Lars Von Trier is never one to shy away from controversy. In 1998, Zentropa was the first mainstream film company to produce hardcore pornography. Guess who it belongs to? Despite that highly interesting fact, that’s the closest you’ll ever see Von Trier’s name associated with the word “mainstream,” because nothing this man creates can ever be labeled as such.
Antichrist is no different. Over a span of two decades, Von Trier has experimented with many directing styles and in the process, has actually created styles all his own. Although the Dogme 95 movement he helped create broke up in 2005, Von Trier still conformed to many of its rules (known as ‘The Vow of Chastity”) during the making of Antichrist, such as shooting on location and not building any kind of set. The element of ‘purification,’ so vehemently emphasized within this period is once again prevalent in this movie, as its story is acted out by a cast of two (yes, two) actors: Willem Dafoe (He) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (She). The two-actor system works remarkably well as it draws us into their world much more effectively than any other movie could, with no star-studded cast to distract our attention and no glitz or blinding special effects to patronize our intelligences. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance was so good that she was awarded the Best Actress Award at Cannes this year.
A few months ago, when I first read early reviews of this movie, I was rather reluctant to see it, based on the fact that I had never been a huge Von Trier fan and because the movie’s subject matter wasn’t exactly appealing to me. Yet, the world we live in often has a way of surprising us, and I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised following the screening of this movie. The casting, whilst minimal and seemingly simple to achieve, had to be done just right due to the characters’ dispositions. Dafoe is very convincing as a patient, loving therapist who only wants the best for his troubled wife. Following the accidental death of their toddler, the couple embarks on an arduous journey to repair the psychological damage caused by the tragic event. By blaming herself for her child’s death, She adopts many elements of nihilism as well as a deep resentment against women in general. Following a series of panic attacks, He is able to calm Her down and they both engage in the first of several graphic sex scenes. While She often resorts to hasty sex in order to cope with her inner demons, He initially resists her but eventually feels compelled to give in to Her desires, knowing it goes against His ethics as a therapist. The dialogue is relevant and well-written and the performances are undeniably very powerful.
Von Trier’s world is extremely dark, as he uses very low contrast to depict grief, pain and despair (chapters 1-2-3) through the eyes of his characters. The cinematography is simple and stunning, without surprise, as it was orchestrated by Anthony Dod Mantle, the Oscar-winning cinematographer from Slumdog Millionaire. Low-light situations take centre stage as we often find the characters in dark rooms. Many scenes take place in the middle of the night but Von Trier’s use of the Red One camera (capable of recording at resolutions up to 4096 horizontal by 2304 vertical pixels ) gives us a clear image of what’s going on. Cut scenes are sometimes used to depict dreamlike situations that the characters experience, and they help propel the narrative along. Due to the prologue and epilogue being filmed in monochromatic, super slow-motion, Von Trier might be accused of being pretentious and over the top, but I assure you that it is for foreshadowing purposes and it makes sense once you see the bigger picture.
Antichrist also benefits from an excellent score. Von Trier uses all kinds of distorted noises to emphasize the relationship between sound and image. In accordance to one of the Dogme 95 rules, sound must always have a direct correlation with the scene being filmed, i.e. in a diegetic way (telling a story as opposed to showing). Jet engines, screams, drums and screeches are all sporadically used throughout the movie, not unlike Eraserhead, where the score was equally important as the images on screen. Once the characters make their way to ‘Eden’ (a cottage they own in a forest) in an attempt to mend their fractured marriage, it gets pretty spooky sound-wise and I was very impressed with the way Von Trier kept it clean and simple. It’s definitely the best way to keep an audience on its toes.
Billed as a horror movie, Antichrist is more of a psychological thriller due to the intense battle of wits between He and She. For some, many moments might be hard to watch as the movie contains graphic violence and a good amount of unsimulated sex. Nevertheless, when critics at Cannes called this “shocking” and“controversial”, they were dead wrong. I’ve seen much worse. This movie actually contains an interesting, thought-provoking story and one that will leave you scratching your head. That’s always a good thing for me.
I don’t want to ruin the connection between the movie’s title and its meaning within the story by telling you my interpretation but in the end you’ll probably have a different one than mine. The perverse relationship between nature, sex and nihilism will have you questioning the characters’ motives long after you’ve finished watching, and this is why Antichrist comes highly recommended.
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