Movie Review: Antichrist (2009)

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Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist
Photo: IFC Films

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is a perfect example of why I hate when critics see a film at a film festival and rush to their computers to spout off their immediate opinions, or even go as far as to write a complete movie review. It’s not the same as seeing the latest Hollywood blockbuster at midnight, you can’t absorb a film like Antichrist all at once and spit out your reaction. Whether you enjoy the film at first glance or not, I don’t see how you can fall on either side of the fence minutes after viewing it unless your only concern is having a voice and less concerned with what you are saying.

As a result of this “me first” attitude, much ado has been made about the graphic nature of Antichrist‘s third act, but I can only wonder if the people bludgeoning it from that front would be hypocritical enough to fall into the same camp that calls Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of Senses “just as political as it is pornographic.” The similarities between the two in terms of extreme graphic imagery on screen are unmistakable and while I’ve yet to see Salo, it too is a film celebrated despite its graphic nature. Therefore, to speak of the film in these terms is to misunderstand film as a form of art and dismiss its ability to set the audience at unease all while making a much grander point.

This brings us to the question asking, What is Antichrist all about? I am still formulating my answer to that question as I type and while I respect this film I can’t really say I want to return to it anytime soon to flesh out my opinion entirely. Of course, should it arrive in a Criterion wrapped package one day I won’t blink for a moment before giving it a second spin.

The title alone leads you down a specific path and the film echoes this path saying “nature is Satan’s church” as our two leads known only as He and She (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) — an obvious allusion to Adam and Eve — head into the woods toward their cabin, which is not-so-coincidentally named Eden. Their hike follows the death of their young child who fell from a window while the two made love in a beautiful monochrome opening sequence. It’s the young boy’s death that spurs on the horror that will follow.

The literal She falls into deep depression and the film’s four acts are thusly labeled: Grief, Pain and Despair before ending in Chaos Reigns. Tormented more than we know from the outset, She soon finds herself counseled by He, but there’s an inherent evil (presumed or otherwise) eating away at the surface of both of their souls that soon culminates in a violent third act that is far more representative of the film’s tortured storyline than it is prurient or visually shocking.

Dafoe plays a psychologist who takes over treatment of his wife, believing her current doctor is ignoring her natural ability to grieve. Treating her as a child and denying her sex, the disservice He is doing her is realized, ignored and an eventual precursor for what is to come. Your mind begins putting the pieces together and you will begin coming to your own conclusions as the film is left up for many interpretations, all of which eventually collide.

The film could easily be considered misogynistic (because it is), but I don’t believe you can ignore its obvious theme speaking out against sex and the ills erotic pleasure can cause. This is all before the religious aspects take hold or the Three Beggars (the fox, deer and crow) are added to the conversation. Those I will leave for you to sort out on your own, just as I will be doing and can’t immediately offer a satisfactory explanation, nor should I even if I could.

Beyond the story and the fierce performances turned in by Dafoe and especially Gainsbourg (who won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival), the atmosphere and mood of this film make it what it is. Cinematography by Slumdog Millionaire‘s Anthony Dod Mantle and the score made up of previously recorded music envelope the audience and create such a haunting experience you never know what’s just around the next corner.

The best advice I can give you is to allow outside opinion on Antichrist to inform your opinion, but not make up your mind entirely. I’ve covered the obvious in this review, but left out many details that must be experienced first hand as each twist in the tale opens up a new understanding. This isn’t a film for everyone and it is indeed extremely graphic in nature, but for adult audiences it shouldn’t be a concern even if it is occasionally shocking. You could call Antichrist many things from horror, to thriller, to drama, but you wouldn’t be wrong if you simply labeled it as “provocative” and continued the conversation from there. See it with others and set aside some time for plenty of discussion.

GRADE: B

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Weekend: Jul. 25, 2019, Jul. 28, 2019

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