How to describe Danish film director-provocateur Lars von Trier's latest opus (except to say upfront that I think it's probably a largely unintended masterpiece)? Part brooding psychological thriller, part supernatural-cum-eco-mystery drama, part gruesome grand guignol, marinated in the contemporary 'torture-porn' shock tactics of the Horror genre — the movie was always a Daily Mail-baiting shoe-in for eliciting the kind of vituperative outrage that was witnessed during the press conference after the film's premier at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival (the bizarre moment is captured in one of the featurettes included on this UK Blu-ray release from Artificial Eye, when a shouting journalist angrily demands that von Trier explain the meaning of the film and then justify himself for even making it in the first place!), especially as it manages to encompass both extremes of two kinds of cinema always guaranteed to induce that ultraconservative publication to frothing, spittle-flecked diatribes of moral disgust: namely, the "pretentious" high concept art-house movie and the morally and artistically void (from their perspective) exploitation flick — probably their two most reviled things. What a gift then to be able to damn them both with the same film!
But what may well have been lost though, amongst all the denunciations and the impassioned counter-defence claims, is the undeniable fact that von Trier, despite allegedly suffering for the duration of the film's shooting period from a crippling attack of the very anxiety-induced depression which it — according to one popular interpretation — attempts to allegorise, the director somehow manages to pull together a dizzying array of shooting styles, genre influences and tonal textures. Aesthetically, the film ranges all the way from the stark docu-drama look of a classic Dogme 95 realist drama, to the chillingly ominous 'visualisation' sequences where digital composite imaging, computerised camera technology and CGI animation come seamlessly together to produce an unsettling, slow-mo fantasy-horror landscape, mimicing the work of Medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch — all of it without ever once disrupting the film's steadily mounting mood of utter dread, and a sense of unease induced by the film's Lynchian soundtrack: a rushing womb-like sound design based on the computer manipulation of 'organic' found sounds (rocks, water and even the inside of the sound recordist's own body, recorded via an internal mic!) that perfectly justifies its being pitched as a fully-fledged Terror Picture, even if it clearly doesn't fit properly into any one particular drama category.
Actually, von Trier appears to be explicitly playing with the tropes, mechanics and devices of Horror cinema in a deeply felt attempt to excavate some distressing nightmares, crippling hang-ups and the miseries of his own subconscious. There doesn't appear to be the same didactic intent here of, say, Michael Haneke's foray into the Horror genre with "Funny Games", though the film appears at times to literally howl with its creator's own anguish and his deeply confused and ambivalent feelings towards his upbringing by nature worshipping communist-atheists, and his discovery in the mid-'90s that his real father was a Catholic who wished to have no contact with him. Rather, in the process of a pained allegorical self-exploration, this deeply ambiguous film often evokes, and sometimes quotes directly, the floating, dreamlike spiritual foreboding to be found in the works of Andrei Tarkovsky (the film is in fact dedicated to this masterful Russian director), the sudden absurd (but scary) lurches into the outré surrealism of David Lynch at his darkest, and the unflinching (often overtly sexualised) violence to be found amongst the new French wave of Extreme Horror.
This mixture of extreme misogynistic imagery, playful film trope 'quotation' and an utterly courageous disregard for the chaotic consequences of mixing the nightmarish with the ridiculous has led some to dismiss the director as a sort of con-artist trickster of cinema, laughing at us as he cynically manipulates our emotions with a meaningless hodgepodge of shock imagery and ponderous art-house navel-gazing designed to boost the notoriously lugubrious and phobia-ridden Dane's overseas profile, whilst ensuring that he rarely actually has to leave his homeland for publicity purposes. There is a lot to be said, of course, about Lars von Trier's sarcastic game-playing nature and its expression in his cinema, but none of it should detract from this particular film's overwhelming power, or compel us to dismiss it as one big joke. Even disregarding the director's less-than-coherently-defined motivations for making the film in the first place, it undoubtedly retains its dark, lingering power long after its elegiac end (in an epilogue that begins, strangely, with a sequence that recalls similar scenes in "Dario Argento's nature worshipping coda to "Opera"); "Antichrist" just might be von Trier's best film to date.
