ANTICHRIST is, to my mind, Danish auteur Lars von Trier's best film since DANCER IN THE DARK. Forget the hype - ignore talk of genital mutilation and talking foxes - at core this is a deeply felt, beautifully filmed story of grief and religious guilt.
The film opens with a prologue shot in black and white, in extreme slow motion, set to a haunting aria about escaping tragic fate. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play a married couple having passionate sex. Their is graphic nudity, but it's not sensational. The camera focuses on the wife's face as she climaxes. The footage is intercut with scenes showing the couple's toddler leaving his cot, climbing onto a table and falling out of their apartment window to his death. It is immediately apparent that Lars von Trier is going to be tackling issues of women's sexuality as conceived in religious propaganda: a woman can be a mother or a whore, and the price of climax is to lose the child.
We then cut to the first chapter in the story, "Grief", and the movie switches back to real-time, colour and naturalistic acting. The chapter sees the mother unable to move beyond grief, consumed with guilt at having left her son unattended. The father, a psychotherapist, wants to take her out of hospital and off meds. He thinks grief is natural and has to be confronted and worked through. She thinks he's arrogant, but submits to his plan. The acting in this chapter is superlative. I've never seen such an honest and touching evocation of guilt on screen. Charlotte Gainsbourg earns her Best Actress award at Cannes in spades. And when you consider that Lars von Trier is often seen as a technical master, but just a jokester, this is simply stunning work.
The second chapter, "Pain (Chaos Reigns") sees the couple journeying to their country cabin in the woods to confront the wife's fear of "nature red in tooth and clear". The husband tries to remain rational and evidently loves his wife dearly, but even he is saying unnatural, Shakespearian, portents - wild animals disfigured, damaged and dying. The wife can't shake off her fear: nature is dying and evil, "Satan's Church". She wakes up one morning, seemingly cured, but her husband distrusts the cure, as do we. Once again, the acting and emotional content in this chapter is searing, and the subtle build-up of dread masterly. I particularly liked the way in which DP Anthony Dod Mantle warps the image at the edges to give a feel of surreality. Sometimes the imagery is so beautiful it's as heart-breaking as the content. The only problem is the final image, where a fox intones "chaos reigns". We all laughed. Maybe that's what we needed? Maybe it's Lars von Trier showing us that even in the midst of the most serious material he can still be a prankster. Either way, I think the movie would've been better without it. But then, it wouldn't be a Lars von Trier film!
The third chapter, "Despair (Gynocide)" is where the stuff that you've read about starts to happen. The wife was writing a thesis on the medieval church's cruel treatment of women which centred heavily on sexually active, powerful women being burned as witches. While researching in the log cabin a year ago, she came to the conclusion that the women actually deserved that punishment. In other words she has become a self-hating woman - a female misogynist. What follows in this chapter and the next, "The Three Beggars", is that the wife descends into madness and takes out her anger on her husband and herself. It is savage - both graphic - and emotionally freakish. But that is all, I think, called for. I never felt that the material was sensationalist, and, once again, Charlotte Gainsbourg must be praised for making it seem credible. I love the ambiguity of whether her greatest fear was "Me" as in herself of "Me" as in her husband. I love the ambiguity of whether she really was complicit in her son's murder. And I love the physical ambiguity in the prologue.
I think the real problem with ANTICHRIST is the sensationalist title, the aforementioned Fox scene, and the fact that it is going to be the victim of its own hype. The movie actually struck me as a bit banal - I had thought it would be up their with SALO but it's nowhere near. But when you reflect on it calmly, and see it for what it is, it remains an impressive, provocative and actually very moving piece of work. And no, a movie about a woman turned misogynist is not, of itself, misogynist, any more than BORAT was racist.
ANTICHRIST played Cannes 2009, where Charlotte Gainsbourg won Best Actress. It opened earlier this year in Denmark, Italy, Finland, France, Poland, Norway, Sweden, Kazakhstan and Russia. It opens in the UK on July 24th, but is on preview at the Curzon Soho next week. It opens in Spain on August 21st; in Brazil on August 28th; in Germany on September 10th; in Belgium on September 15th; in Romania on October 16th; in the USA on October 23rd and in the Netherlands on October 29th.