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Movies are a broad and far reaching medium but can typically can be boiled down to one of three categories: blockbusters, independents and art house. The first is where film tends to pay its bills (if it’s any good quality wise, viewers are fortunate), the second is where film tones things down in lieu of more thematic material and the last is where film experiments in terrain that is often times existential and without traditional structure. Antichrist, the latest from Lars Von Trier (Dogville), which came out on DVD and Blu-ray today) definitely falls in the last category and is not an easy film to watch on any level.
With only two characters, He and She (played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg), Antichrist feels more like an extended (disturbing) one-act play rather than a film. As He and She mourn the loss of their young son (depicted in the opening prologue and arguably the film’s best scene), He suggests they retreat to their cabin, Eden, in the forests of Washington in an attempt to help She better cope with her grief. Upon their arrival, the forest itself grows twisted and deformed, trapping the couple in a dark state of mind, where getting out could come at the cost of their lives.
There is absolutely no argument around it: Antichrist is not a film for most moviegoers. It’s not even a film for most film buffs. Von Trier has gone on record, stating Antichrist was a means for him to deal with his recent depression. If the film is any indication, Von Trier was very, very depressed. There is not one bright spot to be found in the film (in terms of subject matter).
Visually, the film is oftentimes stunning, notably in the opening prologue, where He and She are shown having sex while their son dies from falling out of a window. Black and white, slow motion and set to an aria from Rinaldo, the scene screams of art house, but is far more accessible for a viewer to appreciate. When the couple make their way to the woods, several shots deserve to be frozen and put in frames. In short, the cinematography was not thrown away on this film.
For being the only actors, Dafoe and Gainsbourg do a remarkable job (especially Gainsbourg). They have phenomenal chemistry as two individuals looking to one another for support while one of them realizes the other may be beyond helping.
However, while the film is a visual beauty, it’s thematics are where it gets into trouble. Upon its release last year (during the festival season), Antichrist was met with (huge) controversy over its extreme — oftentimes sexual — violence and was accused by more than one of being (very) misogynistic, the latter not being the first time Von Trier has faced such a claim. To describe the actual acts committed by the couple during the film’s run time would give far too much away, but suffice to say there are very, very disturbing things going on in the forests of Eden (reports of festival viewers being rushed to the hospital were not uncommon when it was first released).
Typically, in such a movie, the ending can come and the viewer is left unfulfilled as to what resolution may (or may not) have come to the characters. In the case of Antichrist, that feeling is present not only for the ending, but the entire film. Despite being the only two characters in the film, there is nothing about them the viewers can latch onto. Nothing to relate to or even sympathize for, despite the loss of their child. Perhaps Von Trier hoped to create such an effect, demonstrating what depths parents could sink to at the loss of a child. However, if there is nothing to identify with, how can we care?
To answer, art house cinema doesn’t care if you care. It simply exists for it’s own purpose, whatever it may be (perhaps only Von Trier knows). That’s fine, but it makes the film near impossible to recommend to even the most dedicated of film viewer, let alone ever inspire a return to the film once it has been viewed.
Written and Directed by Lars Von Trier
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg