Lars Von Trier’s latest offering, The Antichrist has generated interest, disgust, shock and applaud all at once, at every screening ever since the infamous premiere at the Cannes Film Festival where more than half the audience walked out, unable to digest the horrific violence of the film. Unfortunately, it is this curiosity value (“How much can the violence possibly be”) that has become the talk of the town, driving audiences to the film, more than Von Trier’s cinematic achievements in this venture.
Antichrist is the story of He (William Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and their grief at the death of their little son Nick. To deal with their loss, the two travel to their getaway cabin in a garden called Eden, where he, a therapist tries to heal her with exercises, but ultimately fails.
Antichrist adheres to some of the rules Lars Von Trier set for himself and for other members of the Dogme 95 collective, but its appeal and achievement lies in all the rules he breaks for this film. Unlike most of his other films, Antichrist opens with one of the most lyrical scenes in Von Trier’s cinema. The Prologue, as this scene is titled, switches between He and She making love and their son getting out of his crib, walking towards the window and then falling out. Its poetic quality only heightens the haunting feeling that will envelope the rest of the film. The slow movement, the steady camera work and seamless editing from one space to the other works all the better because of what is to come.
In Antichrist, Von Trier actively pulls grief out of the realms of psychology, of therapy, of anti-anxiety pills and pushes the characters and by extension the audience into the realm of physical, manifested pain. And it is this that hits you about Antichrist; no amount of psychedelic, surreal aesthetics can communicate what that portrayal of pain does. No doubt, Von Trier takes some kind of sadistic pleasure in pushing the boundaries of depiction of pain, but then again, it is the shock of witnessing that dismemberment on screen in all its gory detail that expresses the violence of emotions. Besides, Von Trier took up the task of shaking his audience out of their comfort zone right from day one, and despite all the Dogme 95 rules he breaks consistently, that is one thing he continues to do. The relationship a viewer has with the act of watching a film changes each time Von Trier delivers a movie. Coming back to the violence in the film, it is there, but not in as large a dose as it is being made out. What is there is excessive, it is horrifying and haunting, but it doesn’t define the film.
In the debate around this film, it would be far more useful to focus on Von Trier’s striking visuals and his narrative strategy, which is thought provoking, and cutting edge. Many films have biblical subtexts that frame and contextualize them, Antichrist, also has a biblical subtext, except that Von Trier doesn’t let it remain an undertone, rather, he brings it to the forefront. The lack of names for the central characters, and their completely singular existence present them as primal beings. To add to this is the garden of Eden and the Three Beggars. And Satan. However, there is no pre-Fall world. Nature is always ugly and threatening, nature is the Antichrist, the Satan. The crow, the wolf and the deer with its dead foetus make sure we know this. The horror and the violence come after the Fall of Man. Now, perhaps. The image of a mountain of human skeletons is what this Eden is all about.
The central relationship in this film is a curious thing. His attempts to get close to her are unique, as he is trying to bridge an intensely personal gap with his professional know-how. She, on the other hand, makes repeated attempts to get close physically, by demanding sex, which as the film progresses, seems the only way for the two to connect. The handheld camera, jerky movement and the long silences we aren’t used to, makes this relationship even harder to grapple with.
Like a number of Von Trier’s films, Antichrist too can and has come under the scanner for its alleged misogyny. While the aggressor in this film, be it in terms of sex or violence, is the woman, seeing her as the Antichrist would do the film a great deal of injustice. Von Trier has certainly moved on from the helpless Golden Heart(ed) girl as a protagonist, and this time around, he doesn’t have an agenda. The woman is not being used as a space where all the injustice of the world is dumped. This time around, the woman has agency. Ironically, this is what has lead to the film being branded misogynist. The film leaves many questions unanswered; if we pay attention to these ambiguous silences, Antichrist will seem a lot less simple and perhaps less anti-woman.