Monday, November 30, 2009

Review: Antichrist

Antichrist (****/****)

It took me a while to decide what star rating to give this film. Eventually, I whittled it down to two options: 4 or 0. With Lars Von Trier's film, only the extremes seem appropriate.
Antichrist tells the story of a grieving couple whose child fell to his death out of a window while they made love. The woman, referred to only as 'she', blames herself, and the man, referred to as, you guessed it, 'he,' a psychiatrist, decides that he can cure her depression of his own accord. He decides to place her in the place that she is most terrified; their cabin in the woods, named Eden. What follows is almost impossible to describe. It's not a plot so much as a montage of horrific vignettes.
I'll be honest: I have never been so profoundly disturbed or scared by a film as I was by this one. Antichrist made me feel physically uncomfortable. There were times when I wanted to leave. The film is almost unbearably graphic and explicit, and its atmosphere, tone, implication, etc. are all terrifying. Not scary in the slasher/ghost sense of the word. Perhaps unsettling is a better word. This is the kind of film that crawls under your skin and dies there. It's the kind of film that finds any break in your psychosis, sneaks in, and grates on you psychologically until you want to die. I can't ever recall a more unpleasant cinema experience.
So why the hell did I give Antichrist four stars?
The answer is simple. One must judge a film based on what it intends to do: Antichrist clearly intends to shock, disturb, and cause despair. And my god, but it succeeds. I heard a great defense of this film which I will rehash: films are supposed to reflect the breadth of the human condition. This includes all forms thereof, not just the ones that elevate us, or make us feel sanctimonious, or improve the quality of life. Antichrist sets out to evoke an unpleasant and unpopular cinematic emotion: despair. Loss of hope. But, let's be honest with ourselves: despair and suffering are huge parts of the human condition. Rare are the films that attempt to tackle these feelings. Rarer still are the ones that do it with such laser-focus and determination.
This isn't to say that I'm only giving the film four stars because its intention was to make me feel sick, and it succeeded. The film incredibly complex and dense; indeed, far too dense to fully appreciate on first viewing (though a second or third viewing is almost inconceivable). Antichrist is a treatise on humanity at its worst. Some have interpreted it as an inverse reflection of the Bible story of the Garden of Eden: in the Bible, man and woman are born pure, but turn to sin and are cast out, forced to live in the real world. In Antichrist, man and woman begin as evil creatures, and retreat to Eden to enact their downfall in a surreal environment. I feel like I could write for hours about the messages, both implicit and explicit, in Antichrist. It's a work of staggering thought and power. Its apparent demonization of sexuality is of particular interest: the film is chock-full of very explicit sex scenes, but it can hardly be construed as erotic in any sense of the word. This is, in part, due to the fact that every sex scene is either juxtaposed with or immediately followed by an act of horrific violence. A couple has passionate sex, and their child falls three stories onto a concrete sidewalk. The couple makes love again, and then the woman beats herself senseless on the rim of the toilet. Later, sex will be followed by unspeakable horrors (I'll give you a hint: it involves lots of genital mutilation and witch-craft-punishing parallels). What point could Von Trier be making with this? The female character also makes a point to point out the evil inherent in every person, specifically (in her opinion) women. She has been studying gynocide (mass murder of women), and through it has concluded that "nature is Satan's church." She believes that nature is evil, and that nature is in every person. Thus, if nature is evil, and it's in everyone, then everyone must be evil. She falls into this archetype with little difficulty, becoming one with her darker nature. Though her actions are more severe, it's undeniable that her husband has already beaten her to embracing his darker nature. The two characters suffer a complete and total break from moral rectitude, and the film punishes them for it. One of the many points that the film might be making (I repeat, might. It's very open for interpretation) is that their downfall was facilitated by partaking in pleasures of the flesh. Perhaps it's when not in moderation, or perhaps at expense of others, but Antichrist is not kind to a healthy psychosexual mindset. Antichrist also makes compelling arguments about the nature of original sin. Some believe that, according to the Bible story, the original sins are pride and despair. All other sins have their root in these two: pride, believing that you can be better than God, and despair, believing that God can't change things. In Antichrist, the man's sin is pride (he thinks he can cure his wife on his own), and the woman's is despair (she remains mired in grief, and allows it to overtake her). Indeed, the film is divided into four chapters: Grief, Pain, Despair, and the Three Beggars (the Three Beggars being a constellation of grief, pain, and despair). Throughout the film, the three emotion's avatars make their presence known: Grief is a doe with a dead deer fetus hanging out of its womb, Pain is a fox who eats its own intestines, and despair is a crow that refuses to die. The Three Beggars appear throughout the film, finally uniting in the last chapter to provide the catalyst for the finale. Is Von Trier saying that all negative emotions can be boiled down to these three beggars? Is he saying that to allow any of them to find footing in life is to start the descent into moral turpitude? I can't know. No one will ever know for sure. The thesis statement of the film could very well be delivered by Pain (yes, the fox.) The Man has just stumbled onto Pain in the forest, and recoils. Pain rips its intestines out, looks up at the man, and says "chaos reigns." That could be the crux: Von Trier is creating a world that isn't fettered by the confines of ethics or morality.
Apologies for that tangential tirade. As I said, I could write for hours about this film. I suppose I must conclude, though I haven't mentioned the acting, which is phenomenal, or the cinematography, which is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. I must finish the review with a warning: this film is incredibly worth seeing for being a completely unique cinematic experience of singular complexity and profound impact. It is, however, not for the faint-hearted. I mean it. There are acts of unspeakable cruelty and violence shown in gory detail, and there are moments of sexuality that would be pornographic if not for their incredibly gruesome nature. This is a film that, if you watch it, you will never unsee. I guarantee that you will be profoundly disturbed and unsettled by this film. Should you not watch it? I don't know. You can if you feel up to it, if you want to view a very thought-provoking look at man's darker nature. But it's going to cost you some sanity.

(I have to include a trailer, just to give you some sense of the film's aesthetic sensibilities. The trailer is appropriate for all audiences.


  1. This movie definitely sounds like it would be disturbing to watch. How does it compare to Requiem for a Dream in terms of unsettling/sad to watch?

  2. Requiem For a Dream is like a Disney movie. Seriously. Requiem For a Dream is sad, and unfortunate, and somewhat disturbing. Antichrist isn't sad: it's just downright terrifying. Requiem For a Dream is something that most people can watch. Antichrist is something that most people can't. I'm really not exaggerating when I say that the movie made me psyhically uncomfortable and almost sick. It's an incredibly grating, shaking experience.