Thursday, February 04, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Antichrist (2009)

One quality of a great work of art is that it provokes you. It consumes your mind and your senses. You find yourself returning to the work of art over and over to suss out meaning; to seek clarity; to judge how it makes you feel and what you think it attempts to convey.

Not everyone is game for such a mind-bending exercise. Especially if the work of art in question happens to be a film. After all, it is much easier to reckon with a two-and-half-hour entertainment about giant robots (with robot testicles, no less...) than a dark, brooding film about guilt, self-hatred, human nature, and psychoanalysis.

Directed by Lars von Trier, Antichrist is just the sort of horror movie (and it is a horror movie...) that will infuriate many and captivate others. The director made this 2009 film in the midst of a deep personal depression, but despite the film's brooding, lugubrious nature, Antichrist remains a vibrant and masterful meditation on nature. Human and otherwise. The primary argument against Antichrist -- which you will find popping up again and again on the Net -- is that it is "overtly misogynistic." That the movie hates women.

I've written about this subject before in regards to Brian De Palma, but when charges of misogyny are leveled, it is sometimes helpful to contextualize a filmmaker's choices and to look back at the director's overall career, rather than simply leap to the knee jerk conclusion that one particular work happens to be misogynistic.

Lars von Trier, if you don't recall, is the Danish director (working from Zentropa Productions in Hvidovre) who created in the late 1990s the informal "Golden Heart" trilogy. The films in this Dogma 95/Goldenheart cycle included Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dark (2000). The premise underlining each of these Golden Heart movies is that a sweet, put-upon woman -- one who plays by the rules -- is utterly destroyed by an uncaring, cruel society. Specifically, the "Goldenheart" is so good-hearted and sweet that she sacrifices all that she has -- all that she is -- for other people.

Dancer in the Dark -- which was also a critique of the application of the death penalty in America -- was perhaps the most heart-breaking of Von Trier's Goldenheart films. Starring Bjork, it involved a woman who viewed her sad, poverty-stricken life as a beautiful musical in the mold of The Sound of Music...right up until the very moment she waltzed into the gallows and the State snapped her neck.

On the other hand, Von Trier is also known for putting his leading ladies through...difficult paces. If you've seen Nicole Kidman in his controversial (but I think brilliant...) Dogville, you understand. Yet being a difficult and perfectionist director doesn't make one a woman-hater. It makes one a difficult and perfectionist director.

What The Mind Can Believe and Conceive, It Can Achieve.

Antichrist tells the strange story of a middle-class married couple, known only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainesbourg). In withholding their names from us, von Trier indicates that "He" and "She" are more than individual people. They are symbols of Male and Female nature.

As the film opens in sumptuous, slow-motion photography and in black-and-white, we are treated to an extended, extremely passionate sex scene between He and She that includes close-up views of vaginal penetration.

As He and She make love, steam rises luxuriously from the shower enclosure. Glittering water droplets fall all around their nude atmospheric flourishing that adds to the atmosphere of stimulation. Outside the couple's comfortable home, it snows and snows...a winter-time fantasy brought to life. The sex itself looks extremely...gratifying for both husband and wife...but a troubling object soon looms into the foreground of one composition (set in their bedroom).

It is a baby monitor.

As the couple continues to make love, the baby monitor's sound levels (represented as ascending bars) spike dramatically. The couple's young son, Nick, is awake. His parents don't notice. Or if they do notice, they don't stop their carnal pursuit. As the sex grows more heated, the world seems to grow increasingly disordered. Things fall on the floor. On open bottle spills its contents chaotically...

Von Trier then cross-cuts between the continuing, focused sexual intercourse of the parents, and little Nick's innocent nocturnal exploration. The toddler slides out of his crib. He opens the baby gate. He strolls by his parents' bedroom door. Horrifyingly, he climbs to an open window to touch the ubiquitous falling snow just out of reach...

All this -- edited to an Aria by Handel -- culminates in a frenzy of sexual orgasm and tragic death. Passion has been sated. But responsibility has been neglected. Nick -- the little boy -- falls from the window to his death in agonizing, almost cruel slow-motion (replete with falling teddy bear at his side...). After the child's death, the family's dirty laundry stops circling in the dryer in a separate shot. This is an image of domesticity shirked for passion.

