You will probably have heard about Antichrist by now, Danish director Lars von Trier’s latest controversy-baiting masterpiece/grot-shocker (delete as appropriate). Not unsurprisingly, it’s the unsimulated sex and genital self-mutilation that’s been grabbing the headlines. Exploitative, grotesque, vaudevillian – all indignation-fuelled adjectives levelled at Antichrist. But for every fuming denouncement there’s a self-satisfied critic ready to gush that anyone too prudish to see past the explicit candour is a short sighted, Daily Mail-reading zealot.
So what is it, masterpiece or grot-shocker? Well, the truth is Antichrist is neither. It’s just one big hoax, a giant prank by a man whose career has been defined by being the boldest, brazen and extreme director of them all. But, as the saying goes, the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
The plot, as far as it stretches, is this: after the death of their child, two (unnamed) characters retreat to a secluded cabin in the woods to deal with their loss – with horrifying consequences. He (Willem Dafoe) is a douche bag psychotherapist who turns his wife into his patient, while She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is an emotional wreck going through a severe mental breakdown. It’s a wafer-thin premise – just one big MacGuffin for the money shots – but no more so than most schlock horror films.
Antichrist reveals its modus operandi within the first few seconds, and with it the duality of the film’s motive. The Epilogue sequence, shot in a breathtaking monochrome, intercuts between the couple making rather passionate music and the infant, Nick, waking from his cot and climbing out of an open window. It’s a glorious, bravura opening sequence, with the juxtaposition between innocence and carnal desire (beauty and the beast, perhaps) an arresting visual metaphor – if not the subtlest.
However, the infamous full penetration shot is totally unnecessary. There is simply no need for it. Von Trier has included it for no other purpose but to provoke a reaction. If anything, it distracts from the overall resonance. But that is the point. Von Trier is mocking us.
Horror has always been an extension of our inbuilt voyeurism: the ability to explore darker sides of the psyche, in a sterilised surrounding, guilt free. Von Trier has accelerated this to terminal velocity. By including scenes like this, and the rest, he knows Antichrist will be known as the film where a crazy women cuts off her own clitoris with a pair of scissors etc… And by extension, that anyone going to watch such sordid fair is an idiot. The joke is on us – we’re paying him for this experience.
Another example: the cheap Christian symbolism. Antichrist (natch) is full of them, from the cabin called Eden (double natch) to the twisted vision of the Three Wise Men (triple natch). These are so unsophisticated they can’t be taken seriously, and shouldn’t, even if they are spun into the plot later on.
However, Antichrist remains visually stunning throughout. Von Trier shrouds his Garden of Eden in esoteric mists, filmed through nebulous fish-eye lenses, underscored with swelling, corrupt orchestration and cut with serrated edits. The experience is like being asphyxiated in dense nightmares, and totally immersive. Don’t, whatever you do, wait to see this on DVD – if you want to watch; it’s the cinema or nothing.
The intense contradictions are everywhere in this film. Dafoe’s satanic looks contrast with Gainsbourg’s Virgin Mary-esque appearance, the dialogue flits from the poetic to hackneyed corn, the peaceful surroundings and brutality of nature, the intense subject matter and darkly comic intent. How can a fox disembowelling itself and then saying “chaos reigns” be seen as anything other than an absurd, macabre gag?
Yet, for all its faults, Antichrist is somehow immensely compelling, and, most important of all, dares to do something different. We forget sometimes that cinema can be challenging – not everything we watch needs to conform to the rules. This is not a justification of von Trier’s self indulgence, but a reminder that broadening one’s horizons once in a while is not necessarily a bad thing.
Take Antichrist on face value and you’ll ether be bored to tears by a meandering, offensive grot-fest, or buying into von Trier’s ruse – that he can put anything on screen and call it ‘art’ because he is an ‘artist’. It’s and old postmodernist trick recycled for a desensitised audience. See through all the smoke and mirrors, though, and you’ll wise up to what Antichrist really is: a bad joke expertly executed, with the only art on display the con.