5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Lars Von Trier's “Antichrist” defies traditional methods of critique, yet it begs to be analyzed. I surely can't comfortably recommend it, as I imagine many a viewer will lose his or her patience, temper, lunch, or all three in succession; nor can I dissuade serious filmgoers from seeing it, as it is, for better or worse, a work of tremendous, terrible power.
The plot is decidedly simple: a husband and wife (who are courageously played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, but remain nameless) suffer the death of their toddler son, who, in the movie's prologue, falls from the family's high-rise window while the couple engages in passionate sex. She, a writer studying witchcraft, is so consumed by grief that she needs to be hospitalized, and soon, her grief transforms into paralyzing fear. Believing that the source of her fears is Eden, the family's secluded cabin in the woods, he, a psychiatrist, decides that the best medicine would be for both of them to make a pilgrimage to the cabin so she can confront her demons head-on. Strange occurrences begin to accumulate, fear and distress give way to madness, and gradually, the pair inflict emotional and unmentionable physical pain on one another as a result of their tragedy, their surroundings, or, most unsettlingly, their very natures.
So, what of the title? “Antichrist” doesn't feature Linda Blair-like possessions or exorcisms, nor does it involve a creepy, Damien-like child who acts as the son of the devil. A child plays a key role in the narrative, of course, and there is talk of the devil (“Nature is Satan's church,” she says at one point), but this film in no way caters to the conventions to which audiences have grown accustomed. Nor is it really a horror movie, despite the inevitable, but misleading attempt of many (including distributor IFC Films) to place it in such a box. It is a psychological brain-teaser and eventual eye-scorcher set amidst a familiar horror backdrop (the woods) and peppered with a few staggeringly gruesome scenarios (I may never look at scissors the same way again). But much of the movie is slow and uneventful. There is an omnipresent sense of dread (with no small amount of credit due to the haunting sound design and the music by composers Hal Lindes and the famous Handel), but those expecting typical, bump-in-the-night scares would be better served – in the short and long run – by a screening of “Paranormal Activity.”
I'd say the title refers, quite literally, to Danish provocateur Von Trier's dark vision of an alternate, godless world – one that exists at odds with the one we know, which in many ways and in many circles is essentially built on biblical legend. He and she are not born into a lush garden. They do not go forth, bear children, and thrive. Contrarily, they lose their child while giving in to temptation, descend into an Eden that has become anything but lush, and devolve into an inhumane state of terror, hopelessness and despair.
In addition to being practically devoid of entertainment value, “Antichrist” offers no moral or existential lessons or benefits. At most, it gives us a glimpse into Von Trier's mind, which, albeit perverse, has produced some of the most interesting film projects of the last two decades (“Dogville,” “Dancer in the Dark,” “Breaking the Waves,” the Dogme 95 movement). For many critics, that glimpse has proven more than a little unsavory, as the ultra-violent and hyper-sexualized “Antichrist” has been dismissed as being “pretentious,” “artsy-fartsy,” “headline-grabbing,” “misogynistic” “torture-porn.” For you, that glimpse may well provide one hellish night at the movies, quite possibly leaving you with nausea and nightmares. For me, that glimpse was more than enough, as Von Trier has succeeded in piercing my psyche and unraveling my nerves.
“Antichrist” is the most profoundly disturbing film I've seen in years. Though calling certain scenes wince-inducing is putting it mildly, it is not so much its images that disturb, but their implications. Von Trier hints at some devastating larger truths within the story, and takes your imagination to places it would never independently explore. The visceral experience of watching the movie is tame compared to its ability to sear itself in the memory. I was initially provoked to think long and hard about what I'd seen, began to obsess over it, and then felt myself slipping into what can only be called a depression. Other responsibilities felt frivolous, for my mind was wholly preoccupied with Von Trier's “pretentious” little art film. And then I read the director's statement, which was released to the press: “Two years ago, I suffered from depression. Everything, no matter what, seemed unimportant, trivial. I couldn't work. Six months later, I wrote a script. It was a test to see if I would ever make another film [that film, of course, became 'Antichrist'].” I find it incredible that Von Trier was able to transmit those very feelings into his work, so fully and so potently that he elicited the same feelings in me. And if that means I fell for his “manipulative,” “headline-grabbing” scheme, then so be it.
I'm anointing “Antichrist” with five stars not just because I want to, but because I must. It is far too polarizing to be given some middle-of-the-road grade, and it's too visionary, impactful and artfully constructed to be abandoned at the bottom end of the scale. It is a beast of a movie – one that warrants in-depth study, but one that even the most hardened film scholars may not want to revisit. Also in his statement, Von Trier wrote, “('Antichrist') was filmed without much enthusiasm, made as it was using about half of my physical and intellectual capacity.” What's really scary is imagining what the writer/director might have created had he been firing on all cylinders.