After this terrible incident, He and She attempt to cope with their child's tragic death. She blames herself, becomes dependent on mood-altering medication, and ends up in the hospital. She finds herself prone to panic attacks. He -- a therapist -- immediately makes his wife his pet project. Instead of coping with his own grief, He makes coping with her grief his only care; his only concern. Yet he is distant and arrogant, and treats his wife like an experimental subject case. The doctors believe that She is experiencing an "atypical grief pattern," but He knows better. He always knows better. Grief is normal; she just has to "work through it."

One day, He asks his wife what She is afraid of most. Rather surprisingly, she tells him that she fears "the woods." So together, they travel to the woods. "Nature is Satan's Church," the movie informs us, and that warning soon proves accurate. But specifically, the couple travels to a pastoral corner of Earth named "Eden." At their cabin there, the couple works out her grief, her panic attacks, her self-hatred. All by his timetable and modus operandi.

At the rural cabin, He also discovers evidence of his wife's academic thesis, which she mysteriously abandoned during her last trip to Eden. That academic work involved witches and "gynocide," the mistreatment of women by men throughout history. Her notes also reveal a transformation in her thinking process: They go from being extremely detailed and academic to looking like the lunatic scrawlings of a schizophrenic, or someone possessed by the Devil.

Then, He discovers photographs of their son Nick, from the boy's last summer trip to Eden (alone with his mother). In every single photograph the man unearths, the boy's shoes were placed on the wrong feet. And the official autopsy reveals that the boy's feet were slightly deformed...a result of his mother's strange, repetitive behavior.

Before long, the wife tells her husband that perhaps it is the Female's very nature to be evil, and that is why their son is dead. She indicates that all those men who burned and brutalized women as "witches" were only murdering "evil." He categorically rejects this argument, stating that she -- as an educated woman -- should know better. That her research should tell her differently. Those women were brutalized. Those women (the witches) were destroyed by a male society that feared female strength and power.

But his wife proves her point most dramatically. During sexual intercourse with her husband, she batters him in the penis (and this is seen on screen...) with what appears to be a heavy log (though I have also seen it described as a brick in some reviews ). The pain knocks the husband unconscious. And while he's out, his wife jerks him off until he ejaculates torrents of blood. This is depicted on camera too. Nothing is hidden.

And that's just the beginning! The man's wife bolts a heavy, industrial pole (and thick metal grinding wheel) to one of his legs...and throws away the wrench that could unbolt it. He tries to crawl away to safety, fearing for his life (but the "weight" of his wife drags him down...get it?)

Later, in perhaps the most harrowing scene I've seen in years, the wife in Antichrist mutilates her own genitals with a pair of scissors (also depicted on screen, in nauseating close-up), and then sets upon her husband with the scissors too. He fights back.

Finally, after the last battle, He walks alone in the isolating forest of Eden. Mysteriously, an army of faceless women pass him by him on the hill...headed for some unknown destination.

Good and Evil: They Have Nothing to Do With Therapy

So what the hell is going on in Antichrist, and why do some people insist it is misogynist in intent?

Well, the movie is about one big idea: how people (women or men) believe and internalize the messages sent out by the culture, and the serious damage that those messages can inflict on a fragile ego.

"She" has internalized all of the literature and history that she's read about witches (including the book, "Gynocide"), and decided must be true. That women are evil. She believes this -- as the movie reveals in the final act -- because she actually saw her son climb to the window before he fell...and didn't stop him. She was in the midst of an orgasm, actually. She didn't save her own boy, so she must be evil, right?

The woman's act of slicing off her own clitoris is important here. It is the act of cutting off the part of herself that is not acceptable to society; the part that wanted "sex" in one moment of passion. And putting the boy's shoes on backwards? A passive-aggressive push-back against the male-dominated culture that tells her she must be a maternal care-giver first and an intellectual (and a sexual being) second and third.

Her husband believes he can talk to his wife rationally in terms of psychotherapy jargon and platitudes; that he can deploy rationality and the intellect to talk her out of her very real grief, sadness, and blistering self-hatred. What he learns is that in Satan's Church (nature), "chaos reigns." Therapy has nothing to do with good or evil. Good and evil are more powerful forces than the constructs of man's science. And in acting out the part of "witch" (down to the physical torturing of her husband), "She" accomplishes something else. She forces her cold-fish of a husband to feel something too, a denied emotion. Rage. She rips the veneer of civilization from him. Now it is his nature -- his ugly, violent "male" nature that is in play.

