Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Walk In the Woods With One Foxy Antichrist

"If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, [Antichrist] is the movie he would have made." John Waters
Many writers--myself included--use the term ‘polarizing’ far too much. “You’ll either love it or hate it,” we say, often as a way to excuse ourselves from responsibility when you rent it and, well, hate it. 
*Note that I probably used these exact words, or appropriate synonyms, when discussing The House of the Devil. 
That being said, it’s hard to think of a better person that fits such a word as Lars Von Trier. Aside, perhaps, from the more universally praised Breaking the Waves (a film that boasts one of the best performances of the decade, in my humble opinion), the majority of his work sharply divides viewers like few other directors working today. 
You’ve probably heard a lot of people call Antichrist ridiculous, gratuitous, and misogynist. It’s easy to do so, especially if you look past, ignore, or simply miss what I think is a major clue to Von Trier--or, more appropriately, Antichrist’s--actual story and theme. It may indeed by ridiculous and more than a tad gratuitous, but much to the dismay of many Dogville hating kittens, this is not a film about the evil of women.
Quick Plot: In a stunningly haunting black and white opening to rival every diamond commercial ever, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe make love while their toddler tumbles out a window.

Yeah, this is not The Blind Side.
Thank Satan.
I can’t discuss Antichrist without blatantly going into plot detail, so for those of you who haven’t seen the film yet, accept one keyword for optimum viewing, then exit until viewed (oddly enough, now on Netflix Instant Watch but not DVD). Ready for your early present? Here it is:
Now scurry away like demonic little foxes and come back in 108 minutes.
As for the rest of you, let’s talk. 
Antichrist is a gorgeous and grotesque film, and also something pretty brilliant. Before you start throwing your hands up in the air or wagging rusty scissors at my clitoris, let me point to the most important moment in the story, the unlocking-the-box of Mullholland Drive, Rosebud itself, the talking fox.

Aside from being kind of adorable, it is, plain and simple, the turning point of the film because here is where we discover whose story is being told: He.
Dafoe, The Dude, The Not-Doctor, He of the Large Scrotal Sac, whatever. One of the biggest criticisms of Antichrist has been its misogyny and at the surface, that’s more than warranted. Gainsbourg’s She commits horrendous acts of violence and proves herself to have been a soulless mother who may very well have chosen an orgasm and thesis over the life of her child. Also, she can’t tell her right from her left, so she must be an idiot.
If you can’t tell from my Internet tone of voice, I’m being sarcastic. 

For the first half hour or so of Antichrist, we’re seeing genuine grief from She as He tries his own tricks to cure her. We’re near hypnotized by Gainsbourg and almost forget that Dafoe must be harnessing his own form of inner turmoil and guilt. Right when the fox opens his mouth, the film switches its neutral point of view, and everything that follows is filtered through Dafoe’s perspective.

Earlier signs point to his own instability and paranoia--think of the strange little infection He finds growing on his arm when he wakes up with the window open. But once we get to Chapter 3, nothing we see can really be trusted. Take, for example, the polaroid of Nicholas with his boots on the wrong feet. An innocent mistake a lot of parents (and occasionally, 28 year old women like me) probably make, but flashbacks--whose flashbacks?--reveal it to be total Shoegate and the sign of a truly twisted woman...mostly because that’s the image Dafoe now thrusts upon his wife. Back in the hospital, She tearfully accepted responsibility for the tragedy because she knew Nicholas could escape his crib, and now, with chaos free to reign, He rewrites the event to put all the blame on She. She saw Nicholas climb the table, purposely switched his boots, logged He’s privates and rammed a vice in his leg because, as the story now goes, women are inherently evil. 

Antichrist is not a misogynist movie, nor is it about misogyny. It's a story of the deepest despair a man and woman can possibly reach, and the horrors their own grief may then create out of desperation and avoidance. About a man who deals with his despair by assigning all the blame, both of this tragedy and the whole world, on the only other person left that can accept it. He is just as responsible for the death of their son, but his therapy involves dropping all of it on She, painting her as an almost medieval witch pent on the destruction of all the men in her life.
What actually happens in that third chapter? Having only watched the film once, I can’t really say just yet. I don’t know that I believe clitori are cut or crows broken. Violence occurs, but all we know of it is filtered through the eyes of a man in great emotional pain and in no way is his perspective to be trusted as fact. 
It’s His story, surreal, biased, judgmental and cowardly. Perhaps this is Lars Von Trier’s first film in recent years told from a male point of view. Not a bad start.
High Points
Dafoe and Gainsbourg go above and beyond the call of duty to give absolutely incredible and raw and brilliant performances

There’s an awful lot of shaky cam and extreme closeups, and they all work quite well to shake your own vantage point viewing a nightmare
Low Points
The very fact that Sandra Bullock will end Sunday night with an Oscar while Charlotte Gainsbourg will be home sipping wine

Did we need to see a certain closeup of a rarely seen (on non-porn) body part being mutilated? Probably not, but that’s Von Trier for ya and it’s as brave as it is disgusting
Lessons Learned
Putting your baby monitor on mute is about as logical as taking the caffeine out of coffee
The most important tool a grieving father can own is a wrench
Oak trees have an awful lot of acorns to shed just when you want to sleep

As long as you have a rough idea of what you’re in for, any film fan should at least see Antichrist with an open mind and possibly empty stomach. There’s a good chance you’ll despise the viewing experience, but just as sure a gamble that you’ll rate Antichrist a masterpiece. The performances are more than excellent, the imagery uniquely gorgeous, and the experience the kind that doesn’t come along every year. There’s also injured genitals and baby death, so it’s probably not the flick you tune in with the family between courses on Thanksgiving or pop in while babysitting a neighborhood child.

