Antichrist (2009) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Antichrist (2009)

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ANDREW LIKELet's assume for a moment that Hell exists.  It's commonly portrayed as a place of fire and eternal suffering, where you live in a lake of fire for all eternity, but are powerless to do anything about it.  Now let's take things a step further and assume that those that initially portrayed Hell in such a fashion do not possess the knowledge of psychoanalysis.  We know today that the potential for mental anguish far exceeds any physical pain that can be inflicted on someone, because at least death cures that stumbling block.

Antichrist is a film that encompasses both aspects of this Hell.  It's a tortured scream of self reflection from Lars von Trier, a Danish director not really known for self restraint, and manages to outdo himself here.  The physical pain inflicted on his characters is not like anything I've seen in any other film.  The mental anguish reveals itself in many bits of camera trickery, and through two soul burningly intense performances by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg.  The mental leads to and fuses with the physical, resulting in a mesmerizing blend of horror and pain that struggles to coincide with Trier's very real effort to shed himself of his misogynistic leanings.

This is the most challenging film that I've encountered.  I watched it for the first time almost a year ago before it had a proper DVD release, and was only available through Netflix instant streaming (which, by the way, it still is).  That proved to be a fairly difficult night.  Alone, with just my TV and headphones in tow, I struggled to make it through the film before nearly succumbing to a full blown panic attack.  If it were merely gruesome or exquisitely crafted then I would not have felt this way, but his exquisite hand in tone and thematic depth make it a uniquely powerful experience.

There are only two characters in the film.  He and She, played by Dafoe and Gainsbourg, are having sex in the films opening.  It is a gorgeous moment filmed in sharply focused black and white, slowed down so that every drop of water from the shower is seen bouncing off of their bodies, while a beautiful aria plays in the background and their child slowly marches out of his crib.  They continue pleasuring themselves on top of the child's toys, ignoring the sounds coming from the monitor, as the child pulls a chair open to a nearby window and leaps to his death.

Exquisite. And alone.

This shatters She, and He begins the process of finding ways to bring her back to a psychologically sound state of mind.  She correctly intones that it would be a bad idea to let He handle the treatment, but still dumps her medication and continues on with his ideas.  It seems that her pain has refocused itself on a tiny cabin in the middle of the forest that She called Eden, and it is here that He will begin the aversion therapy that He believes She needs in order to get over the incident.

Slowly her mental anguish gives way to physical pain as she begins to associate one with the other.  Then her thoughts turn to the sex that led to her breakdown and now is when sadomasochism is pushed to it's absolute screen limit.  Animals are disemboweled, He and She have sex on thorns, and her attention eventually turns completely to his genitals.  If the mental is learned to be expressed in pain, to others or to yourself, then She is ripe for the worst possible reaction - and that is exactly what He receives.

The religious symbolism in Antichrist is not impossible to decipher, but it's the way in which it is handled that really gives the film one of many unsettling edge's.  It's unknown how old He or She are, or whether they're really human in their world.  They both seem to tolerate pain, and they exist in a world that rains ticks during the day and acorns at night, all while ash blows in little snowflake drops from the outside.  The beautiful snow that Nature provided during their sex has given way to elements that seek to disrupt and hurt She.  Then there are the Three Wise Men, ambassadors from Nature that prove how much of a bloody struggle it is for anything to survive, if what they're doing can count as that.

Trier does not once compromise his film for the sake of any sense of safety or dramatic payoff.

Lars von Trier, one of the most eccentric and daring directors in the world, distorts their existence as much as possible.  Trier mixes black and white, sepia, and color film in a nightmare collage.  His camera lens distorts and warps edges of the frame when it seems we are viewing the world from She's perspective, and allows it's more supernatural elements to take hold from He's perspective.  But are they really supernatural?  One late film development seems to be, but occurs amidst so many other hellish visions that it just may be another day in the world of She and He.  The sound design deserves special mention, keeping my stomach and brain in full attention and the moans and foreboding sounds that assault the audience through the speakers.

Is this film pleasurable?  Not in any sense where I can say "Oh yes, spend your hard earned $5 on a rental and you'll be titillated!"  Because that would be completely missing the point of the film.  Trier was diagnosed with a clinical depression before making the film, and this is where he expels all of his demons.  Through his recognition of the psychological and physical pain frequently inflicted on the women in his movies, he implicates the whole system of storytelling as well as it's consumers.  Film in particular has treated women as the playthings of the male gaze and has taught untold numbers of men to treat women a specific horrible way.  Trier, in his closing shots, realizes this perfectly in a visual sequence that drives this point home so perfectly that it was finally alright to stop shaking, and just cry until the credits mercifully rolled.

I was indicted along with He, and many others that have come before and many that will come after I have died.  Do we really continue to create Hell for women with the art that we create?  I like to think not, but I know this isn't always the case.

Nature is Hell, and He stands to implicate us all in its creation.

Art should not always be about finding the positive profound truths of human existence.  While I believe that it should always be striving for the greater good, it sometimes comes at a heavy price.  Trier forces his audience to pay this tenfold before receiving any kind of payoff.  It is disruptive in a profound way that I am still struggling to comprehend, and debating whether it really is working toward a greater good or not.

Regardless of its aims, intentional or no, Antichrist is an experience that any serious lover of film should attempt to undertake at least once.  If Hell is real, then Trier has given us an idea of what some can expect to find.

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Antichrist (2009)

Written and directed by Lars von Trier.
Starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Posted by Andrew

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