Devil in the Flesh: Lars von Trier’s 'Antichrist 'is a horror film for adults that Hieronymus Bosch might admire.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Possibly the best argument against couples therapy ever, Antichrist is a tour-de-force trip inside the mind of a dangerously depressed man. That man is Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, who conceived and executed Antichrist in the wake of a deep depression.
His film speaks the language of madness with astonishing fluency. Dreamlike and possessed of a terrible, doom-laden beauty, Antichrist provoked jeers and walkouts when it debuted at Cannes earlier this year. That said, Antichrist is a flawed masterpiece and an example of highly personal auteurism that will either make you mad or drive you mad; either way, you’re complicit in von Trier’s vigorously compelling nightmare of love, death, and despair.
Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are fearless in their absolute commitment to their respective roles as He and She, a couple we first witness voyeuristically as they make ferocious love in their bathroom. So rapturous is their slow-motion tussling that toothbrushes and toiletries are sent flying. So is their young son, who, mesmerized by the midnight snow falling just outside his bedroom, toddles out of his crib to an open window and from there to the unforgiving pavement below. The child’s death and the immense, obliterating grief that both She and He experience in its wake lead them to seek therapeutic escape to Eden, as they call their cabin in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. He is a therapist and arrogantly assumes he can assuage She’s pain by this ceremonial act of withdrawal. But She is beyond such quotidian psychological salves, and, as von Trier steers his couple into the dark forest primeval, Antichrist becomes a genuine horror movie. Hieronymus Bosch would be proud.
Much has been made of Antichrist’s alleged misogyny, but the horrors endured and encountered by He and She are, for the most part, shared abominations. It’s a horrific film in the most literal sense of the word: One recoils from it not because it frightens but because the audience is drawn into a state of sympathy toward the tragedy that befalls these two, which then curdles into empathetic revulsion. Von Trier has created a horror film for adults, the sort of grim fairy tale that will resonate distressingly with people not normally given to reading Fangoria magazine or awaiting the umpteenth reiteration of Saw’s torture porn slurry. Ironically, Antichrist contains graphic, and I mean graphic, scenes of both torture and porn, or at least vivid sexual intercourse, but it’s all in the service of von Trier’s nightmarish fantasy.
In the film’s most infamous sequence, He encounters a demonic and hideously mutilated fox in the tall grasses that surround the woods. “Chaos reigns,” says the fox, presumably acting as proxy for von Trier’s own battered psyche. Chaos reigns, indeed, but let’s at least attempt to be as unflinchingly honest as von Trier: When has Chaos not?