Thursday, January 28, 2021 13:14

Antichrist (2009)

Anyone with half an eye on the media, certainly here in the UK, can hardly have failed to notice the prominent write-ups given to last year’s Antichrist: its director, Lars Von Trier, seems an adept at generating publicity. And as we all know, negative publicity is still publicity, and often has the same effect when it comes to film – you want to see what all the fuss is about, often despite yourself.

The film’s ‘prologue’ introduces us to the main protagonists – nameless, but basically well-played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourgh – a couple having sex. Meanwhile, their infant son Nicholas awakens, climbs out of his crib and, in wanting to watch the snow, falls to his death out of an ajar window. The film then moves onto Part One, as the couple try to come to grips with their bereavement. Gainsbourgh’s character collapses at the funeral, and undergoes a breakdown which incarcerates her in a mental institution – but Dafoe’s character, a counsellor, decides to take control of her treatment and to coach her through the different phases of grief.

In trying to ease his wife out of what he terms as ‘the second phase – anxiety’, Dafoe’s character uses hypnosis to try to determine what exactly she sees when she is undergoing a panic attack. After much ado, and a great deal of strain between them, he sees that her fears are embodied by ‘the woods’: specifically, the woods surrounding a cabin she had spent some months in in the previous year in order to write (called ‘Eden’ – geddit?) He decides they need to go back there, to truly deal with her fears.

It is at this stage in the film that any cogent plot seems to unravel. Von Trier introduces various symbols into the action in the forms of animals: a deer with a stillborn faun still attached to it; a wounded fox; and a raven. These, we are able to glean by the end of the film, variously embody grief, chaos and despair, but they are not truly part of the plot and are only bit-players, seen for a moment, and not otherwise explicable. If you want them to figure, then you have to do the work. The relationship between the two characters grows increasingly erratic and violent, and the director shows us a cabin decorated with woodcuts of witch burnings, thereafter also introducing us to the fact that the wife used to put the child’s shoes on the wrong feet (!) Von Trier seems to be, like, saying something deeply important about the, you know, inherent evil in people or maybe, like, how women have always borne the brunt of fear and misery, or, you know, something. The characters hereafter seem to spend most of their time without trousers on and I now feel I could identify Willem Dafoe’s buttocks at twenty paces in the dark. And the feted clitoridectomy scene – where Gainsbourgh is haunted by the fact that her sex life stopped her noticing her son clambering out of the window and decides to ‘operate’ – is by turns bemusing, silly and pointless. She should have fixed the child gate. Much easier.

There are things of worth in the film – Dafoe’s acting skills save the film from utter farce and elements of the cinematography are actually quite beautiful – but, remove the odd, mismanaged symbology and the moments of extreme violence and this is a very boring film. As a study of grief and mourning I could have seen its relevance, and its depiction of anxiety attacks are unpleasantly accurate, but it seems to me that Von Trier had a handful of symbols he rather liked and was determined to shoehorn into the film regardless. If he does indeed have an axe to grind with misogyny or original sin or any of the other potential themes, it is not effectively done. What we have here is a film written and directed for film critics to unpack and essay about, rather than for audiences to enjoy. And the sex scenes! – not only blatantly there for shock value but very unrealistic. I’m no expert, but hit a man in the knackers with a plank of wood hard enough for him to lose consciousness and I”ll wager he won’t still be in a state of arousal, let alone start ejaculating blood when his mad wife takes him in hand. It made us laugh and roll our eyes – I’m betting Von Trier imagined it’d have a much more solemn effect.

One Response to “Antichrist (2009)”

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