When Lars von Trier took his seat at the press conference following the première of his latest flick ANTICHRIST at last years Cannes Film Festival an aggrieved British journalist famously demanded that the notorious Danish director explain and justify why he made this movie. Although it is not unusual for clueless journalists to try and turn a controversial work by an auteur into a footnote sensational article, this time it was quite poignant to have one of cinema’s greatest living artists explain himself, since the dramatically overplayed outrage of this journalist and many of his peers was actually justified by the sheer prosperous pretentiousness of the movie in question.
ANTICHRIST starts well enough with a breathtaking prologue in which two oblivious parents have sex while their young son gets out of his bed, climbs on the window and falls to his death on the white snowy streets below. Surprisingly, unlike all other movies concerning hapless children falling out of windows, this sequence is in fact NOT accompanied by Eric Clapton strumming a guitar. Instead we get a gorgeous Handel vocal piece accompanying the slow-motion black-and-white wide screen images. I most say I was quite pleased with his divergence from the child-falling-genre.
After this tragic event the first chapter (yes, there are chapters, this is Von Trier after all), entitled “Grief”, sees the film switch to color as the mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) leaves the hospital after collapsing at her son’s funeral. She enters into the care of her husband (Willem Dafoe), who conveniently is a professional therapist, making the whole arrangement a lot more logical than if he would have been – say – a pop-up book illustrator or a cucumber farmer. Dafoe’s character, credited as “He”, is distrustful of the psychological care “She” was receiving in the hospital and takes it upon himself to help his wife work through the grief process. Eventually He comes to the conclusion that her greatest fears center on a cabin in a forest called “Eden”, where She spent some time alone with the toddler, while writing a thesis on gynocide (of all things). The mentioning of “He”, “She” and “Eden” should give you a pretty good idea of how in-your-face most the metaphors are that Von Trier will be relaying upon in this film, although it also made me interested in who the “Snake” and the “Apple” would be.
Anyway, as to be expected, the couple travel to this “heavenly place” to address and hopefully cure her fears and at the same time ease her mourning. During this journey, while She sleeps, He encounters a deer in the woods. As the beautiful animal turns to leave, He sees it is mid-stillbirth, with the dead calf hanging limply from its rear. After seeing this film all my future viewings of BAMBI will never be the same. More references to the brutality of nature (not to mention the death of the young) occur in the next chapter on “Pain”, which charts the woman’s self-proclaimed recovery at the cabin. The tension is slowly mounting as the couple pretend that everything is alright while the cabin, which is located under a gigantic tree, endures a never ending assault by what must be the world’s scariest acorns. The chapter ends with a – presumably – unintended hilarious scene, when He comes across his second animal messenger, a self-disembowelling fox uttering the iconic words: “Chaos Reigns.”
In the following chapter “Despair: Gynocide”, Von Trier brings the previous mentioned concepts of Adam/Eve and forbidden nature together in a for him typical presentation of womanhood. While searching through the cabin He finds materials his wife studied for her thesis: pictures of witch-hunts and a scrapbook filled with articles and notes on misogynist topics, in which her handwriting becomes more frantic and illegible as the pages go on. It seems that due to intense self-blame over Nic (which is the kid’s name by the way, my money was Cain, Abel or Seth), she has come to embrace the belief that women are inherently evil. He confronts her with Nic’s autopsy report, which states that the bones in both of his feet were deformed, making us suspect some form of Münchhausen by proxy complex. This appears to be proven to be true, when He finds photographs of Nic, in which She has always put his boots on the wrong feet.
Shortly after this discovery the movie goes completely off the tracks, with Von Trier presenting the viewer some vicious acts of violence, that are fairly unintelligible and almost undeniably misogynistic. She suddenly attacks him in the shed, stabbing him and then violently disrobing and mounting him while accusing him of planning to leave her. She then crushes his genitals with a block of wood, the pain understandably driving him unconscious. While he is still out, She masturbates him until he orgasms, ejaculating blood onto her shirt and face. She then drills a hole through his calf, and bolts a heavy grindstone to his leg. Fleeing outside, she leaves him unconscious in the shed, throwing the wrench she used to tighten the millstone underneath the cabin. Yes, while this may seem like a typical Saturday night to you and me, but some people apparently find this shocking and offensive, the pussies.
After waking up and He drags himself to a foxhole to hide. While She frantically searches for him, He encounters a crow buried alive – his third animal messenger – which makes noise upon waking, giving away his hiding place. He beats it repeatedly, but it-just-doesn’t-want-to-fucking-die. She finally locates him and digs him out of the foxhole, hitting the poor man on his head with the shovel along the way. Several hours pass, night falls, and while crying She apologizes (which of course changes everything and they live happily ever after) and drags him back to the cabin. In a flash-back to the prologue, it is implied that She saw what was about to happen to Nic and did not act. She then takes a pair of scissors and severs her clitoris. All my future viewings of pornography will never be the same after seeing this film.
During the night the couple are again visited by the crow, deer and fox (if this was a Disney film the animals would probably start singing. What rimes with clitoris?), while hail beats constantly against the roof of the cabin. Breaking through the floor, He discovers the wrench. Although She stabs him in the back, He nevertheless succeeds in removing the grind-stone and He proceeds to strangle her to death. After burning her body on a pyre, He makes his way from the cabin. Upon reaching the top of a hill, he looks down to see hundreds of women ascending towards him, their faces blurred.
While ANTICHRIST is a beautifully shot and well-acted film, the press-outrage described at the beginning is definitely not entirely unwarranted. It’s indeed quite hard to argue for the necessity of the described shock effects, let alone to clarify the meaning of the many eyebrow-raising symbolic references. Overall, Von Trier wasted much talent (including his own) to make this film and maintains his status as cinema’s most notorious and interesting enfant terrible along the way. That said, ANITCHRIST is still a pretty good date movie, especially if your special lady has a history of mental illness. A recent loss of a loved one might also get you in the mood to pick this from the dvd-rack. I would suggest removing all knives and heavy equipment from the house before screening though.