Lars von Trier has labeled his new film Antichrist a horror film. And it is indeed one of the more horrifying films I’ve seen of late. It includes grisly scenes of abuse and self-mutilation, but if you’re a fan of the Saw genre of torture porn, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this will be your cup of tea. Never have such shocking images been so beautifully arranged on screen…and never have I been so provoked to question and delve my own beliefs after seeing a mere horror flick.
Von Trier brings his usual deeply twisted take on human nature to this psycho-sexual fable. Two brave actors, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, attack their roles and each other with a ferocious commitment. Von Trier takes us on a ride from tragedy, to grief, guilt and evil. That a woman (as is often the case in a von Trier film) is at the centre of the maelstrom is sure to level complaints of misogyny against the Danish filmmaker.
The film opens with a prologue, shot in glorious ultraslow-motion black and white with a Handel oratorio as the soundtrack. A couple makes love, unaware of their son climbing towards an open window in another room. The scenes of lust and abandon are intercut with the chilling, impending tragedy. A mouth open in a bestial cry of passion becomes a scream of horror. Von Trier draws a parallel between ecstacy and agony, confronts age-old Madonna/Whore notions and continues to explore those themes literally and metaphorically for the rest of the film.
Gainsbourg and Dafoe retreat to their isolated cabin in the woods…aptly named Eden where life becomes primitive. Nature is unwelcoming. The twisted, knotted branches of dead trees are the visual reminders of decay and rot. Even the acorns falling onto the roof of the cabin are proof that Nature is indifferent. Dafoe sees dead animals all around. There are surreal flights of fancy….met with some titters at the screening I saw. There is real gruesomeness as the husband and wife become locked in a feral fight for life. The fear and dread that have been building slowly through the first half of the film crescendo with an explicit manifestation of madness. And then this deep exploration of grief and healing takes a sharp turn into a meditation on evil.
But to dismiss Antichrist as “just” a horror film is to miss the point. Yes, there are scenes of (perhaps) gratuitous gore…but the emotions that accompany these scenes go far beyond any feelings you are likely to experience watching Jason, or Freddy carve up their prey. Von Trier is too smart, or too manipulative, to make a lazy horror picture. Within the parameters of the genre, Von Trier touches on Original Sin, the story of Adam and Eve, the existence of a God, Woman’s treatment at the hands of Man, female sexuality and motherhood. Anyone who just wants blood and guts at the expense of story and characters will be bored and disappointed.
The films I find to be the scariest aren’t the ones with rampaging monsters or ax-wielding maniacs, but the ones that deal with what goes on inside someone’s head. Repulsion, The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby all deal with central characters slowly going mad…or feeling as if they are. Antichrist is worthy to join that list.