Powerfully evocative and more than a little bit controversial, Lars von Trier’s latest effort Antichrist is sure to elicit genuine horror from the audience in ways not seen in American cinema for years. Trier, known for his art house productions and participation in the Dogme 95 experiment of barebones realism in film, uses these assets to build the narrative slowly and tensely as an unnamed husband and wife lose their child to a falling accident while they make love in the film’s beginning; shot in black & white and punctuated by an aria from Handel’s opera Rinaldo. The haunting monochrome prologue then makes way for the film proper, which escalates the tension between the couple as the academic wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) becomes increasingly violent and erratic as she deals with the grief over her son’s loss. The therapist husband (William Defoe) attempts to ease her suffering by bringing the two of them to a therapeutic forest retreat called Eden, which sparks the movie’s real horror elements as the woods give off an eerie, satanic vibe all their own.
What follows is von Trier’s depression-fueled exploration of male-female relations and the nature of evil, as the wife’s behavior quickly crosses the border from over-emotionalism to psychotic possession, highlighted by her ever frequent physical outbursts at the husband. In one of the movie’s more disturbing sequences, the wife proceeds to have sex with the husband until he rejects her on grounds of emotional instability, to which she suddenly knocks out the husband with a wooden block and smashes his erect penis with it, finishing the ordeal by masturbating his damaged genitals to the point of bloody ejaculation and drilling a hole through his leg, which she uses to weigh him down with a heavy grind-stone. When reports started appearing out of Cannes that members of the audience were passing out, it seems clear it wasn’t for the film’s metatextual discourse.
Which is why the film is so striking, for behind the director’s nigh-impenetrable discussion about sexuality, romance and cruelty (Is the wife possessed by the devil? Are the woods possessed? Is von Trier revealing the true face of womanhood, feral and vindictive?) lies camerawork harkening back to the brilliance of The Exorcist and other classic horror films that valued stress and an implacable sense of dread over cheap gore and pop-up scare tactics. It has been a good, long while since movie-goers have experienced nature in such a foreboding manner, the film’s forest setting slowly becoming more of a monster than any corporeal cast member ever could. Slight perspective warping, extreme jump cuts and the portrayal of wildlife in compromising positions (a deer in mid-birth, a cannibalizing fox and a crow buried at near-death) all add to a renewed sense that the world outside is neither safe nor friendly to the human psyche. That the wife’s bizarre actions are juxtaposed against her private research on portrayals of feminine nature in religion and philosophy simply adds a metaphorical connection between the malevolent woods and her very existence as a woman.
From what can be deducted from the details released above, one can make an interesting case either for or against Antichrist as a genre redefining horror film or a provocative experiment by a director known for pushing boundaries and challenging conventional filming strategies. More importantly, it will keep audiences speculating about the nature of Nature, human evil and how it connects to how we connect between the genders. Although not for the faint of heart, Antichrist achieves its gruesome purpose by forcing viewers to confront the kind of horror not regularly witnessed in theaters today. Whether they accept the film’s depictions is another case altogether, yet it would be difficult to deny the impact Lars von Trier has woven into his creation.