The therapist's wife forces him into a role from "Gynocide" indeed: the respectable man (the priest, the judge, the governor, the farmer...) who puts aside all rationality and condemns a woman as a monster. When, in the film's last shot, Dafoe sees the hundreds of faceless women milling about in the woods, it is because he -- the coldly rational therapist -- has joined the ranks of the abusers. All these women, essentially, are the victims of his male nature.

Dafoe's character is not a bad or evil man, per se, but he is a dominating one. Throughout the film, He forces his wife to "play" therapist games on his timetable, in his fashion. He forces her to confront things she doesn't want to confront. He forces her to go where she does not want to go. He is demanding and relentless that she be "open." Yet in the end, his wife performs an experiment on him: burdening him with physical pain (and literally a physical weight), so as to see, finally, what he is made of. What she discovers, sadly, is that her husband is made of the same matter as the historical men in the academic books. When push comes to shove, he succumbs to rage. He commits murder. His hatred for her (and for all womankind, by extension) is the thing he has kept buried, and her experiments have exposed it.

The Three Beggars: A Shamanic Journey.

Antichrist is filled with odd symbols. "Eden," of course, is a reference to the Biblical Garden of Eden. It is the place where He and She attempt to return to a state of innocence (free of guilt).

But because nature is Satan's Church, there is no return to innocence; only a darkening of the situation. An opening up of the Evil. A giant life-less tree seems to dominate the landscape, and it is the Biblical Tree of Knowledge, now an ugly, malevolent husk.

Throughout the film, He and She also encounter a variety of animals in the wild: A fox who speaks ("Chaos Reigns," he says...); a deer who carries a stillborn doe on its back, and a crow who eerily mimics the call of a dying child.

In the end -- when these three beggars meet -- someone has to die, according to the wife's understanding of witchcraft lore. These animals represent, then, the woman's tacit philosophical acceptance of her "evil" sisterhood: so-called "pagan witches" who danced and prayed by moonlight in the forests; who controlled familiars (animals), and who -- their powers joined -- could make the sleet fall. Late in the film, She also makes it hail. (And thus, one must wonder, if she can make it hail; can she make it snow? And if she can make it snow...did she create the snow on the night her son died?)

The answers aren't easy to know here. All we can do is interpret the signals and determine what the story of Antichrist means to us, personally, based on our best reading of the clues.

My viewpoint is that, like the Goldenheart trilogy by the same director, Antichrist is actually a rejection of misogyny. The film indicates that the woman -- the once-obedient and "good" wife and mother -- has internalized all the negative and hateful messages of a patriarchal culture and arrived at a place of self-hatred. Like the Goldenheart, she was good, and obligingly put her faith in the wrong place. That's what destroys her.

This woman enjoys sex (you'll notice the woman is always the sexual aggressor in this film...) and yet she feels guilty about that, because our society by and large does not believe this is how a proper woman should behave. She also chafes under the role of "mother," because she is unable to continue her intellectual pursuits while acting as the child's caregiver. And also, her husband does not relate to her as an equal, but rather as a patient, a child needing to be corrected. She thus doesn't see herself in the role the culture demands of women: she is not happy as a Mom; she is not happy as a wife. She wants to feel passion and enjoys sex. In the lingo of the society that makes her a whore or a slut, doesn't it?

The result is something terrible: after absorbing all those messages about the Evil in Female Nature, "She" decides to live up to them. She believes them. Her extreme guilt over her son's death allows her no other trajectory. Similarly, her husband's denial takes him down the same path. He can only "blame" his wife for her mistakes and miscues, and this battle of the sexes ends in murder.

In whatever way you should choose to interpret Antichrist, it is a visceral, haunting film. Some of the images found here are impossible to shake. The opening montage is a disturbing masterpiece, a mini-film unto itself. And the shamanic,dream walk through the forest by "She" is filled with gorgeous, portentous imagery that harks back to something primeval about the woods. Darkness has come early at that lonely bridge, in a frozen, misty woods. Cross that bridge, and there is no turning back...

is weird: an art-house movie that is, literally, gorier than Saw or any Saw sequel. Here, however, the violence is much more disturbing because it all occurs within the framework of the marital relationship; in the very place where love should reign.

