The latest film from auteur Lars Von Trier has garnered enough attention that the movie has become more than just a movie. Antichrist, starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, haunts the audience with its heavy imagery, sexuality and psychology. With screening audiences split down the middle, love it or hate it, it is one of the most thought-provoking movies this year.
I'm not sure what you might consider a spoiler, so just be warned I may indulge in discussing parts of the movie here. As for the plot, Dafoe and Gainsbourg play the nameless couple who, after a tragic accident, suffer through a grieving process that affects Her more than Him. Being a therapist, He decides to treat Her. At first He makes Her accept the process as something natural and then, leading up to the climax, confront what she is scared of the most. Rather simple and basic, the plot allows for the movie to spiral in numerous directions.
And now for the spoilers. The film is broken up into five chapters. The Prologue begins with the couple's copulating. The throes of passion are underscored by opera, the couple is moving in real time while the scenery around them is playing in slow motion. Shot in black and white, the movie is gorgeous and crisp. It is vibrant and artful yet somehow removed from reality.
As the viewer is gazing at the scene, it unfolds that the couple is neglecting their child. The willful child climbs down from his crib, makes a stop at his parent's room, and proceeds to use a chair and climb up to the desk and to the window. The snow falling, slowly, is soon joined by the child, making his unfortunate trip to the ground. The scene ends, the conclusion of the action will be continued in the following chapter; Grief.
Dafoe's character is trailing the funeral procession crying and barely hanging on. She collapses from the grief and is soon treated in a hospital. The doctor is giving her pills to cope and He is not having it. Sooner or later She needs to accept the grief and mourning and He is going to take care of her. Gainsbourg is phenomenal in this. She is hanging on to just a thread, breaking through and showing a glimpse of recovery, only to spiral out of control. She is resistant to his therapy and soon faces the all too real pain of anxiety.
Her anxiety and sexual coping mechanism (in another scene in order to escape feeling grief, she tries to have sex with Dafoe) are building up and tearing down all at the same time. The scene is just gut-wrenching: Waking up later and curled on the bathroom floor, She makes her way to the toilet, the camera following and shaky. In an instant that sound of flesh and porcelain, as her head crashes down, shocks and draws the viewer further into her anguish. As He finds and consoles Her, she resorts to dire ravenous sex. After refusing her initially, he relents.
The bedroom scenes are interesting showcases of the emotional depth of the couple. The moments of love, hate, pain and suffering are shared on that bed. After a playful scene (perhaps the only one), He concludes that immersion is the only solution. Rather than what she is scared of, the focus is now on a location. The woods, or Eden--which is the cabin in the woods that she took her baby to write her thesis--is the place she most fears.
The immersion process, where he’s trying to replicate her foray into the forest to prepare her, is stunningly shot. The stylized beauty of it, the exacting nature and composition of it, is indulgent and very dreamlike. The rushing bass is in our ears as we watch Gainsbourg glide through the forest in a dress. He feels she can handle an actual trip to the woods, leading into the next chapter; Pain.
Whereas the first two chapters helped set up the movie, the payoff comes in this chapter. The anguish and pain involved is manifested in three symbols (“The Three Beggars”, a doe, a fox, and a raven). The doe is giving birth to a stillborn fawn. He stumbles onto this scene, almost as if intruding upon nature. The scene provides yet another shift upon the lens and exacting art of Von Trier’s movie. The doe soon flees in real-time as the wind plays with the grass in slow-motion.
The woods are spooky and lush with green. The camera is rather interesting here, as well. As pans kind of morph together, it’s a neat and subtle little trick that is at play here. I mentioned other little devices Von Trier uses, and I’ll talk about a couple more. I loved his use of out-of-focus pans and quick scans between the two actors. At times shaky and amateurish and other times sure handed, the camera work is incredible and enhances the storytelling.
The therapy involved in the woods includes Gainsbourg walking on the grass on her own, and Dafoe puzzling together his conclusions. The couple seems to be hitting its stride, sharing a bed, and the sexuality is no longer just fevered or desperate. As we spend more time in the woods, it becomes clearer that maybe She was beginning to lose it last year, with several clues that will remain unspoiled.
As the third chapter, Despair, unfolds, the horror of the movie comes into play. There are several acts of sex and violence (including the extended scene of Gainsbourg in the woods with Dafoe) that often merge together. These scenes are raw and unflinching, still fresh in my mind. The pain and desperation of sex is now replaced with terror.
It is harrowing to see the pain she is in. Her belief that women are inherently evil is something that disturbs Him. At this time last year, her research was critical of gynocide and the mass murdering of women through the 16th Century. Shifting the focus, maybe it is nature that is evil. Not just trees, but the nature of things--“Nature is Satan’s Church” as He states.
I won’t go further into the movie, as the conclusion needs to be seen. I will discuss some symbolism and ideas behind it, or at least how I felt about it. The movie’s sexuality, as discussed, is an interesting one because it is at the root of it all. This belief is certainly held by Her, as she returns to it again and again. Her self-castration could be considered her way of removing sexuality and putting herself at ease.
As for what the movie may mean, as stated, Von Trier made this movie as therapy while suffering crippling depression. At first, with all the one-to-one connections and symbolism, it almost seems too heavy-handed. Through the minute dissection of what women do to men, of putting so perfectly the stereotype of pain that is inflicted onto another, it becomes absurd. The core idea, the distillation, shows the ridiculous ultimately allowing the subject to be free of these crippling ideas. I mean, women emasculate and cripple men figuratively, but in the movie it happens literally. Almost as if the portrayal brings to light the humor in it.
I’m still torn as to whether or not I really liked this movie. It’s fascinating, subversive, and at times an outright challenge. The movie will divide people, and Lars Von Trier has crafted a movie that needs to be discussed.