Starring: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsborg
Written & Directed By: Lars von Trier
Antichrist opens on a completely captivating high contrast shot in slow motion black and white. We witness the couple making love to each other. They are completely engaged with each other and so caught up in the moment that they don’t notice their toddler, Nick, stirring. He gets out of his crib and catches them in the act. He turns around and gives an odd, sly smile, but the couple still doesn’t notice. Nick walks through the room as they continue until he gets to the window. He jumps out and slowly falls and falls through the white, wintry sky until he reaches his death.
This opens the first stage of the film; grief. The mother, only referred to as ‘She’, is horrified and feels incredibly guilty after her son’s death. She has been hospitalized for over a month and put on anti-depressant medication. Her husband is a therapist and believes he knows more than the doctors, even though he isn’t one himself. He gets her to flush her medication and “deal” with the pain head on. He begins doing aggressive therapy exercises, expanding her pain from emotional to physical. She is physically strained and has a number of attacks on her body that he forces her to feel and take it in. She blames him for not truly caring about her or Nick. She places blame on him while still being overwhelmed with so much of it herself; there is plenty to go around.
He soon finds out the place she is most afraid of since he can’t find out what she is most afraid of. With great hesitation, she utters the woods, one known as ‘Eden’ specifically. They enter the very secluded woods where she and Nick were the last summer he was alive. That summer she was working on finishing a book on female genocide, specifically towards those accused of practicing witchcraft. In this time she explores witchcraft and demonic arts and the historical society’s thoughts on these to the point where these ideas get implanted in her and become fundamental in both her pain and struggle for survival.
It is extremely difficult for her to walk through these woods as she believes nature is evil. Walking across the bridge takes quite a bit out of her. As they work at it more, she actually appears to be getting better. There are still odd, suspicious sounds as nature keeps a sense of suspense and fear present. When He finds her research and discovers that she was not appalled by what happened to these women, but perhaps even supportive, the tables turn.
The performances are incredible. Dafoe and Gainsborg certainly deserve a great deal of praise for their courage, dedication, and readiness to plunge in to a cinematic experience as raw as this one. They make everything feel real, playing their parts well, displaying the emotions or lack there of, and their different sides in the game. Some of the themes wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as they did if they weren’t able to pull off these performances. Dafoe manages to be expressive even though a big part of his role is playing the supposedly rational one; stern, calming, and trying to tone down the overwhelming emotion of his partner while being a bit unknowingly arrogant.
Gainsborg brings out her character wonderfully through appearing irrational, emotional, pained, grieving, unstable, crazed, angered, fearful, animalistic, and a number of other traits throughout the film. She goes through changes throughout, but many of these coincide with each other at the same time. The co-stars form their character’s opposition well, making the showdown against these two enthralling.
One of the strongest themes is believing nature is inherently evil. This nature encompasses the outside nature that we commonly think of, the things that go bump in the night. In this aspect, Antichrist is one of the best man vs. nature horror films I have seen. It certainly leaves an impact on the viewer.
It also encompasses nature in the sense of human nature, specifically females, giving us a powerful critique on misogynistic views by placing them in our female character more than the male. She begins to believe that women are evil by nature and applying this to herself. It does something to her believing that men, such as her husband, think of her this way. At the same time, by believing this is nature, something inevitable, she can finally find a release from her guilt. She no longer has to be blamed, it can all be blamed on male perceptions and superiority, which her husband definitely shows in his arrogance. Still, she has blame and anger towards her husband that she needs to release. Yet, it really isn’t her; it’s just her evil nature.
Our two characters represent opposition: man vs. woman and rationality vs. emotion being the most prominent. The man vs. female conflict resonates with the wife’s research of historical times, taking us back to the type of logic that was present through the most grim times in history. Particularly during the Salem Witch Trials, It was all instinct and emotion, void of any reason. This can be said of the roles placed within men and woman and how they differ. In this case, women are portrayed as being closer to nature, which makes them wicked in this case.
Man is usually viewed as the stronger and more animalistic of the two, but the roles are reversed here. Embracing the true battle of the sexes, both are brutally attacked in the most fragile place. His penis is bashed and once he is knocked out is clenched and stroked until blood spurts out of it. Even though she is the more aggressive fighter, she knows the evil that she and all woman hold, thus she cannot go unharmed either. She grabs scissors and performs vagina self-mutilation in the single most disturbing moment of the film. Men are stereotypically viewed as being more rational while woman have the emotional role. This is true here, but both are dangerously so. Her overpowering emotions leads her to do horrific things, but his insistence on rationality, dealing with her horrible grief head on, is what pushed her to this unstable state. The two approaches, rationality and emotion fight it out; clearly there will be no compromise.
Antichrist starts off with a dramatic, mournful setting and leads us to the classic, secluded cabin in the woods that has become a staple of many horror films. The woods give us a great atmosphere and make us face the nature head on just as our characters do. The cinematography captures the light and hope while making sure the darkness is truly what dominates. The film has very graphic nudity and sexual situations, but dealing so heavily with gender roles and this power play, it adds to the film. The nudity and sex are raw and wrong. Majority of the time, it’s closer to rape and aggression than any type of sexual pleasure. By the animalistic actions towards the end, we are miles away from the sensual lovemaking scene we saw at the beginning of the film.
Much of the film is extremely slow paced. It works with just having these two characters, giving us a very intimate look at them, yet having so much mystery and questioning of whether they will be able to move on from what has happened. If the entire film was like this, it would feel lacking, but the end is so strong, relentless, shocking, yet completely fitting, that it ends with a bang. Not only do we get the needed pay off in the film, but we have this understanding once we piece it all together of the purpose of all of it.
The gore, along with the two of the most notable and horrifying sequences I mentioned above, is severe and excruciating, but the controversy is a bit out of proportion. So much of the film is dramatic and psychological, focusing on relationships, emotions, and approaches that the change of tone and violent turn the film takes is startling, but a wonderful touch that makes the film something special. There are some creative attacks and torturing, most of which are pretty original or at least fresh in horror cinema. They show the hate and fear of the witch hunts and the desperation between these two troubled people.
Lars von Trier makes films by his own rules. With Antichrist he gives us an art house horror film with striking cinematography and inspired stylization, completely committed performances, and raw sex and violence to explore the evil intentions of one’s nature. Everything in the film is very subtle, but intentionally because von Trier doesn’t want to have to tell his audience these things, he wants them to explore it through their own eyes. There’s so much meaning, care, and insight shown in such a creative and innovative way; exactly what gritty, severe, intense horror movies should hold.