What is there to fear in the woods of Eden? As the wife says, "Can't I just be afraid without a definite object?"

will make you afraid. And the definite object to be afraid us. Or as is scrawled by "He" on his wife's "pyramid of fear: Me."

Human nature.


  1. Anonymous7:14 PM

    Nice review John.

    You are always making analogies between horror and life (politics, war, etc.) and this film sounds as if it is doing the same. When you state:

    “Here, however, the violence is much more disturbing because it all occurs within the framework of the marital relationship; in the very place where love should reign.”

    I guess horror films have finally discovered the, often unspoken, secret violent space of culturally constructed domesticity-- ranging from paternalistic counseling to FGM.


  2. I've read other reviews/opinions on this film, and yours seems the more insightful (and certainly less reactionary) given the the explicit nature of the sex and violence depicted. I appreciate the coverage and analysis offered here (I am forewarned and grateful for it). I may give this a view on disc (to be honest, I'm still thinking about it). Great examination, John. Thank you for this.

  3. I agree absolutely about Von Trier - not misogynist, not at all, "Dogville" and "Medea" are proof of this. DePalma, well, for me the jury's out. I think it's there; to his credit, I think he's aware of it... "Carrie", "Casualties of War" speak to that. These are films that examine brutality against women from a perspective of a remote participant - through Amy Irving and Michael J. Fox respectively - neither is responsible for the abuse that ensues, but both are implicated by complicity. Von Trier, on the other hand, is a distanced observer... even when he gives us a protagonistic character, such as in Dogville (the writer), we never identify with that character; we continue to recognize our "otherness" from the proceedings, a cold distance which makes the move all the more disturbing. It's a brutal filmmaking technique, in character with Von Trier (as we see in "The Five Obstructions"). I suspect these techniques reflect the attitudes of the respective directors.

    Kudos on another deep look at a reviled (probable) masterpiece. I say probable 'cause I ain't watching it. After "Last House" and "I Spit on Your Grave" I decided on a firm rule to ensure the ability to sleep: no genital mutilation movies! But thanks again for the review.

  4. Hey everybody,

    Thanks for the compliment, RC. I appreciate it.

    Le0pard13: You are right about the reactionary nature of most reviews; generally I try to steer clear of that, if at all possible. Antichrist is a tough watch, but a worthwhile one. Gird yourself and see it -- you won't be sorry!

    and DLR: Yes,von Trier is not misogynist (and I still the same for De Palma), but this movie really is a masterpiece and I urge you to see it; while also's one of the roughest movies that I've seen in years, in terms of on-screen gore and violence (and the extremely personal nature of that violence).

    Thanks for all the great comments!


  5. Anonymous12:54 AM

    This movie really scared the s*%t out of me. My friend thought it might help if I read reviews because it wasn't just me who found it disturbing. But your review was sort of a relief to me, because it pointed out what was so disturbing to me, not just the images themselves, but the underlying theme.. framework of marriage, and human nature, ourselves to fear. so true. and i agree, this movie is the opposite of misogynistic. she is a victim of herself, her hyper-rational husband, and society's expectations of her. She was ultimately consumed by self-hatred. The horror was about the psychology more than the images themselves. Disturbing and real. Thanks for outlining why this movie has been haunting me for so long.

  6. Just viewed this film for the first time last evening and I am quite undecided. As for the comparison to the absolutely cartoonish violence in 'Saw", well there is no comparison. The violence present in this film is as visceral and disturbing as the violence in Takashi Miike's 'Audition'.
    'He', might be one of the worst therapist's ever depicted on film. 'She' should have been hospitalized, any layperson could discern that fact. I know his making 'She' her pet project was a sign of his arrogance. However..... I look at it more as a sign of supreme incompetence and it was hard to negotiate that fact.
    Feeling guilt is not quite the same as feeling sorrow. 'She', imo, was a thoroughly unlikable character from start to finish.
    One last opinion. I do not feel that the film culminated in murder. There is again, another fine line here. The fine line between murder and self defense. Clearly, with him hobbled and 'She' enveloped in a psychotic, violence strewn fugue, the taking of life was justified.