Synopsis: A grieving couple retreats to their cabin 'Eden' in the woods, hoping to repair their broken hearts and troubled marriage. But nature takes its course and things go from bad to worse.
An abstract, confounding, exhausting experience.
Despite its volatile reputation and the thunderous din of critical and moral outrage from the international film community, Danish troublemaker Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist descends upon Australian audiences, surprisingly devoid of the hysteria that has accompanied its release in other territories.
An abstract, confounding film that both its admirers and detractors will label classically ‘arty-farty’ , Von Trier’s shock-and-awe dissection of grief, feminism and psychosis has been passed with an R-rating without any excisions by the Australian Film and Television Office; bravo to them for this broad-minded approach to confronting material.
When word gets out about the images Von Trier subjects his audience to, it is inevitable some sectors of society will call for its removal from cinemas, amongst them probably some religious crusaders and definitely some female activists. Come to think of it, reps from the RSPCA, DOCS, NIDA and the big hardware store chains might all find aspects of the film far too vile to sit through without expressing outrage. We can only hope the film’s supporters are equally impassioned in its defence.
Antichrist is structured as a thesis on suffering, with a prologue, four chapters and an epilogue. We are introduced to He (Willem Dafoe, who never seems to age) and She (the extraordinary Charlotte Gainsbourg) during the prologue, enjoying slow-motion, monochromatic and graphically-penetrative sex. They fail to notice their toddler son, who finds his way to an open window in the midst of a majestically-cinematic snowstorm and falls to his death.
Utterly consumed by grief, She lapses into a month-long coma; He comforts himself from an intellectual standpoint, applying his training as a psychotherapist to both his healing and her state of mind. They retreat to their country home, Eden, set deep within the woods, to recover in isolation. The cabin is beautifully rustic and almost appears to be a natural formation, growing out of the dense foliage; this is the first hint that the forces and laws of nature are totally in control this far from civilisation and sanity.
The chapter headings are Grief, Pain and Despair, symbolised by three familiar denizens of the forest – ‘Grief’ is a deer, labouring through the undergrowth with a still-born fawn dangling from its hindquarters; ‘Pain’ is a fox, which He finds in the ferns, eating its own innards and speaking the prophetic phrase “Chaos reigns...”; and ‘Despair’ is a crow, buried in the dirt and shrieking for survival. Collectively referred to as ‘The 3 Beggars’, the animals are synonymous with legends of the centuries-old practice of gynocide – the culling of young women, as detailed in the pages of She’s unfinished thesis, which litter the cabin; the beggars infiltrate the home and minds of He and She with fateful consequences.
The emotional pain is evident enough on the faces and in the contortions of the actors, especially Gainsbourg, whose skeletal body and drawn face is both beautiful and heart-breaking in equal measure and who earned the Cannes Best Actress award for her fearless portrayal. But Von Trier’s mission is to imbue his audience with more than just an understanding of his characters pain; the director needs for you to experience the helplessness of their despair as well. The opening sex scene, some fumbling but fully-realised couplings that help He and She dull their grief and a wildly-vigorous self-abuse/masturbation sequence will leave audiences shocked, but the most confronting and controversial scenes in the film have yet to unfold.
(Ed. – This paragraph contains graphic spoilers). The audience is subjected to a passage of unrelenting brutality approximately 75 minutes into the film that is unlike any this reviewer has seen. Overcome with rage and guilt, She bashes her husband’s genitals with firewood then masturbates him to a bloody climax; as he lays unconscious, she drills a hole in the calf muscle behind his shin and attaches a millstone, preventing his escape; he drags himself into the woods, only to be found and buried alive; She relents, digs him free and drags him back to the cabin, where she performs an excruciating act of genital mutilation upon herself.
Lars Von Trier has created a true horror film, but one steeped in the psychology of suffering, dedicated to the exploration of love and pain as one, equally nourishing and destructive. The themes, cinematic devices and underlying darkness of this extraordinary work reflect the best films from the likes of David Lynch and David Cronenberg (whose films Crash, 1996, and Dead Ringers, 1988, share a blood-soaked vision of sexuality-by-way-of-pain with Antichrist).
Cries of ‘misogynistic torture-porn’ and walkouts amidst booing and jeering greeted the film when it premiered at Cannes this year. There is much to support the argument that Von Trier, who has openly admitted to filming Antichrist whilst in the grip of a fierce, post-separation depression, is dealing with some disturbing views regarding the female influences on his life (a point his ever-vigilant detractors will say also influenced past works such as Breaking the Waves, 1996, and Dogville, 2003).
But critics can’t expect to have it both ways. We deride the lack of bold visions and confronting themes in world cinema today, yet a film like Antichrist comes along and there is a backlash against its artistry, complexity, ambition and ambiguity just because it contains moments that deeply shock. Patrons sickened by the films visuals will get no arguments from me – Antichrist is a hideous film in parts and its excesses will not be to everyone’s tastes. But Lars Von Trier demands a lot from his audience (not to mention his poor actors); by accepting the Antichrist challenge, you will emerge feeling exhausted, filthy and abused, but also invigorated, stimulated and stronger.
Another polarising effort from the Danish master of self-promotion.
CANNES: Say what you like about Lars Von Trier (and I'll reckon we're about to hear quite a lot about what people don't like about him), but he has the courage of his convictions. It takes a lot to make an auditorium full of film critics squirm and there was a near orgy of squirming, including utterances of the "Oh, no!" variety, on either side of me during the Cannes press screening of Antichrist.
In a prologue, 4 chapters and an epilogue, Von Trier tackles the topic of grief. Unspeakable, not-in-the-natural-order of things grief. When their young son dies a probably preventable death, a man (Willem Dafoe) and a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) fall into the maw of something as powerful as it is inexplicable.
A therapist by profession, the man believes his permanently grieving wife should confront her greatest remaining fear. This she defines as "the woods," specifically those around a rustic cabin to which she had gone the previous summer with their boy to complete a thesis.
The clearly satisfying sex that reinforced the couple's bond before tragedy struck can no more be the same than the lower Manhattan skyline after the Twin Towers crumbled. The couple's shared emotional landscape is dicey, uncharted territory. And from extreme feelings, stem extreme acts.
In the press kit, Von Trier confesses that this is "the most important film of my entire career!" Although the writer/director/provocateur has always had a talent for self-promotion, he'd be hard pressed to top the praise in the press release for the complete retrospective of Von Trier's work (including films he shot between the ages of 11 and 13) to take place at the Pompidou Center in Paris from June 8-22. He is described as "a Danish filmmaker both adulated and decried, and heir to Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Fritz Lang and Orson Welles."
And here I was thinking that he sure knows how to film stuff that people don't necessarily care to see.
When the two protagonists in Antichrist hike into the woods, it's unlikely they suspect just what will hobble their recovery. The steamy, heart-breaking prologue and the otherworldly epilogue are in black & white, with the central portion of the film in colour. DP Anthony Dod Mantle, whose work on Slumdog Millionaire it's safe to say has been seen by more viewers than will ever even hear of Antichrist also shot Von Trier's Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005).
Distinctive as Von Trier's latest is, there are thematic and visual similarities with last year's Vinyan by Fabrice Du Welz, in which Emmannuelle Beart and Rufus Sewell embark on an open ended journey after their son is presumably drowned in the 2004 Tsunami.
In both cases, a rational man who loves his wife puts himself in harm's way in hopes of healing his cherished spouse. In both films, Nature with a capital "N" is an unbilled but starring member of the cast.
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