Chances are, you haven’t heard much about Antichrist. And if you have, chances are you’ve heard more about the shocking sex and violence than its actual plot (a jury at Cannes gave the film a special ‘anti-award’ in protest after four critics fainted during a screening at the festival in May). I walked into the film with limited knowledge, but walked out impressed by the film’s depth and understanding why it has drawn so much attention since its Cannes premiere.
Directed by Danish director Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark, Dogville), Antichrist tells the story of an unnamed married couple’s attempts to cope with grief following the death of their young son, who falls out of a window and plunges to his death. While the parents are busy making passionate love, they don’t notice their son get out his crib, wander over to the window and fall to his death. As a result, the mother (French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg), racked with guilt, is hospitalized due to a state of deep depression. Her therapist husband (Willem Dafoe), however, believes the doctors in the hospital don’t know what they’re doing and decides to take his wife on as his own patient.
From there, the therapist husband explores the underlying causes of his wife’s incredible grief while she tries to cope through sex and violence. Eventually, the husband theorizes that his wife’s grief arises from her fear of Eden, a secluded cabin deep in the forest, and proposes that they spend a couple of nights there. The wife had spent the previous summer at Eden alone with her son, working on her thesis about gynocide (the systematic killing of women). By summer’s end, the wife had given up on her thesis and recalled instances in which she feared her son was in danger. Her husband’s idea, then, is that a trip to Eden will help the woman confront her fears and eventually cure her. Once the couple gets to Eden, however, the woman begins to go crazy. Consumed by her grief, she comes to believe that her husband, and — as weird as it sounds — nature itself have begun to turn on her. What follows is a downward spiral driven by fear and demented views on misogyny and culminating in a gruesome climax.
Although the film often relies on cheap shock tactics to get its point across, it possesses great strength in the work by its three main players. The always controversial von Trier is at his most artful and shocking. The opening scene — a testament to his skill as a director — is beautifully shot in slow-motion black and white with no sound except an aria from Handel’s Rinaldo, and depicts graphic sex (think very close-up shots of genitals in action). These, however, only seem to exist for shock value.
Dafoe and Gainesbourg’s turn as the couple (unnamed for the whole film) could not be more perfect. Their terse interactions are incredibly intimate, affording the audience a candid view of the inner workings of a couple in crisis. As the two characters in the entire picture aside from the young son and a handful of extras appearing with blurred faces, performances from Dafoe and Gainsborough (who won the 2009 Best Actress award at Cannes for her performance) as key to the film’s success.
While some critics have bashed the film for a story that suggests the woman’s case of the crazies arises from her belief that women are inherently evil, I viewed Antichrist as an exploration of the concepts behind misogyny as well as the very nature of women and humans as a whole. The ending in particular — shot in a similar style to film’s slow-motion beginning — leaves a lot of unanswered questions about von Trier’s intended message about men and women.
At times it felt like von Trier was trying too hard to be controversial and the story seemed to trudge along at points when there was no direct interaction between the two protagonists. However, Dafoe and Gainsbourg’s riveting on-screen chemistry yield a powerful performance and the picture’s intriguing themes do a lot to make up for its shortcomings. The result is an overall satisfying, if shocking, cinematic experience.
Antichrist will be released in limited theaters on October 23.