Critics everywhere have been screaming blue murder about this film. It’s been called boring and pretentious, it’s been accused of deliberately courting controversy, gratuitously using violence and even of just being a lazy piece of filmmaking that shows von Trier’s disdain for his audiences. You know who else has been labelled similarly? Jean-Luc Godard, and [sarcasm alert] we all know how quickly he’s been airbrushed from cinematic history.
Antichrist is actually an innovative piece of filmmaking that combones Lars von Trier’s vast range of cinematic knowledge and skill with a deep depression that had been hanging over him for a long time. Reportedly so depressed that he could hardly hold a camera for most of the shoot, this film journeys into a dark place with character and director alike and watching with an open mind, you’ll find it pays dividends.
In case you haven’t looked into the firestorm of commentary surrounding this film, here’s what it’s about: an unnamed couple (dubbed just ‘He’ and ‘She’ in the credits) are fucking one night, and their young child climbs from his cot, walks via their room to the window, and proceeds to defenestrate himself. She suffers ‘atypical grief’, He’s a therapist and thinks he can cure it without drugs. After several dark conversations it emerges that she is afraid of the woods, and so they head to their cabin in their deepest, darkest depths to face her fears.
What happens in the forest is best described as a three-way split between satanic horror, twisted family drama and arthouse posturing. Ultra slow motion tracking shots, distorted lenses and some masterful camerawork create an atmosphere that engulfs its audience in an eerie and surreal way. Had these techniques been deployed in a more standard horror they would’ve been hailed as ground-breaking (or at least recognised for the superb revival of techniques favoured by Tarkovsky and Bergman).
His depictions of satanism, nature, and the battle for control in relationships is as disturbing as it is shocking. Images are not just limited to the scenes of genital mutilation you’ll no doubt have heard about, but extend into spine-chilling encounters with nature. The decision to personify thousands of acorns being shed from a nearby oak as dying children is particularly effective: or at least it was for me.
One more thing remains for me to address however, and that is accusations that the film is pretentious. It’s audacious, gruesome and pushes to the extreme limits of acceptable cinema content, but it is never any of those things to exclude ordinary viewers. In fact, von Trier is at pains to offer up the code for cracking this piece of macabre genius. Among techniques clearly described to us is his camerawork, which is presented during an early description of the symptoms of anxiety: nausea, shaking, loss of balance and distorted vision. As the symptoms are listed, we are offered a series of close-ups which prickle, shake, twist and distort in turn. Each of these techniques are re-deployed at opportune moments to recreate the uncomfortable experience of the protagonists directly for the audience. Simple, yet stunningly effective.
The crucial point with Anti-Christ is that you’re supposed to be shocked, disgusted, uncomfortable and frightened. And if you are, it makes no sense to call this mere provocation or dismiss it as pretentious formalism. I suggest that you embrace this macabre experience, and revel in it as a deep, dark work of intense emotional and physical brutality. And don’t feel guilty about that either, people flock to see Van Gogh’s art and all he did was cut his ear off. Why not flock to see the depressed artwork of a genius who conspires to see a clitoris cut off?