Reviewed by: Chris

"The main horror element is a deep psychological manipulation that stays with you for days afterwards."

Where does horror reside in the psyche?

Lars von Trier has established himself as a maker of serious, avant garde drama. He initially came to fame through Breaking The Waves, a controversial story asking how far someone would go for love. Then he founded the Dogme movement of back-to-basics cinema, and made The Idiots, where lunacy and sanity are cleverly mixed. Next came Dancer In The Dark, an almost Janacek-like musical where a blind girl takes the inner fantasy world to extremes. Somewhere along the line were experiments like The Five Obstructions, a featurette demonstrating a love of constraints in moviemaking, and two highly theatrical Brechtian pieces called Dogville and Manderlay, where sets are replaced with chalk lines. More recently, he founded another experimental cinema called Advance Party. One of the few uncontroversial films he has made is The Boss Of It All, an extremely clever comedy that didn’t receive much attention.

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The point of this long preamble is a preparation to the statement that, if someone like von Trier makes a horror movie, it is hardly likely to be standard fare. He makes films that provide himself and his audiences with thorny intellectual challenges. This results both in adherents and in those who dismiss his work as pretentious – not something that ever seems to bother him. (Inasmuch as this review is partly interpretative, other viewers may find their own preferred readings which differ from the approach given here.)

With Antichrist, although there are some standard jump-out-of-your-seat moments (I physically leapt about four inches at one point), the main horror element is a deep psychological manipulation that stays with you for days afterwards. Instead of lashings of gore which can retrospectively be dismissed as ‘just more CGI’, von Trier seems to do exactly the opposite of what a Freudian psychotherapist would do in releasing obsessions. He locks the terrifying nature of his horror movie to the most extreme sexual images he can find. The narrative itself, such as there is one, follows a similar process. A psychotherapist, with the best intentions, leads his wife into the darkest recesses of her mind. But instead of releasing psychological trauma, he reinforces it, until he has to defend himself when she becomes the controlling force.

A psychotherapist (Willem Dafoe) and his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are making love as their young toddler climbs onto a desk to look at snowflakes outside. And falls to his death. This opening prologue is operatic in its soundtrack and intensity. Exquisite black and white photography captures water droplets in slow motion to Handel (translated, “Leave me to weep over my cruel fate and let me sigh for liberty. May sorrow break the bonds of my anguish, if only for pity’s sake.”) There is a very brief, aesthetically contextualised glimpse of penetration, setting the audience up for the psycho-sexual horrors that follow much later.

In the trauma of bereavement, the psychotherapist asks his wife to visualise her worst nightmares in order to help her overcome them. She pictures the woods as symbolising her fear, and they both retreat to an ‘Eden’ – an isolated cabin surrounded by woods.

The film is divided into six parts, including a Prologue (the lovemaking and death), Grief, Pain, and Despair; The Three Beggars, and an Epilogue. At the end of the prologue, the next three chapters are heralded by three toy soldiers from the dead son’s toyroom, each appropriately named.

With Grief comes very palpable sorrow from both leads. The players become substantial rather than dramatis personae. Colour is added to the previously monochrome palette, literally and in terms of filling out their characters.

As we go through Pain, the wife seems eventually cured. Our nerves, however, are frayed. This is compounded by the rhythmic, hypnotic pounding of acorns falling on the roof of the cabin, and the psychotherapist’s irritating but inescapable smugness as he treats his wife as a patient rather than a human being needing support. He forever has a self-satisfied, smart answer. Retreating to her own area of expertise, she comes out with ever more unanswerable metaphors, including, “Nature is Satan’s Church.” (She had been working previously on a book about ‘Gynocide’ and witch-hunts). The chapter finally introduces openly surreal elements, when a fox is unearthed. (The cunningness of foxes suggests a reliance on logic, whereas the subconscious can rely more on symbols, introducing chaos to a ‘logical world.’)

Chapter three is entitled Despair (Gynocide). The psychotherapist learns things about his wife he didn’t know before but perhaps should have. He is pulled into her nightmare. We see him soaked in the rain, at the mercy – for the first time – of the elements. The fourth chapter gives form to the imaginary content of the preceding three, and includes the most upsetting and outrageous scenes (which some viewers will find objectionable). The epilogue provides a narrative and psychological resolution in the only way possible when things have come to such a head. We also see the story relates now to the whole of humanity.

The title of the film contains far more than is at first apparent, although there is also some weakness for the film there. In ancient (pre-Christian) mythology, the ‘Christos’ was the enlightened soul within, a central experience of the Gnostic heretics. Their pure aspiration enflamed prayer to reach this exalted realisation. The danger, of course, was that they would mistake an experience along the way for the ‘ultimate truth’ and become obsessed. This also relates to why so many mystics and spiritual seekers form their own sects. From a Roman Catholic viewpoint, it might be used to explain many different churches that fall short of the ultimate authority.

Von Trier is a lapsed Catholic, and describes himself as increasingly atheist. The iconography of Catholicism is rich for any artist but especially so for one steeped in it. He has said he keeps a copy of Nietzsche’s Antichrist at his bedside. In Nietzschean terms, any (traditional) religious conviction is an obsession that falls short of ultimate truth. In New Testament orthodoxy, an Antichrist is what (or who) precedes the Second Coming. Obsession as a temptation along the way works in all mythologies. Psychologically, this is a simple description of a process in the mind. But von Trier’s use of Christian symbols complicates the issue and obfuscates an elaborate tragedy that is already nearly Shakespearean in its format.

Antichrist is sure to get a reaction, even from those audiences not really geared to von Trier’s work. For them, the extreme and graphic sexual imagery may be a psychological device too far. For others, among whom are a rare breed of horror aficionados (think Polanski’s Macbeth) who enjoy a challenge while being outraged and violated, it is a gem of inestimable value.

Reviewed on: 24 Jun 2009
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A couple whose child has died retreat into the woods and discover very dark things.
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Director: Lars von Trier

Writer: Lars von Trier

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg

Year: 2009

Runtime: 109 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Denmark, Germany, France, Sweden, Italy, Poland

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