Gore galore and more
Shocking, infantile, but also powerful and profound – Antichrist is all over the cinematic map, which is just how director Lars von Trier likes it, writes Donald Clarke
IS ANTICHRIST the sickest film ever made? Well, is it? Is it?
Several tabloid newspapers certainly think so and, when it was screened at Cannes earlier this year, more than a few serious, grown-up critics were prepared to join in the mass evisceration. On the other hand, Isabelle Huppert, president of the festival jury, was so unrelenting in her (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to put the Palme d’Or Antichrist’s way that a fellow panel member labelled her a “fascist”.
So, Lars von Trier’s post-Christian horror show is, it seems, one of those films you either loathe (as did my colleague Michael Dwyer) or regard as a masterpiece (the distinguished critic Mark Cousins raved). Apologies, then, for refusing to abide by the orthodoxy, but this singular project strikes me as a perfectly balanced blend of the sublime and the abysmal. Rather than a flawed masterpiece, it is more of a giant congealed flaw with gristly hunks of masterpiece floating about in the bloody aspic.
Take the bravura opening sequence. To the strains of a delicate Handel aria, a couple have eye-rolling, monochrome sex on the washing machine and, then, in the shower. Meanwhile, their unattended toddler wanders towards the window, stands upon the ledge and, in graceful slow motion, falls to his death.
It’s a beautifully composed, deliberately shocking sequence, but it is hard not to snort at the sight of the child’s teddy bear bouncing poignantly onto the snowy pavement. Isn’t that what happens following the slaughter of Steven Seagal’s soon-to-be avenged family in the opening sequences of big, dumb action films?
Featuring a suffocating Willem Dafoe as “He” and a hyper-kinetic Charlotte Gainsbourg as “She”, Antichrist continues to deal in this combination of virtuoso flourish and adolescent banality throughout. While the soundtrack hums with menace, He, a psychiatrist, visits She, a writer, in hospital and queries the treatment she is receiving for post-traumatic stress. After agreeing to lay off the medication, the poor woman accompanies her rather pompous partner to a retreat in the woods. He tries to get her to confront her demons. She goes steadily crazy.
Now, if you can just shut out certain nods and references, then you should be able to appreciate Antichrist as a supreme example of the Cinema of Effect. Making good use of the Red One digital camera, von Trier brings us into a grey, fetid forest where roots sprout arms, acorns clatter absurdly on tin roofs, and animated foxes take time to say things such as “chaos reigns”.
Wake up to the dialogue, however, and you will note that the couple – who have just sinned, remember – have found themselves in a locale called Eden. Do you get it? Do you?
Everywhere, von Trier the technical genius is in conflict with von Trier the half-bright teenager, and nowhere more so than in those scenes that have riled the moral crusaders. If you’re the sort of fuddy-duddy that gets offended by shots of full sexual penetration, erect penises ejaculating blood and women graphically severing their own clitorises (that’s some pair of rusty scissors!), then you had best stay clear of Antichrist.
Yet, unlike previous art-house shockers such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s consistently stomach-churning Salo, von Trier’s film limits its more appalling moments to a few discreet, largely gratuitous outbursts. Why, it’s almost as if the sequences – easily removable if censors threaten to ban – have been inserted with the express purpose of generating furious newspaper articles. As with Brüno, object too publically and you become part of the film-maker’s own diabolical plan.
This being a Lars von Trier film, it hardly needs to be said that the relentless focus on female suffering invites accusations of misogyny. This time round, with
characteristic humility, the director actually includes a conversation that comments (only mildly obliquely) on his own work and on these allegations in particular. It is perverse, Dafoe’s character suggests, to assume that those who repeatedly record female oppression somehow approve of it. Quite the reverse might be the case.
Is von Trier sincere? Is he ever sincere? One can never tell. But, for all the follies, infelicities and irritations within Antichrist, the film – cleverly scored, beautifully shot, bravely acted – surely demonstrates that the Danish provocateur has lost none of his gifts for raising viewers’ hackles.
Of course, you might reasonably suggest that he could get the same effect by whacking punters with a dirty spade. But don’t suggest that to him. He might just try it.
Prey for her: Charlotte Gainsbourg gets put through the ringer in Antichrist