Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist contains a simple story: in the aftermath of their child’s death, a therapist (Willem Dafoe) decides to help treat his depressed wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) by spending some time in an isolated cabin where she is to confront her fear of the woods. However, not everything goes to plan as the wife slips further into insanity and drills a hole in William Dafoe’s leg. Despite the simplicity of the plot, the movie is rife with religious and spiritual symbolism, imagery as well as graphic nudity and sex. All of these elements would have been fine if they had been employed in service of storytelling, instead the audience is subject to a film that seems to try to confide in the audience its import yet is confused as to what it is actually trying to say, save that the director is a pretentious nut.
Don’t get me wrong, this is an intriguing film, but it’s also a mess. There were a number of opportunities that Lars Von Trier’s screenplay could have taken advantage of. The most interesting thing about the film isn’t the graphic sex nor the disturbing violence or the ideas it tries to pass-off as being deep, but the two central characters. Lars Von Trier could have written the characters and just let them muddle in their relationship and let the symbolism and moments pour out organically, and it seems that was what he was going for at first, but around halfway through the movie everything starts to go off the rails.
The film itself is divided into four chapters (chapter one-“Grief”, two-“Pain”, three-“Despair”, four-“The Three Beggars”) which are sandwiched between two black-and-white sequences. The intro sequence is beautifully composed in slow-motion and shows the couple having sex while their child frees himself from his crib and walks out the window to marvel at the snow. Scenes like this show-off one of the strengths of the film which lies in the cinematography, by Anthony Dod Mantle. There are a few other scenes and images that are excellently crafted, but they are unfortunately inter-cut with drawn-out periods of boredom.
Sometimes the symbolism is either over-wrought or near nonsensical, but there are some visuals that work. At the end of the first chapter, William Dafoe’s character witnesses a deer in the woods, but as the camera gets the closer we see a dead newborn hanging from it, then we look back and see the character’s face. This works for it not only acts as possible foreshadowing, but also reveals something about Dafoe’s character.
But then there are some attempts of symbolism that aren’t as successful, like in a ridiculous scene where Gainsbourg’s character, after Dafoe’s character refused to hit her while having sex, is running outside in the nude while its dark and then starts masturbating the bottom of a tree. She is suddenly slapped by her husband and then resume copulating underneath the tree, but as the camera pans up we see human limbs from bodies trapped underneath the roots of the tree. It’s an interesting image that sticks in the mind, but it’s both obvious and confusing given the rest of the film. It’s already bad enough that the area of woods is called “Eden” but then to have the couple have sex underneath the tree… but what’s worst is that, instead of reinforcing some sort of point about humanity or religion, it only muddies the movie up thematically. There’s other spiritual and religious symbolism in the film, but the problem is that they just seem thrown in there as a way to compensate for the script’s shallowness. It’s almost as if by juxtaposing graphic sex and obvious religious symbolism Lars Von Trier was hoping that some sort of meaning would coalescence within the viewers’ mind.
The movie seems to be trying to be a critique on humanity using religious symbolism, but it’s sometimes difficult to say what the actual critique is other than that humanity plain sucks. It seems to be trying to convey something deep but ends up confused, nearly making the whole film pointless to watch. It probably would have been better, it seemed, if Lars Von Trier focused instead on the couple’s relationship and what they represent, mainly emotionalism versus rationalism and how each approaches grief.
After their child dies, the wife is hospitalized for a month after fainting. The husband, who’s a therapist, quickly takes control of the situation by suggesting that she should not take the prescribed dosage her doctor recommends, stating that the feeling of grief is natural. When they’re both back at their home he begins to treat her like one of his patients. But she calls him out on this and his pompousness. One can’t help agree with her while also realizing that her comments are also stemming from her own resentment toward her husband for both being distant in the past as well as being well-composed during this situation while she’s an emotional trainwreck. However, the viewer might also suspect, at least from the beginning, that the husband may be treating her as a way for him not to deal with his own emotions. She becomes suicidal and even more depressed as she bangs her head against the rim of the toilet and he finds her. When she tells him that her biggest fear is the woods of “Eden,” but instead of getting her to an institution, in his arrogance, he decides that the two of them should go there. This is a good set-up for an interesting character study and drama, and while Lars Von Trier lets the conflict of the movie grow from this, he does so unrealistically. This is evidenced by how, at the end, the wife becomes completely crazed while he a stereotypical, condescending psychologist spouting nonsense. Lars Von Trier is comfortable going to easy route and trying to disturb and compel the audience rather than presenting a believable story.
Apparently this movie ignited controversy when it came out, which I can believe. In the opening sequence we’re shown penetration and violent sex scenes. Either would have been okay if it were service to revealing some (no pun intended) about the characters. The violent sex scenes sort of do this, but toward the end of the movie it becomes gratuitous. But the main problem with the movie is its pretentiousness. While the movie sets-up some of the sex scenes as a way to show the ugly side of humanity it ends up being apparent that Lars Von Trier is just trying to shock the audience with violence and bizarre psycho-sexual bull and hoping that the movie would just coast on that as the audience isn’t thinking too hard if anything is coherent or not.
It’s a shame that this movie isn’t better. I’ve only seen one other Lars Von Trier movie, Melancholia, which I actually thought was pretty decent where all the symbols and information in the movie was all necessary. See, good symbolism is all about having a point and conveying that point or idea to the audience in an original way that’ll remain in the audience’s mind for a while. While some of the images found in Antichrist has some impact they still needed some idea to hang from in order to truly work.
While the script isn’t good for the reasons I’ve mentioned, the other aspects of the movie are actually pretty good. The best thing about Antichrist is the cinematography, but the sound editing and score also deserve some attention as they help heighten some of the disturbing things in the movie, making them more effective. The acting is also fine, especially by William Dafoe, but it’s a shame that they didn’t have better material. As great as some of the technical aspects are, everything ends up being dragged down by the lousy script. If it weren’t for the acting and cinematography this movie would have been terrible and near-unwatchable. Whatever, I guess it’s time to watch Nymphomaniac now.