Before beginning this review, it would probably be best to start talking about Lars von Trier for a bit.
Lars von Trier is some kind of professional provocateur. If you don’t know the name for his acclaimed filmmaking output, you know him for how well he steps on the toes of the bourgeois cinema that he himself may very well be a member of. He has made a documentary out of his harassment of one of his inspirations (though it seems to have occurred on good terms between the two of them), had an animal killed for the shooting of one of his films (an act which, while I hold his artistic ability at high esteem, I do not agree with one bit), dealt with some more standoffish critics in joking but less than humble manner and as his crowning jewel of controversy outside of cinema, he had earned the first ‘persona non grata’ status at Cannes Film Festival after making a lot of facetious but poor Nazi jokes in the Cannes 2011 Melancholia Panel, after spending a full career as essentially the festival’s favorite son. Trier is probably accustomed to being a lightning rod for public scrutiny.
On the other hand, his movies prior to Antichrist are for the most part revered in technique while dividing critics in subject matter. He was a pioneer in the Dogme ’95 movement and is stylistically distinguishable in his naturalistic avant-garde manner in shooting yet remains exhaustive in his communication of themes and methods to capture the “real world” on the camera. In addition, his actors find him irritating in his treatment of them – As opposed to the relationships we get out of many famous director/actor duos, he very rarely gets actors to return for other projects. John C. Reilly walked out of Manderlay over the afore-mentioned animal killing, Stellan Skarsgård had to lie to Paul Bettany to have him get on-set of Dogville, James Caan was ashamed to have worked on Dogville which he thought was anti-American and Björk outright called him a misogynist.
The claims of misogyny against Trier as a director interest me in consideration of the fact that in nearly all of Trier’s films, the female actress has more critical praise than any other factor of the film. I’ve seen Emily Watson, Nicole Kidman, Björk, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg all earn universal acclaim for their performances in his film as opposed to Stellan Skarsgård, Paul Bettany, David Morse, Kiefer Sutherland or Willem Dafoe. This doesn’t necessarily refute the idea – In fact, he may get such performances through cruel methods – but the fact that the focus is on the female protagonists and more often than not, our sympathies lie in the female leads of his movie make an interesting response to his considerable negative reception from female perspective.
Indeed, I approached Antichrist with having heard that it is misogynist and damning towards women in terms of its content and that the Cannes Film Festival awarded the film an “anti-award” for this reason.
The movie’s story reminisces of the isolation and gender separation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, though with less subtlety. A married couple (the previously mentioned Dafoe and Gainsbourg) has recently lost their infant son in a manner that made me reflect on Eric Clapton’s tragic song “Tears in Heaven”. Dafoe’s character happens to be a psychiatrist and takes it upon himself, in an ill-advised manner, to ease Gainsbourg’s character’s suffering through the aftermath of the son’s death. The experiments they go through eventually lead them to plan a stay in a cabin that She had once spent time in with her son. The resulting retreat turns into an ambush of feral instincts considered natural by She, who is the perpetrator.
The movie is regarded by Trier as his failure to create a horror movie, but I’d argue it to be one of if not the purest horror films I’ve ever seen. Antichrist‘s cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle somehow is able to cross the thin line between handheld jump cuts that make us involved in the atmosphere and precise methodical handling of mise en scene to keep the movie from seeming incredibly amateurish. The structure of the film provides an even arc in its story, even if
could easily apply to its notorious third act. The first act of the film is unnerved by the very intense performance of Gainsbourg, a larger-than-life hysteria that is controlled enough to not come off as cartoonish and instead is slowly but surely threatening. It’s amazing she doesn’t burn out on her screams in the darkness of her bed alone…
Then we approached with the second act of the film, which dedicates itself to establishing an invisible yet supernatural and sinister atmosphere while dropping in little omens of terror every so often… Gainsbourg left room in her character to become more and more unhinged, even in her initial unpredictability (an effort only matched by few actors, Jack Nicholson in The Shining).
In the second act, we begin to foresee the horrifying fate that is spelled out for this couple in their solitude. But the third act is where it all gets messy for them, without saying what happens (assuming you haven’t already seen the movie, 4 years after its release, or assuming you don’t want to be reminded of the very graphic and unsettling violence that occurs). However, until the very climax of the film’s simmering and escalating hostility, the majority of violence is performed towards Dafoe’s He by Gainsbourg’s She. The performance of He is the only complete constant in the film – disassociated, cold and exploitive of She’s woes and swings.
As a result of portraying She as a self-loathing and murderous character (she expresses contempt and speculation for her gender as responsible for all the world’s woes), the movie’s content is considered misogynistic, alongside consideration of a credit for a misogyny expert on the set of the film (Heidi Laura may either be proud or ashamed of her work on the movie, depending on her stance of the final cut). But I’d argue that, in spite of some points of views of the movie being more popular than others, He is the more evil character between the two. Save for the funeral, he immediately shrugs off the death of his son and gets to putting his suffering wife under a microscope for his scholarly needs. It may just be my own interpretation, but I felt more sympathy for She, who seems to represent more the pressures that a male-dominated society push onto women and the occasional persecution of women as responsible for their aggressors, both presently and past form (Dafoe is astonished to find the results of his attempts come to bite him in the butt).
In a major amount, She’s self-misogyny and belief in women inherently being evil reminds me heavily of Hari Rhodes’ performance as Trent in Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor, a black man who, in the pressure of his racist environment believes himself to belong most to the Ku Klux Klan than to his own identity as a black man.
Indeed, this is a layer of the movie carried through the control of Trier, largely Gainsbourg and Dafoe, but in addition, the performances are also extremely differentiated in their reaction to portray two separate sides of the same coin: the ways people go through tragedy and depression. The movie, and Trier’s following two others Melancholia (which will be my next review soon – as I look to cover Trier’s entire Depression trilogy) and the upcoming Nymphomaniac, are based on Trier’s depression period in 2007 and inspired by his feelings from these moments of severe depression – one of many symptoms Trier suffers from as a peculiar human being, as insensitive that this might sound. Much of the inhumane horror comes form a dementia that is obtained through the grief of these characters and it is always acknowledged that they have lost someone dear to them and that it drives them.
Is the movie pretentious as many claim it to be? I don’t doubt it at all. Despite its rawer look in cinematography and intensity, it has the air of a work of art that demands to be put on a pedestal before it stands the test of time – especially with a memorable opening that, with its marriage of aria and high definition black and white photography, would be so perfect… if its content was not so wrong. However, the movie may also be the most personal of Trier, forcing him to look at the separations of society from the mind of one who is not thinking straight and consider its validity to the general world. And it’s a good movie as a result, as polarizing as it is, even if I don’t intent to watch it again unless I need to and even when it acts more important than it is.
It’s not Trier has nothing to say; quite the contrary, he has something to say with this film. The problem is that so many people may not want to hear it.