by Allan Fish
(Denmark/France 2009 104m) DVD1/2
p Meta Louise Foldager d/w Lars Von Trier ph Anthony Dod Mantle ed Anders Refn art Karl Juliusson
Willem Dafoe (husband), Charlotte Gainsbourg (wife),
Aside from the mild divertissement of The Boss of It All, Lars Von Trier had been quiet since Manderlay. The criticism he received for that film, verging on savage vitriol, cannot help but have contributed to the depression into which he sank. Antichrist is a return to the no-holds-barred filmmaking of Breaking the Waves and The Idiots, films to tear audiences in half and split critics so cleanly down the middle as to seem like Toshiro Mifune had sliced them asunder with his katana. One look at the poster, at the opening credits, fills one with foreboding. Some might compare it to The Blair Witch Project and there are similarities, but it’s the structure of the final ‘T’ in the title that illuminates most, formed as it is by an Egyptian ankh; life and death instantly seen to be in the balance.
A married couple are plunged into despair when, whilst they make love, their small son is killed when he plummets to his death climbing guilelessly out of a window. The husband comes to terms with it in time, helped by rationalising the event through his being a trained therapist, but his wife winds up spending over a month in hospital. They return home, but quickly decide to go to a woodland shack which they call Eden and to which the wife had gone with their son the previous summer with the intent of finally finishing a thesis that in the end remained unfinished. Once there, the husband tries to help his wife, but she quickly descends into alarming madness and sheer sadism.
Nobody could deny that Antichrist is pretentious, and one could not rebuke anyone for saying deeply critical things about the film, but it’s one of those that, however much it may end up repulsing you remains so powerful, so true to its intentions, that it leaves you so emotionally shaken that you cannot help but be floored by it. The dedication to Tarkovsky at the end is somewhat redundant, for anyone au fait with the Soviet master’s oeuvre will notice the parallels throughout. And when Gainsbourg’s distraught wife bemoans how she was unable to complete her thesis one cannot help but equate it to Von Trier’s own psyche, and to his inability to complete his American trilogy. Manderlay was to have been followed by Wasington (sic), but it wasn’t forthcoming, and one has to doubt now whether it will ever be completed. Antichrist is rather like healing a wound by cauterising it with a lit torch. Everything is about finding a release, and as such the wife sinks further and further into her madness, relying on sex to obtain any emotion, and winding up in Ai No Corrida and Blind Beast territory, where the pleasure/pain principle is taken to the utmost, both in terms of pain received (self-mutilation of the vagina) and dished out (I won’t spoil it by saying what she does to her husband). Like a Tarkovsky film directed by Takashi Miike, it’s shockingly brutal, emotional, as raw as a ritual skinning, religiously symbolic with it’s talk of angels and Satan, and yet given to explaining itself in what can only be described, to quote the film, in somewhat glib terms, such as when Gainsbourg makes the understatement of the century when observing that “my grief pattern is atypical.” Dafoe brings his own baggage from Von Trier’s Manderlay, not to mention the religious parallel to his playing Scorsese’s Christ 20 years previously. He commits himself to the film admirably, but his work somehow pales beside that of the increasingly and astonishingly feral Gainsbourg, in one of the bravest, most controversial, most physically and emotionally naked performances you will ever see. So frightening, like a high-pitched shriek of terror in the night. And for such a spiritually troubling film, offered up at the altar to Tarkovsky, there’s the visuals, external shots out of Solaris and Mirror with trademark Tarkovsky shots of silver birches, here curled back into themselves in symbolic barbed wire contortions, holding the couple captive in a torture straight out of the Malleus Maleficarum before glimpsing Von Trier’s Star Gate, his Red Room, his The Zone, his torturous nirvana.