Film review: Antichrist (2009)


Spoilers occur about the ending, this review is intended for those who have already watched the film.

My review is a contribution to the LAMB Lars von Trier director's chair event July 16th.



Summary:
About a couple, the wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is writing a thesis and the husband (Willem Dafoe) is a therapist. They spend a large part of the film at a cabin in the woods. The film explores grief, psychotherapy, misogyny, witchcraft, and all sorts of things.
As Lars von Trier said in a press interview at Cannes: "This is a story of a woman who at some level feels a great guilt, and that is maybe why she is doing this to herself"


Analysis:
I disagree with reviewers who say Lars von Trier is merely trying to shock audiences. I would rank it alongside Breaking the Waves as one of Lars von Trier's best. Like that 1996 film, Antichrist takes the imaginative images from his early work and combines it with thought-provoking issues.

I might go so far as to say, the more you learn about the couples' relationship, the less you understand.

As Surrender to the Void writes in his review, "there's a man trying to get into his wife's mind and help her despite the fact that she's not a fan of psychotherapy. Yet, what he finds out isn't just the fact that his wife is troubled but he himself, is someone that might have taken on a role where he's gone too far. The woman is an extremely grief-stricken person who feels responsible for the death of their child as well as the belief from her thesis that all women are evil that has caused her to become psychotic."

I’m not sure the right label is to call it horror. It is without doubt a von Trier-esque film, though. I saw a reviewer describe it as an intense, psychological horror film. On the audio commentary Lars von Trier says: “Maybe it isn’t a horror film, but I set out to do a horror film, that was the starting point”

I think it’s a shame Antichrist utilizes hand held camera like a low-budget documentary similar to previous Danish Dogme films, as the camera-work kept reminding me it was a movie. I probably would have given it a higher rating, if it was shot like a normal film. Anthony Dod Mantle, Oscar winning cinematographer from Slumdog millionaire was on board, so you are treated to some dazzling eye candy at times.

It’s interesting director Lars von Trier on the DVD claims he is atheistic, and made the film as a provocation to himself. He admits it would be ridiculous to say women are more evil than men, he doesn’t think so, but he thinks women are more scared of their sexuality than men. Perhaps because women can become pregnant.

There is a lot to interpret, the title Antichrist, does it imply atheism, at least in respect to the story and characters? Another issue are the animals in the woods, could they be a metaphor for nature giving and taking life. Or do they represent indifferent wildlife and a God who just watches us? Perhaps Lars von Trier is saying nature is beautiful, but doesn't care.



The female lead may not love anything, but it is not explained. Sexuality seems to be a negative element, which is destroying their marriage or perhaps holding it together, it is difficult to say. Something else I found interesting is whether the wife deliberately tied the child's shoe laces together? You could say she has absorbed all these thesis’ about evil women, and perhaps in the process become one herself? Or is it a case of the boy wanting to fly like the teddy and the balloon?



On the audio commentary, Professor Murray Smith says: “She can’t escape from the death of her son. Every time she has sex it reminds her of her son’s death. Lars von Trier: “For me it’s very much a film about anxiety, her anxiety spreading to nature, and to him. He’s taking over her perception. She is using sex to get away from her anxiety”
The guilt is ambiguous. Lars von Trier: “You can easily read it that she feels guilty about killing the boy, her being strangled is him taking over her anxiety." Trier wanted to show that the landscape was something internal, like a Tarkovsky film, for example the scene of the woods fading into the hair.


The ending:

The berries at the end reflect the goodness of nature. On the audio commentary, Lars von Trier says about the ending, he is “trying to be mysterious, because he likes this kind of film. It’s a film that you mirror in people watching it”

The ending is fascinating, what are all those people without faces doing on the hill? Are they seeking something in the woods? This is a film, which demands several viewing to be understood.

Does she want her husband to notice her, is this an explanation of her behaviour? To further make the film even more ambiguous, the child has a name, the man and woman have no personal names.

The wife seems to be caught in a dilemma a lot of women find themselves in, whether to concentrate on their career, or sacrifice these ambitions for the sake of being there for their children.

