So I did it. I finally plucked up the courage to sit down and watch Antichrist; the film that enraged audiences all over the world. Three years after its release I managed to sit through the entire thing, and it certainly lived up to its billing of being one of the most disturbing films in recent years. It’s difficult to put into words how I feel about it. I should hate it – there are some scenes that are so unthinkably graphic that I had to bury my face in my hands – but I don’t. As horrifically graphic as it is, Antichrist contains some elements of absolute quality. Even with a man of Lars Von Trier’s quality pulling the strings, it’s still amazing how a film so horrific can be impressive and wondrous at the same time.
I’d had countless people asking me if I’d seen Antichrist, which was usually accompanied with a grimace and look of genuine disgust. This put me in no real rush to see it. Typically though, intrigue eventually got the better of me and I decided to brave it. This wasn’t quite like watching something just to see what all the fuss was about. Antichrist is no Human Centipede. Indeed, if you can sit through the trailer for Human Centipede then you should be fine with the entire movie; it doesn’t really get any worse in terms of shock value. Just a hell of a lot more screaming and failed escape attempts. This can’t be applied to Antichrist. There is much more here than mere shock value. The main premise itself is not disgusting – it’s tragic. A couple – referred to as simply ‘He’ and ‘She’ – are completely oblivious as their young son goes wandering and takes a fatal fall from a high window in their home. Stricken with grief, the mother goes out to a cabin in the country, with her therapist husband attempting to cure her with psychotherapy. As time wears on, ‘He’ begins to experience incredible hallucinations whilst ‘She’ becomes mad with grief and mourning. Wracked with guilt and sadness, accompanied by frustration and anger with her husband, ‘she’ expresses herself through acts of sex and violence. Desperate to treat her, ‘He’ does his best to cure her whilst witnessing evil happenings in and around the cabin. The amount of sexual violence is sickening. I’ll warn you that there’re scenes containing sharp objects and two people who are naked for much of the film, and I’ll let your imagination do the rest. Even with that heads up, I don’t think you’ll quite be able to believe what actually happens.
The film is made like a book, being split into a prologue, four chapters and an epilogue. Both the prologue and epilogue are dipped in an eerie black and white filter whilst the chapters are in colour, which is a nice, effective touch. Von Trier’s constant switching between clunky handheld camera and glossy Hollywood-esque slow motion scenes is incredibly effective. One minute we feel as though we’re looking at a real-life documentary and the next we’re exposed to silky special-effects. It’s uncomfortable being made to watch something so aesthetically realistic suddenly flip into the unimaginable. To consider that this may be real for even a second is unsettling. Subtle integration of waves on screen create a woozy sensation and indeed make the viewer think that they too are going mad along with this couple. Von Trier has managed to create the film exactly how he intended it to be – and if any scenes have been deemed too graphic and have been cut from the film, I certainly don’t want to see them, especially given what has been allowed to remain.
Also, it would be wrong to give Von Trier sole credit for this terrifying atmosphere in Antichrist, the performances by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are top-notch and absorbing throughout. In an interview about the film, Dafoe, with regards to the explicit content, stated that “If the audience are with the movie, they can go deeper into it, if they’re not with the movie, it’s going to repel them. It’s not for everyone”. And he’s spot on with the last part – it certainly isn’t for everyone. And although I probably was, as he puts it, ‘with the movie’ – the explicit content at times did threaten to ruin all that was good about the film. It’s very hard to come to a concrete overall conclusion. Did I enjoy it? Definitely not. Do I regret seeing it? Not really. It’s definitely an experience, but even with the impressive direction and acting it’s still difficult to recommend Antichrist to anybody. Some of the content is so vulgar it doesn’t belong anywhere. Perhaps the film would have been just as effective without the graphic close-ups? But ultimately it is what it is, and regardless of his excellent direction, Von Trier will be forced to fend off some very difficult and angry questions for the rest of his career.
It’s safe to say I’ll never be able to look at Dafoe or Gainsbourg in the same light ever again. But that’s testimony to their terrifyingly convincing performances as much as it is to the unspeakable things that happen to them. Dafoe’s great and cunning portrayal of the Green Goblin in Spider-man made him a villain I loved to hate, but after seeing what happens to him in Antichrist, I think I might be rooting for him next time I see the comic book flick. The poor bastard.
Director: Lars Von Trier