The film is split into three chapters — "Grief", "Pain (Chaos Reigns)" and "Despair" — which are bookended by two glossy monochrome sequences, each shot entirely in extreme slow motion (at 1000 frames a second), and scored with a lovely, specially recorded version of a delicate aria from the opera Rinaldo by Handel, the only music to be heard in the whole film. This dreamlike style has been christened 'monolithic' by von Trier and his director of photography Anthony Dod Mantle. The first of these colourless sequences — the prologue — depicts Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe (the characters remain unnamed throughout, and are referred to simply as "He" and "She" in the credits) having wild sex in the shower, against the washing machine and among some of their child's toys, while the child himself lies in his cot, next to a window behind which snow is falling in beautiful backlit feathery flurries. The whole thing looks like a trendy commercial for an expensive branded cologne, the lead couple's abandoned lovemaking slowed down, deconstructed and frozen in time as though their bodies are trapped inside an ornamental iceberg. Slowly, meticulously and inevitably their infant child climbs from his cot, stands on the ledge of the window and, unseen by his parents — who are still lost in the throes of their mutual orgasms — falls to his death on the ice-shrouded pavement below.
The first chapter, "Grief", depicts Dafoe and Gainsbourgh sometime later, attempting to come to terms with this tragic event In a long take of whispered dialogue, we first of all learn that "He" is a cognitive therapist. Mistrustful of his waifishly brittle wife's dependency on the pharmaceuticals prescribed by her own therapist, he insists on encouraging her to directly confront her almost self-immolating grief and guilt, and the debilitating anxiety attacks she's been experiencing, without depending on drugs at all. Grief is a natural response and therefore necessary, and it can only be overcome by facing it and dealing with it head on; this is the husband-therapist's somewhat glib creed, and so he decideds he will treat his wife himself. Strangely, "He" seems curiously unmoved by any such feelings of guilt himself, perhaps repressing them and channelling them exclusively into dealing with his wife's recovery. But the very obvious fact of his emotional distance seems to be a source of some tension between them. "You were never interested in me until I became your patient", she accuses, not without reason it seems.
During the course of some creepily rendered 'visualisation' exercises, it emerges that Gainsbourg's undefined fears first began back in the couple's Pacific NorthWest cabin retreat, Eden (actually filmed in the forests of North Rhine-Westphalia), where she and her son stayed the previous summer while she worked alone on her thesis. The thesis was never finished; something happened there which left her feeling unable to continue it, stricken by her husband's casual dismissal of her work. So, the next stage of the therapy is to go back to Eden (in a movie named "Antichrist" the name of this retreat is certainly not a coincidence!) and confront these hidden demons.
Very quickly, in this isolated wilderness bounded by seemingly Freudian images of fertility and nature (a dead, phallic-looking oak tree and a strange, rooty vaginal opening in the earth), things deteriorate for the two as we enter the second chapter: "Pain". The constant rattle-and-thump of acorns falling uselessly on the cabin roof, and unpleasant tick-like fungal growths attempting to colonise Dafoe's hand during the night, hint that dark forces may be at work. Gainsbourg goes from inconsolable basket-case to being apparently completely cured overnight, and as the natural landscape itself begins to warp and fragment around him, "He" begins to experience strange visions that mingle fertility and death in disturbing patterns: a roe deer with its stillborn offspring still hanging limply from its hind quarters, an apparently indestructible Raven that won't die even when bashed and buried in dirt and — most infamously of all — an unusual encounter with a disembowelled but very much still animated fox. Meanwhile, "She" uncovers forgotten memories centred on a strange experience of a haunting in the woods during her first visit — an unearthly child's cry that seems to emanate from the forest itself. There's an ominous feeling of dread building throughout, and once "He" (following the classic Gothic tradition where the upper-stories of old mansions and houses are made to represent the darker corners of the subconscious) ascends to the darkened attic room of the cabin where "She" worked on her book-length thesis, the film takes a turn into classic Horror iconography, Dafoe's character discovering the notes his wife had previously made for her aborted project, and thereby getting an unpleasant glimpse into the inner workings of her mind which no amount of his psycho-babble therapy exercises could have uncovered.
Entitled "Gynocide", her work turns out to be a macabre meditation on witchcraft and its historical uses and meanings down the ages, the notes scrawled with an increasingly deranged script in a home-made notebook that looks like the Grimoires of old. "He" begins to realise that "She" really does see Nature as Satan's Church, and from here it's a short distance to the gory images of torture and horror that predominate in chapter three: "Despair", which have made the film a cause célèbre: a grindstone is painfully hammered through a leg and bolted in place with an adjustable spanner; a masturbated penis is made to ejaculate blood; a violent and prolonged strangulation takes place; and that much discussed clitoridectomy scene, self-administered, in close-up, with a pair of rusty scissors!
With Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg the only actors to appear on screen for the film's entire one- hour and forty-four-minute running time, it is their intense performances which inevitably have to carry the film through many long dialogue scenes (and sex scenes), dark passages of emotional terror and the gruesome horror imagery. Both are up to the job, but Gainsbourg clearly richly deserved her Cannes award for best actress in an emotionally and physically raw performance. But it is von Trier's inventive, mercurial visual style which becomes even more high profile than even the two actors at the centre of it all: the film looks exquisite, the combination of matt painting, digital compositing and CGI effects are boldly used and when combined with the truly scary sound design, the film takes on the quality of a deeply troubling fairy tale, especially in the so-called 'monolithic' colour sections, where Gainsbourg's visualisations are made to play like the dreamlike progress of Little Red Riding Hood through a rotting twilight Eden. The camera movements are often deliberately intrusive, a computerised camera enabling the director to alternate between simulated handheld movements and smooth, gliding motions within the same scene, compelling the viewer to continually reassess the meaning of the images he/she is being presented with. There is overt symbolism throughout which remains obscure and just out of reach of interpretation, and rather demands many repeat viewings of the film, but it appears to be an allegorical representation of the opposing forces (both intellectual and emotional) within Lars von Trier himself. He has certainly foregrounded his own mental health issues while publicising the movie. Eternal themes of Religion and the evil inherent in nature; the battle between male and female — all are used, but in a metaphorical way it seems, as both Dafoe and Gainsbourg appear to be representing different sides of the conflict going on inside the director himself; while the Roe, the Raven and the Fox are given astrological representation as the fictitious constellation, The Three Beggars — bringing astrology, biological fate and supernatural providence all within the film's purview. Well, why not?
What you make of it all in the end, is very much up to you, a fact that becomes quickly apparent in the accompanying commentary/discussion between von Trier and film teacher at the University of Kent, professor Murray Smith. Unlike most commentaries, this is a genuine attempt by the professor to interpret the film and glean von Trier's intentions in shooting specific scenes. A worthy endeavour and undoubtedly an interesting listen, but anyone hoping for a definitive explanation of what it's all about must inevitably be disappointed; von Trier often sounds tentative and rather nervous, even sometimes dismissive of some of the film's highlights, but this is still a model for the kind of thing the commentary track should be doing more of though. The Blu-ray also comes with nine featurettes ranging between five and fifteen minutes long. Taken together they constitute about forty-five minutes of 'making of' material covering the initial camera tests for the film (in which a scene was shot with replacement actors for Dafoe and Gainsbourg); the historical ideas relating to witchcraft and research on the evil nature of woman in antiquity; the visual style and production design of the movie; the animal effects and the make-up and props of "Antichrist" as well as a feature on the music and sound design. There is also a video feature on the publicity junket at the Cannes Film Festival (including that run-in with the Daily Mail journalist), plus two interviews with each of the actors, in which they individually discuss their attempts to get to grips with the material.
The Blu-ray transfer has to cope with a lot of different film styles during the course of the film and, indeed, ranges from the amazingly detailed in the forest scenes and the black-and-white sequences (and some of the close-ups look incredible — you can see every pore and line in Charlotte Gainsbourg's skin); but in some of the dimly-lit, documentary-style sequences, the transfer struggles with a slightly muddy look and occasional chronic haloing (this thankfully is very brief, though). The Dolby Digital 5.1/DTS track creates an atmosphere of total immersion; apart from a few shock moments your sound system will not exactly be given an energetic workout, but the beautifully rich, yet subtle sound design (probably the scariest thing in the film) is extremely well served here.
"Antichrist" is a dark, sometimes funny, often horribly morbid exploration of the darkest corners of the human soul, but it compels one to return again and again to immerse one's self in its strange, tortured, dreadful atmosphere. Whatever his intentions and his own views on the matter, von Trier has undoubtedly taken the already moribund torture-porn sub-genre down a very dark, fantastical route one would never have anticipated it ever visiting before. When all the fuss has died down, this will almost certainly stand as one of the director's greatest achievements thus far.