It’s difficult to make up one’s mind about Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. Initially its impact felt like the emotional equivalent of a bludgeoning by a wrecking ball. But in retrospect, the film lost some of its weight, seeming more and more like a hastily written first draft, filled with loose ends and incomplete thoughts. It’s very unlike von Trier, whose films are usually tightly reined in pieces of work. At the same time, Antichrist has an honesty that’s quite appealing.
The film opens with a nameless couple making passionate love. The scene is shot in slow motion and set to a Handel aria that soars as their pleasure intensifies. As they plunder each other, their child falls out of a window. The woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is torn apart by grief. Her husband (Willem Dafoe), who’s also her therapist, attempts to help her cope. They go to a log cabin in a semi-imaginary forest called Eden and it’s here that the woman spirals into insanity. Unfortunately, she takes the film with her.
Before it begins its dramatic descent, Antichrist is an intensely intimate examination of guilt that’s often hard to watch peppered as it is with scenes of violent sex. You feel sympathy for the woman when she’s put through a series of psychoanalytical exercises by her husband who is at times maddeningly rational. But once they’re at the cabin, Antichrist takes a Biblical hairpin.
An academic who has researched historical violence committed against women, Gainsboug’s character becomes convinced that women are evil. She calls nature Satan’s church, women false creatures and later, in an unbearable scene, slices her genitals with a scissor. She also flagellates herself by masturbating violently and having sex that looks cringingly painful. Her guilt over her son’s death combines with a Catholic guilt over her enjoyment of sex. Critics have accused von Trier of misogyny. For the film, he hired a “misogyny consultant” who was required to produce evidence that women are evil, starting from Eve. But the Biblical references are ham-handed. It seems farfetched to conclude that von Trier is a misogynist. Instead Antichrist could be read, as its Nietzschean title suggests, as an indictment of Christianity. But there’s not enough in the film to back the idea. It’s as if von Trier recently read about medieval Christianity and thought it would make a nice hook for his film. (He converted to Catholicism at the age of 30.)
The other evil in Satan’s church is nature. Von Trier channels the horror film as he shows an Eden that is as sinister as it is beautiful. Trees are dark and looming and the cabin rings with the unpleasant thud of acorns falling on it. The woman says she can hear the cry of all things that are going to die. The man sees a deer with a stillborn foetus dangling from its womb and an injured fox which, in an unbelievably ridiculous scene, looks at him and intones: chaos reigns. Actually, the woman’s preoccupation with death is a far more interesting thread than feminine guilt. Sadly it leads nowhere.
In interviews, von Trier has said that the film was his way of dealing with a long drawn bout of depression that had incapacitated him for months. It makes sense as Antichrist really does come across as the outcome of some feverish self-examination. It seems too personal to be another joke by the “giggling prankster of world cinema”. But if it is, then joke is on von Trier. The film ends with a horrifying sequence of gratuitous violence – she screws what looks like a millstone onto his leg in an act of punishment and smashes his genitals with a log. More than saying anything about the pathology of the woman or womanhood, it suggests that von Trier had forgotten to take his meds.