I also thought the stone bolted to the husband was intriguing, perhaps indicating a marriage can sometimes feel like a burden holding you down? She is hurting him, but does she want him to stay? Why is the cabin in the woods called Eden? You can go on and on interpreting.

Another possible interpretation, perhaps the wife wants her husband to acknowledge the guilt and responsibility she feels, and when he only wants to see the goodness in her, she becomes frustrated and loses her mind. In this light, the film is about the husband disrespectfully not empathizing with his wife's true feelings, and ultimately being a bad therapist.

At the end, Lars von Trier dedicates the movie to his hero, the Russian director Tarkovsky. I happen to have seen Tarkovsky's The Mirror (1975), which is also set in the woods, and Trier says was an influence.

Interview with Lars von Trier about Antichrist (2009):

Interviewer: Do you worry that audiences are numbed by violence?

Lars von Trier: "Yeah, yeah, of course. But when you think about all the footage we now see from real life, I feel like you can show anything. But then when it becomes fictional, there's a limitation. So it's very strange."

Interviewer: Do you worry that people will hate the film?

Lars von Trier: "I don't think about that. I kind of consider myself to be the public. What kind of film would I like to see? How would I like to be provoked? Then some of the audience share my views, some does not. Thank God, some people do react like me! This idea in Hollywood that you can produce a film that will hit a broad audience - and you do test screenings to see when people laugh - it would be impossible for me."


Interviewer: But is the fox a joke?

Lars von Trier: "No, it comes from these Shamanic journeys that I did. It's not like getting onto a plane! Yes, I am still afraid of that. You have a drum beat and you go into a trance that takes you into this parallel world. And there, I talked to this fox and it demanded to have a line."

Interviewer: Did he say anything else?

Lars von Trier: "Well, the first fox I met was a red fox. And it started to split itself to pieces. And afterwards, I met a couple of other foxes. Silver foxes with little cubs. And they said to me, 'Never trust the first fox you meet.' So it was interesting."

Interviewer: Is your movie a Shamanic journey?

Lars von Trier: "That would be very nice. Shamanic journey is very personal. There's nothing religious about it at all. But it's great fun."




Trivia:

It was nominated for the Palme d'Or, and won best female lead performance at the Cannes Film Festival.

Eva Green was considered for the leading lady but rejected because her contract was too complex.

This movie received a special anti-award from the ecumenical jury at Cannes. The jury, which typically awards a film that promotes spiritual and humanist values, decided to award this film an anti-award for its misogynistic views. However, Lars von Trier did not confirm in a later interview that he was a misogynist, saying he loved women and understood Her better than Him.

When the filming started, Lars von Trier had just left a hospital where he stayed for two months, receiving treatment for depression. He had not completely recovered at the time and was even unable to operate the camera as he usually does, which made him very frustrated. He repeatedly excused himself to the actors for being in the mental condition he was, but, according to him, the actors supported him and throughout production, he did not experience any grave problems, except for his own condition.

According to Lars von Trier, he tried his best to make a horror film but did not succeed, and the same happened to him before when he tried to make a musical and the result was Dancer in the Dark.



Verdict:
Considered a film that people either love or hate. Controversial, thought-provoking, challenging, illogical arthouse-horror. However the violent and gruesomely explicit scenes may alienate viewers, Antichrist is not for the faint of heart. Outstanding performances by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. A beautiful nightmare, credit must also go to Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography. It is one of those rare films, which I was still thinking about days after I had seen it. Antichrist is arguably Lars von Trier's most ambiguous and mysterious film to date. If the gruesome scenes had been toned down and the shaky camera idea dropped, this COULD have ranked among my top 25 movies of all-time. That didn't happen, as it is, there are things I love about it, and elements I dislike.
A pity that such a great film excludes viewers with it's moments of ugliness. Definitely the smartest and most symbolic horror film I can remember. As with We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011), Antichrist wants you to feel the pain its characters do. Knowing Lars von Trier is a prankster, perhaps Antichrist was a practical joke. Perhaps he is trying to somehow exorcise his fears and his deepest anxieties through filmmaking. Chaos reigns...

