Despite the tides of gore and pain and transgression smeared all over movie screens during the past decade, it’s more than a little unsettling to come across a film that makes it all feel like more than Grand Guignol kicks. If you’ve heard of Danish writer/director Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray) at all, it’s most likely because of the pre-release buzz about its more disturbing content, including a bolt driven through a character’s leg and genital mutilation. Those scenes, when they come, are every bit as cringe-worthy as you’d imagine. Trier’s true achievement is measured by the fact that those particular scenes account for so little of the overall dread he summons here. Trier has said that he intended to make a horror film, and he did, after a fashion, but it’s like no horror film you’ve ever seen.
A never-named couple—subtitles and credits refer to them as He and She—lose their young son when he falls out of their apartment window one snowy evening while they are having sex. She (Charlotte Gainsbourg, the acting and singing daughter of Serge) is pole-axed by grief. He (Willem Dafoe), a therapist, seemingly avoids his own grief by focusing on hers, eventually taking over her treatment himself. Deciding that she needs to confront the fears that are fueling her current psychic paralysis, He brings She to their remote cabin, where She and the boy had spent the previous summer. The name of the glade in which the cabin sits is Eden.
Trier draws on so many things here, from the Christian creation myth to the language and ideas of modern psychotherapy (Trier reportedly wrote the film during a bout with depression, including a brief hospitalization) to deep old Western cultural terrors of the natural world, and of women. None of these elements are successfully integrated with each other into a matrix of themes or a tidy narrative, in case you were wondering. Consciously or not, Trier’s approach to this material echoes that of Italian cult director Dario Argento, long revered for films such as Suspiria and Deep Red, in which the very lack of linear sense adds to the horror. Anything could happen, and just might, and in the right hands, that’s a powerfully unnerving feeling. (Trier has been quoted as saying, “I am really the wrong person to ask what the film means or why it is as it is.... It is a bit like asking the chicken about the chicken soup.”)
Indeed, Antichrist compels most as a sort of emotional horror movie, starting with the very idea of watching a couple go through the aftermath of losing a child but continuing on down to the smallest details. When He and She near the cabin, She stops at a small footbridge and hesitates, terror-stricken. You don’t know why, and neither does she, but such is Gainsbourg’s commitment to this role, and such is Trier’s skill and intuitiveness here, that the scene ratchets up the unsettled feeling as much as, if not more than, any gotcha set piece. As He and She settle in, acorns bombard the roof in the dead of night, He wakes up with his hand covered in ticks, and the woods around them seem ever more dire, their very flora and fauna mirroring the distress of the visitors. You, like He and She, are trapped, with no idea of the outcome. As He talks and thinks and tries to draw her out, She comes apart, trying to obliterate her pain with desperate, violent sex and eventually turning on He. In the end, she is both the film’s heroine and its monster, and as is so often the case, what’s in us is revealed to be far more terrible than what’s around us.
Late in the going, Trier unveils a few details that serve to explain the cabin’s mysterious grip on She, her increasingly unhinged actions, and her cataclysmic level of pain and guilt over their son’s death. Given the height of suffering these characters have escalated to, and the almost hypnotic unreality Trier has created, these steps back toward conventional sense ring a false note, though the epilogue cashes in any whiff of the pat. Antichrist has won Trier critical censure for what many perceive as misogyny (not for the first time), and Gainsbourg’s heroic performance notwithstanding, it permeates the film. Yet Antichrist can’t be dismissed as exploitation or a mere pretentious misfire. The passion with which Trier embraces this disturbing material bursts through in every uncanny frame, not least in the exquisitely beautiful cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle. (The opening black-and-white sequence could serve as a plasma-screen demo reel, were it not centered on the death of a child.) Whether appalled or entranced by it—or possibly both—you will never forget it.