Lars von Trier’s censor terrorising, award winning 2009 horror film Antichrist was the first film I saw from the Danish art house Director and its beauty, graphic violence and almost pornographic visuals left me stunned for days. For the last couple of years I’ve been trying to get my girlfriend (who disliked Melancholia more than I did) to watch it, in part because I knew it would disgust her. Much to my relief it did. Antichrist is one of the most violent and certainly the most sexually explicit film I’ve ever seen but it isn’t simply a trashy exploitation Tits & Guts horror, it is a well crafted, beautifully made and deeply traumatic horror film.
Antichrist begins with a prologue featuring a married couple who are never named (Willem Defoe & Charlotte Gainsbourg) making love in super slow motion. The scene is filmed in black and white and using a camera capable of capturing a thousand frames a second. While the couple pound away their young son climbs out of his cot and heads towards an open window before falling to his death. The couple enter into the grieving process in very different ways with the husband taking a clinical approach while the wife spirals deeper and deeper into depression. The film is divided into chapters which mirror Gainsbourg’s emotional state with Grief being followed by Pain and Despair. The couple make the decision to relocate to a cabin in the woods but the wife’s emotional state takes a dark and bloody turn for the worst.
Depending on which cut of the film you watch, Antichrist is about 110 minutes long. Most of the memorable scenes take place during the final frantic, bloodcurdling twenty minutes. I’d forgotten much of the earlier parts of the film but was happy to see them again. Antichrist is one of the most beautiful films you’re ever likely to see. The mood, framing, camera work and cinematography are stunning and many of its awards came by the way of cinematography. There is also some dazzling use of CGI which remains mostly hidden in amongst the scenery of the film. Apart from the obvious talking fox and a couple of other shots I hadn’t realised until watching the extra features just how much CGI was used. It’s some of the best fitting CGI I’ve seen. The prologue scenes, filmed in ultra slow-mo and black and white are perhaps the most beautiful in the film but there isn’t an ugly shot in the whole piece.
There are plenty of grizzly, eye watering scenes though. Antichrist became famous for its graphic depictions of sexual violence upon its initial release and it’s easy to see why feathers were rustled. To begin with there are clear shots of vaginal penetration as well as male and female full frontal nudity. The sexual scenes straddle the boundaries between cinema and porn but thanks to von Trier’s beautiful imagery, never feel cheap. Later on, during the most chaotic scenes there are some unbelievable shots which I’m surprised got passed the censors. We see not only male and female masturbation (close up) but also ejaculation (though not semen) and genital mutilation. These are some of the most difficult scenes to watch but bring about a sense of uniqueness to the movie. There are few Directors who could get away with putting these sorts of shots in their movie and not many actors who would be willing to shoot them. I personally have no problem with the sexualised violence. Movies are people’s visions and as adults we have the right to view art in an undoctored, uncensored way. If you don’t want to see it then don’t watch it.
Both lead actors give extraordinary performances. Charlotte Gainsbourg is often described as ‘brave’ for bearing all but even aside from the nudity; hers is a deeply nuanced, well thought out performance which shows an actress at the top of her craft. Gainsbourg took specific direction from von Trier during some of the breakdown scenes as von Trier himself has experienced many of the emotions and fears which plague the character. He was released from a psychiatric hospital shortly before filming began. Gainsbourg won Best Actress at Cannes as well as receiving several other well deserved awards nominations and wins. Willem Defoe is equally incredible in his role as the clinical and arrogant husband. His transformation and role isn’t as complex as Gainsbourg’s but he throws everything at it and comes out extremely well. His deeply lined and weathered face somehow enhances the cinematography around him and he looks great in super slow-mo.
Lars von Trier drew criticism not only due to the violence and sexual imagery but also because of the plot. Essentially the plot appears to postulate the argument that women are inherently bad or evil. Von Trier has stated this isn’t how he feels personally but as a man, I know it to be true. Women are mental little buggers. Sometimes you will be talking to a woman and all of a sudden the atmosphere will change. You don’t know what you’ve said or done but a dark, cold cloak descends over the room. The atmosphere turns prickly and you stay perfectly still. Suddenly the room erupts into a cacophony of anger and commotion. You remain calm, knowing that you can only anger the beast more if you rise to challenge or defend against the onslaught. You find a way to leave the room and if you’re lucky you’ll find a book or DVD in another room and be able to hide out for a little while. Some time later you’ll hear the creak of a door and footsteps drawing ever closer. You brace yourself as the hairs on the back of your neck once again stand to attention. Then, when you’re resigned to the approaching round two, a soft “I’m sorry” is uttered from dark pink lips and sweet doe eyes look up at you. You are enveloped by arms and the smell of fruity shampoo enters your nostrils. It’s over. You’re safe once more.
Not every day living with a woman is like that though. Occasionally they aren’t angry. Sometimes they’re asleep. Of course I jest but what a lot men watching Antichrist will be thinking is “One day she’s gonna go mental like this. I need to hide a wrench somewhere close at hand.” Because we are used to the horror trope of the evil man or the male serial killer, being confronted with a female version and a study of the female psyche is much scarier than if the roles were reversed. Gainsbourg’s character spends so much of the film as the frail, wounded woman that the evil that lurks inside surprises and terrifies the audience. Antichrist isn’t a perfect film and it will be the subject of much taste and decency debate for years to come. It is occasionally a little slow and dull but for the most part it is a thoroughly gripping, sublimely shot, beautiful gem of a film which makes me want to search out every previous von Trier film.
- Porn actors Horst Stramka and Mandy Starship were used for many of the intimate scenes. Lars von Trier has stated that Willem Defoe's penis could not be used as it was 'confusingly large'.
- Willem Defoe also provides the voice of the fox.
- Eva Green was considered for the film but her agent wouldn't allow her to take the role.