I tend to eschew “art house” films, as the “independent” set more often than not churn out cinema just as manufactured and identity-free as any of the Hollywood blockbusters the beret-wearing public so righteously turn their noses up at. Sure, the tropes and trends aren’t the same as your average John Woo or McG popcorn flick, but they’re all there if you’ve trained yourself to notice them, thus scarring forever your ability to take the next “visionary masterpiece” to rock the Cannes Film Festival seriously.
The point I’m trying to make here is that Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is pretty much full of itself. Or full of s--t. We’re basically talking about the same thing either way.
After the tragic death of their infant child, a grieving father played by Willem Dafoe, and identified only as “he”, joins his distraught wife played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, identified only as “she” (you can already tell what kinda film this is gonna be, can’t you?) and retreats to a cabin deep in the wilderness to work through their angst. A foreboding and nigh-supernatural atmosphere envelops them, as “she” proceeds to go positively bananas and “he” finds his life falling into considerable jeopardy.
Let’s get things started. The opening pre-credits sequence for Antichrist feels like every art school student film ever made. Opera music? Check. Black and white? Check. Slow motion? Check. Snowing outside? Check. Avant garde genitalia? Check. It essentially sets the tone for the entire film; a pretentious sack of drivel, delusional in its own psychological depth while in reality doing nothing but stringing together cliché after cliché to the ooohing and aaahing of no one but the Criterion Collection.
The prologue gets the back story out of the way, showing us the tragic death of their child, which is a striking visual despite the presentation boiling down to nothing but a duplicate of Jay Sherman’s student film from The Critic. This is actually where Antichrist improves, as once the non sequitur of a credit sequence is out of the way, the movie takes its head out of its own ass and starts feeding us story in a manner more digestible.
“He” is a doctor with a bit too much of a superiority complex, thinking that he alone can cure his wife’s depression, thus throwing caution to the wind and forcing his wife to take a trip to the last place she was alone with their baby: A cabin in the woods. This is where the film excels in atmosphere while simultaneously decaying in the coherency department.
To lay on the positive commentary first, the atmosphere in Antichrist is superb, relying heavily on discomforting ambient sound (particularly a constant hail of acorns on the cabin roof) and crafting an overall sense of isolation that few movies can equal. The supernatural elements are sparse and often times pointless nonsense (a talking fox, for instance), though certain visuals are freaky-enough to make you lean away from your television set (the doe with the still-birth comes to mind).
Antichrist is very well-acted (relying exclusively on the “two-man show” nature means it’d have to be), but the problem with the characters isn’t in the casting. No, Willem Dafoe plays the character of “he” with a certain smarmy, “I’m always right, you’re always wrong” attitude that makes you want to hate him, but with enough of a touch of genuine concern that you can’t fault him too much for his rather ill-plotted rehabilitation methods. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s “she” is just cuh-ray-zee and may test your patience at times, but Gainsbourg really sells the part and when “she” finally snaps, the character becomes sincerely frightening and threatening.
But therein rests the problem. Antichrist is touted (at least on the DVD box) as a “battle of the sexes”, but when it comes to who it’s tempting the audience to root for, the end result is a fairly lopsided portrayal. “He” may be something of a dick, but he means well. “She” is just straight-up bonkers and quickly becomes the clear-cut “villain” of the picture. When the theme of your film lingers on a “battle of the sexes”, that seems like a fairly poor call of judgment when you’ve already designated the characters as “good” and “evil”, as that just means the audience is going to associate those traits with the gender you’ve assigned them to. In this case: men are good (if conceited douches) and women are evil (or perhaps “violently insane with grief” would do better).
And this isn’t just some misogynistic misinterpretation on my part, either, and here’s where we tarry into SPOILER country, so back off if you don’t want to have anything ruined for you.
As the film progresses, we find out that “she” originally journeyed to the cabin with their son to research her thesis about how women have been oppressed and branded as “evil” by male authorities over the centuries. While doing said research, she comes to the conclusion that women actually ARE evil and, in the midst of self-loathing, decides to succumb to the part.
First, she physically abuses their son in secret and then, we find out, that she was responsible for the child’s seemingly “accidental” death. Suddenly, Willem Dafoe’s “know-it-all” behavior pales in comparison. “She” proceeds to go absolutely crazy (er, crazier), beating her husband senseless, heel-stomping his penis, jerking it off until it cums blood, then drills a hole through his leg and attaches a rusty chain and anchor to him (I guess a ball and chain would have been too on-the-nose?). The “self-loathing” comes in when she takes a pair of scissors and cuts off… I’ll just let you find out.
What we’re left with is a very unusual “lesson” that I just don’t think I understood correctly because WHAT!?
The epilogue of the film doesn’t help clarify matters any, as it’s rendered in that same “student film” quality as the prologue and does it’s level best to be as befuddling as possible. At the end of the day, what Antichrist seems to want to tell me is that “women are evil and you should hit them.”
That… that can’t be right.
Looking over my review, I can clearly see that I’m very cynical, which may have colored my viewing experience in a rather poor light. “Pretentious art house cinema” happens to be a pet peeve of mine, and while I still believe I’ve been able to effectively articulate my issues with the film and feel comfortable in my evaluation, well, I can’t help but concede that I may have gone into the film with a preconceived negative disposition. Regardless, while Antichrist excels in atmosphere and casting, von Trier mixes in far too many hackneyed tropes of the art house for my tastes which utterly comes at the expense of the film’s theme and, well, POINT. The entire flick winds up feeling half-baked.