Review of "Antichrist," now playing at Cinema 21
Director: Lars von Trier
With: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
This review is a bit late because I couldn’t set aside the time to watch the film, and because I was dreading it. The comments I got from other reviewers were not conducive, although my colleague D.K. Holm had a favorable opinion.
This is really two movies. First, a husband and wife (Dafoe and Gainsbourg), identified only as He and She, are making hot love while their toddler falls from a window to his death. This sequence is one of the most beautiful I have seen in a film in a while, in radiant black-and-white and accompanied by gorgeous music.
The death sets up the crux of the drama: massive guilt and grief. It is reminiscent of the Ingmar Bergman movies of the early 60s, wherein a man and woman eat each other alive driven by deep psychological issues. Each image and camera angle is fraught with meaning and symbolism.
She is driven to depression and sickness. He, a therapist, decides to treat her as a client, and uses the tools of his trade to help her. At first I felt that this was a stupid and thoughtless way for him to act, until I realized that this was his way of dealing with his own grief, through detachment and by falling back on professional distance.
Okay, it is still the worst possible response to a mother who is tormented by guilt and self-loathing. As the story progresses, another thing becomes apparent: that the film is structured like a horror movie.
They retreat to a cabin they own in a deep woods, called Eden (!), and the horror show begins in earnest. I won’t (can’t?) go into any detail here, beyond saying that the grief turns to rage and violence of a particularly gruesome and terrible kind, including graphic sexual mutilations. And I do mean graphic. No self-censorship here. The film is not for the faint-hearted, or easily disturbed. It shook the hell out of me. It wasn’t an easy experience.
I credit von Trier as a serious film-maker. Breaking the Waves is brilliant, possibly a work of genius, and all his subsequent films have been provocative and worth seeing. In them, a kind of crazy-saint woman rises above the malignant behavior of others by a kind of personal holiness and purity. In this film, no one is spared. Don’t believe those who call the movie misogynistic. It doesn’t single women out in its bleak view of the human condition, nor does it supply answers to the questions it raises.
I don’t know where von Trier is going, or what he has in his mind. I do know that, the last part of the film notwithstanding, it is some of the most remarkable work I have seen since Bergman blew my 19-year-old mind.
I just wish it were easier to take. But, maybe that’s the point.