My rating 7.9

Lars von Trier quotes:
Antichrist dvd audio commentary
Rotten tomatoes interview
2009 Cannes press interview


What do you guys think? Was my review useful? Have you watched Antichrist (2009)? Share your opinions in the comments below

This concludes my Lars von Trier marathon, hope you enjoyed my reviews for now!

13 comments:

  1. My 2nd favorite von Trier film and a possible future subject of my Favorite Film series for next year or 2014. I just love how powerful it is and how uncompromising it was willing to be. It starts off beautifully and then goes into this mode of exploring depression and anxiety in all of its visceral forms. The final act of the film is just shocking. I walked out of that screening back in the fall of 2009 shocked. I'm so glad I own the Criterion DVD of this film.

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    1. @thevoid99: Antichrist also ranks up there among his best for me too, and I thought it was a return to form. If anyone is uncompromising, then Lars von Trier is! The whole anxiety issue, I think Antichrist could be his most personal film, along with Melancholia

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  2. Looks like you will nominate this Director's Chair! :) Great article, though for me Antichrist is just a provocation - the script is thin and even the wonderful performances and gorgeous cinematography can't rescue it. There is no clear message, no moral, just typical hatred from Von Trier. Melancholia surprisingly focused on character development and the story and that's why it's the only film by him I liked.

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    1. @Sati: Thanks for reading, yes, but I think surrender to the void has reviewed more von Trier than I have! ( :

      I think we wíll have to agree to disagree on Antichrist. I don't like the man Trier who I find tactless and arrogant in press conferences, but I appreciate his body of work.Antichrist was a lot more challenging for me than Melancholia-which I find too straightforward, predictable, and depressing.
      Indeed you could say with Melancholia Trier has "grown up" and not used shock tactics to tell a story, and this may give him a wider audience.
      I think what makes Antichrist a work of art is that there is no clear message, it is unexplainable and ambiguous, and it is whatever the viewer wants it to be.

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  3. *dominate :) God, my fingers don't type the things I intend :)

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  4. For me i found the infamous scene to be the only thing i really remembered from it.Overall, not one of my favorites from von trier

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    1. @DWC: I remember Willem Dafoe's leg scene most vividly.
      This film really divides audiences, and commenters ( :

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  5. When I first watched it I thought it was brutal and very unsettling, but after reading your review you've convinced me that I should rewatch it.

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    1. @vinnieh: Glad my review convinced you to want to rewatch Antichrist, I must have done something right then ( :

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    2. If you like Von Trier you should check out my review of Melancholia when you get the time.

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    3. @vinnieh: I'll look up your review over the weekend!

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  6. Great analysis of such a divisive film, Chris. I'll never forget my first (and only) viewing of this. My girlfriend and I, new to Chicago, were walking around different neighborhoods and happened across an old movie theater from the 1920s. We saw a notice at their ticket office that said that Antichrist, which was playing there, was a disturbing film and that it was not for those with weak stomachs. Naturally, we were both intrigued and we had to see it.

    Man, that was a weird day. We were both pretty much speechless afterward. It took me a long time to gather my thoughts, but ultimately I was impressed with the film. It was absolutely hard to watch, but fascinating at the same time. That opening scene is just so tragic and beautiful.

    I think it may still be my "favorite" von Trier film, but I am working my way through his older work. BTW, I love how he described this film as "great fun" -- I have to disagree on that. :)

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    1. @Eric: Thanks for the praise of my analysis, I'm pretty satisfied with the content of this review, and the screenshots I'm pleased with too.

      A divisive and disturbing film it is. Lars von Trier is a little insane, as are many geniuses ( :

      I agree of that assessment that you can be simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by Antichrist.

      Actually I think von Trier was saying in the interview that his shamanic journey was "great fun". He was suffering from a depressing during the making of the film, and that meant he didn't operate the camera as he usually does.

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