabin called Eden, where she spent some time with their child writing a paper on misogyny. From here, the focus is on the nihilistic and entirely foreboding tone of the movie: He attempts psychotherapy on Her, to her unresponsiveness, while He also proceeds to slowly lose his own grip on sanity: the pièce de résistance is when a fox in the woods, disembowelling itself, raspily tells him that "chaos reigns".

By this point, we're more than half way through the film, so for the benefit of those who failed to heed my initial warning, I won't reveal anymore. The opening scene is a perfect crystallisation of everything Antichrist tackles however the next hour languishes in self-indulgence and banality. Character is built minimally and we don't go beyond the deep, unshakable sense of loss and guilt that both He and She feel. I think it dragged too long but what von Trier does exceptionally well is evoke a sense of menace. Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography is also spectacular: the beauty of Eden, juxtaposed with an increasing dread, is brilliantly captured by the Academy Award winning cameraman. As well as a Prologue and Epilogue, both in black and white and with Handel's Lascia ch'io pianga from Rinaldo playing over it, Antichrist is made up of four chapters: Grief, Pain (Chaos Reigns), Despair (Gynocide) and The Three Beggars. Each is unique in the way they tackle His and Her emotions and the technique of chopping the film into chapters works despite its potential to dismember and splinter it.

The violence should be mentioned, but it seems to have been discussed by critics ad nauseum so I'll only do so briefly – but it has invited enough scrutiny and engendered enough controversy to be the talking point of Antichrist. It is an incredibly graphic film, so much so I'm amazed the Classification Board passed this with an R18+ (at time of writing, and two days into its Australian cinema run, it has – touch wood – escaped the eyes of the wowsers). The violence, at least the worst of it, is sexualised, and I've mentioned one of the scenes above. That scene, and all of the others, are hard to stomach, for reasons I can't quite express – perhaps it's just the ickiness of it, but I also think context has something to do with it: we don't expect the sort of sadomasochistic grue that von Trier's dished out in an arthouse movie. And another note on the controversy surrounding this picture: at the time of writing, a cleric at the Londonderry Free Presbyterian Church in Belfast is the latest entrant to the anti-Antichrist chorus, preaching that the film showcases "lustful barbarity" and appealing for its boycott.

Antichrist's biggest faults are in its first hour, which is decidedly below average. Aside from a few moments of absolutely glimmering brilliance (the Prologue and the fox, among them) and a well-executed, complete saturation of doom and gloom, it's quite tedious and I think He and She (despite stellar performances from Dafoe and Gainsbourg) aren't fleshed out by von Trier's screenplay as well as they could have been. However the final forty minutes is as confronting a psychological horror film as you can get. Grand in scope but immense in power, Antichrist's last half battered me like few films do. All in all, one of the most original, interesting and confronting horror movies 2009 has had to offer.
Movie Score
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