Antichrist (Director: Lars von Trier): I’m grate­ful that I waited to see this. By fol­low­ing the steady stream of reviews, first from Cannes, then from TIFF, I’ve been able to steel myself for what I anti­cip­ated would be a har­row­ing exper­i­ence. Because I knew in advance some of the more grue­some images to which I would be exposed, it affected the way I watched the film. I closely observed the beha­viour of each of the char­ac­ters early in the film to try to determ­ine what would set off such a chain of events.

Some very brief plot sum­mary for those who may not have heard already. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are an unnamed mar­ried couple (iden­ti­fied in the cred­its only as He and She) with a young child. In the black and white pro­logue to the film, they are mak­ing love unaware that their young son is crawl­ing toward an open win­dow. As Handel plays over the slow-motion images, the child plunges to his death. The rest of the film deals with the after­math to this tragedy. She is almost swal­lowed up by her grief, and spends a month in hos­pital on med­ic­a­tion. He’s a ther­ap­ist, and resents the fact that someone else is treat­ing his wife. With a curi­ous detach­ment, he takes over his wife’s ther­apy, con­vin­cing her that she needs to throw away the med­ic­a­tion and face her grief head-on. As she slyly points out, he has never paid so much atten­tion to her as when she becomes his patient. She also accuses him of indif­fer­ence to the death of their child.

As she passes through the stages of grief, she enters a phase of tre­mend­ous fear and anxi­ety. She suf­fers panic attacks, and in an effort to treat her, he asks her to tell him where she feels most afraid. She tells him that the woods ter­rify her, refer­ring to the forest around their rural cabin, omin­ously named “Eden.” She and their son had spent the pre­vi­ous sum­mer there, while she tried to fin­ish her thesis, on gyn­o­cide (viol­ence against women.) They pack their things and head to the cabin, where things gradu­ally unravel and acts of hor­rific viol­ence take place.

The film is divided into chapters, with a pro­logue and epi­logue fram­ing four chapters entitled Grief, Pain, Despair, and The Three Beggars. The last refers to a col­lec­tion of fig­ur­ines glimpsed early in the film, each named for one of the other chapters. Grief, Pain and Despair also come to be asso­ci­ated with three dif­fer­ent anim­als the couple encounter in the woods. Grief is a fox, Pain is a crow, while Despair is a deer. The Three Beggars also refers to a con­stel­la­tion men­tioned in Gainsbourg’s thesis, although Dafoe declares late in the film that no such con­stel­la­tion exists. If this gives you the idea that the film is crammed with sym­bol­ism, you’d be right. The viol­ent con­front­a­tion between He and She is not so much between two people as it is between two ways of think­ing. Dafoe is rational and con­trolling, and he’s totally unaware of his own arrog­ance. His wife rep­res­ents the chaos of emo­tion, both fear and rage, and the dark­ness of nature. Nature as rep­res­en­ted by the forest set­ting refers both to the nat­ural phys­ical world as well as to the mys­ter­ies of human nature. As a lit­er­at­ure stu­dent, I remem­ber being intro­duced to the concept of the forest as the wild, uncon­trol­lable uncon­scious mind and our animal nature.

What becomes obvi­ous in the woods is that these two (or pos­sibly more) ways of think­ing can­not co-exist. One will have to con­quer the other and that means that someone will die. From my very basic under­stand­ing of He and She, the pos­sib­il­it­ies are that the clash of sys­tems might rep­res­ent:

  • Male vs. Female (very basic)
  • Science vs. Intuition
  • Rationality vs. Morality

Director von Trier has said that he made the film in the midst of a very ser­i­ous depres­sion and it’s clear that it is the work of someone who is strug­gling with what it means to be a sup­posedly rational being in a world that often seems far from rational. It’s muddled but auda­cious, and I can think of no one else cur­rently mak­ing films that give us so much to think about as well as so much to feel. Though the last twenty minutes or so will make a repeat view­ing a bit of a chal­lenge, there is a lot I want to fig­ure out. I think that most of all, it’s a beau­ti­fully-con­struc­ted film, with stun­ning cine­ma­to­graphy and a thought-pro­vok­ing script. Charlotte Gainsbourg in par­tic­u­lar shows tre­mend­ous range in a very dif­fi­cult role. The irony is that in a film where a fox sol­emnly intones that “Chaos reigns,” that a man has craf­ted the mes­sage so care­fully.

Antichrist opens in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver on November 13, 2009.

Official site of the film


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2 Responses to Antichrist

  1. Jay Kerr says:

    Wow! Glad you liked the film. This one is hit or miss for most people.

    A couple of things. When I saw this at TIFF the audi­ence didn’t know what to make of the talk­ing fox. When he said “chaos reigns” in the film, the audi­ence burst into laughter.

    Dafoe watched the film with the audi­ence and after­ward he did a Q&A where he said that the forest and nature in gen­eral, is inher­ently evil. Traditionally we think of nature, cre­ation and God (or maybe not). In von Trier’s case he sees the forest as some­thing dark, evil and viol­ent.

    If any­thing, the film is an amaz­ing piece of art that will cre­ate end­less dis­cus­sion on sym­bols and mean­ing.

  2. Just wanted to point out that the film opens here in Toronto tomor­row at the Cumberland. Both alt-weeklies (Eye and NOW) have given the film four-star reviews. Hopefully that trans­lates into some decent box-office num­bers.

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