New York Film Festival Review: Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist”

“One must make oneself superior to humanity, in power, in loftiness of soul, — in contempt.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Antichrist”

In the wake of a notorious Cannes press screening for Lars von Trier’s psychosexual religio-horror film “Antichrist,” an indignant British journalist – as is their wont – demanded that the director “explain and justify why you made this movie.” Von Trier pursed his lips, and in a smug deadpan replied, “It’s the hand of God. And I am the best film director in the world. I’m not sure if God is the best God in the world.”

Made in the throes of a deep depression two years ago, “Antichrist” opens in stunning fashion. Set to the sublime Handel aria “Lascia ch’io pianga,” a couple makes passionate love as snowflakes fall outside. This intimate act is captured in slow-motion, lush, black-and-white widescreen imaging. A toddler opens his safety gate, and wanders into the parents’ bedroom – unbeknownst to the parents, who are consumed by carnality. The child ascends a table, and falls to his death. In typical von Trier fashion, he manages to insert a hardcore penetration shot amid this poetic sequence. However, this seemingly extraneous shot will foreshadow the brutality that’s yet to come.

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe star in "Antichrist." Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe star in "Antichrist." Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

The action switches to color, and the story is divided into four parts like a bleak Bosch tetraptych: “Grief,” “Pain,” “Despair” and “The Three Beggars.” This is no date movie. The grieving mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg, credited as “She”) is removed after a one-month hospitalization at the behest of her husband (Willem Dafoe, credited as “He”), an all-knowing therapist. He makes her quit her meds cold turkey, and instead prescribes the “Yellow Wallpaper” treatment: forced rest coupled with a series of probing questions and breathing exercises. She is cruelly infantilized by He, who quickly morphs into her psychological caretaker. “Never screw your therapist,” he half-jokingly says, before ignoring his own advice.

His psychological “funny games” only get worse, as he forces her to confess the place she’s most afraid of – their property, called “Eden,” deep in the Washington forest, where she spent the previous summer alone with her son working on her thesis. In truly unforgiving fashion, he forces her to confront her fears head-on, and takes her to the woodsy hideaway. This isn’t the locus amoenus (safe place) that is the biblical Eden, but rather, that of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” – an ominous, violent terrain.

In this chapter, called “Pain,” the woman seems to respond well to her husband’s unorthodox techniques – that is, until a disemboweled fox turns to the husband to announce, “Chaos Reigns.” This is the film’s tipping point, or in other words, where the film, and by extension its maker, go completely insane.

Charlotte Gainsbourg stars in "Antichrist." Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

Charlotte Gainsbourg stars in "Antichrist." Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

She starts experiencing visions of her dead son in the third chapter, “Despair,” and he makes a shocking revelation about the toddler, leading him to insinuate that she is culpable in the child’s fall. Here, the movie transforms into Miike’s “Audition,” as she spirals into madness, manifested in a brutal torture sequence she performs on He involving a wooden log, masturbation, and a grindstone. But these bloody machinations are nothing compared to She’s act of self-flagellation – courtesy of a pair of rusty scissors – in the film’s final chapter, “The Three Beggars.”

Von Trier’s film is, first and foremost, a provocation. The violent scenes – both physical and sexual – detract from the film’s pacing and overall vision by temporarily stunning its viewer into perplexity. Moreover, its nihilistic view of religion – conveyed through a series of overt, Garden of Eden metaphors – is facile at best.

That being said, the lensing by Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle is hypnotic, as he shifts from the gorgeous, black-and-white widescreen introductory sequence, to a variety of handheld shots in the green, smoky forest. The shots, expressionistic in nature, give the feeling of a Bosch painting brought to life. This, combined with a pair of truly fearless performances – most notably from Ms. Gainsbourg, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her revealing turn as the tormented mother – allows Lars von Trier’s film to transcend its grandiose, torture-porn reputation. You will never want to see this film again, but you won’t soon forget it.

The couple's getaway "Eden" in the film "Antichrist." Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

The couple's getaway "Eden" in the film "Antichrist." Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

ANTICHRIST opens on October 23rd in limited release.

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