Unless you really hate your family or the neighborhood children.


  1. I just posted my review of the film this morning. Weird. A truly brilliant film. But I didn't catch the idea of Dafoe twisting around the events to meet his own self-serving needs. Mainly, to thrust the entire blame on his wife. An interesting perspective and definitely one that works. Overall, I think this film works on so many levels.

    Great review.

  2. I think it's great that there are so many different interpretations of this film - I think that alone is a sign of how well it works.

  3. "The very fact that Sandra Bullock will end Sunday night with an Oscar while Charlotte Gainsbourg will be home sipping wine."

    A very good point. I was a bit disappointed by the film overall, but I did find it technically brilliant. The two main (only?) performances are also terrific. I guess I found it a bit pretentious--I think our opinions differ, but don't worry, I do not intend to wag rusty scissors at your clitoris.

    And I totally forgot that he also directed Breaking the Waves, I remember seeing that when it first came out, what a fantastic film.

    OK, now let's get down to the important question at hand: Did Dafoe and Gainsbourg really do it?

  4. Right on, Emily!

    King Joe over at Paracinema did a review there months ago on the film and he inspired two cents out of me before I had even seen it. I was moved by how deeply nihilistic he painted the plot and what lies beneath.

    I'm still trying to grapple all of the symbols laid out and exactly what von Trier was trying to say. Which for me is always important that I have at least a little insight on the filmmaker's perspective.

    I agree wholeheartedly that this was not about the evils of women. It was for me about where the ideal of self (indulgence, centeredness, ish, etc. and so forth) could spiral, suck, and lead you. How nature as opposed to spirit comes to consume you.

    Dafoe believed himself to possess the power to cure his wife.

    Gainsbourg seemed to obsess over her own conceived power not over nature but her sadomasochistic role in it. As if her actions were justified by the very nature surrounding her. Her call primal... And with it, I kinda questioned her grief.

  5. Well said. Your take is completely different than how I had initially interpreted the film but you make a strong argument.

    I agree that Antichrist isn't misogynistic beyond its outer layer which unfortunately a lot of people won't see past. I like your take on it being mostly about Defoe's character - about his own grief. That really makes sense when viewed in context of the fox being the turning point.

    Upon my first two viewings, I had only gleaned that Von Trier was trying to make a horror film about the dangers of grief and how consuming it can be. Your analysis takes it one step further.

    As for the many religious references and symbols that Ashlee brought up, I think they're a direct reflection on Von Trier's background and personal feelings. It's well-documented that he's had a conflicted relationship with religion all of his life. I couldn't exactly pinpoint what they all mean, but I think he's expressing personal opinions about this.

    Also, the fact that he was suffering from an extreme bout of depression during the writing process is directly related to the overall grief concept. It's clear that Antichrist is a very personal film for Von Trier.

    Anyway, that's my 2 cents (er...maybe 25). Enjoyed your review and discovering your blog. I'll stop back soon.

  6. So many great comments!

    B-Sol: My clitoris thanks you. And Breaking the Waves is amazing. Say what you will about Von Trier, but few directors get such powerful, no-holds-barred performances from their leading ladies. And as for The Big Question, Von Trier put some kicking penetration in one of his earlier films, The Idiots, and that's DEFINITELY the actors doing the grinding, so hmm...

    Ashlee: You raise some interesting points. I kind of let go of Gainsbourg in the film's latter half, just cause to me, it seemed like everything shifted to his point of view, but that's one more thing I'll have pay closer attention to. And you make an excellent point about Dafoe's pride in his own powers.

    Cortez: Just read your review, which is verrrrrry interesting. Funny how differently we see the Dafoe character! I had to skim through it quickly but I'll hit up again later and rethink some of your points.

    Matt: Great to have you (and your quarter! I'll take it for laundry day). I definitely need to watch more closely for the religious references the second time around. Based on Breaking the Waves, I figured Von Trier had some major wrestling with Christianity, and Antichrist clearly is influenced by that but I'm not sure yet how. Yes, 'Eden' is named Eden and the original sin thing seems important, but I, like you, am not exactly sure how all of it fits in here to the story as opposed to just background style. This was brought up on the Gentleman's Guide to Midnite Cinema this morning, the very irony of the fact that Antichrist may very well be Von Trier's most rewatchable film.

    (and P.S., I will totally check out No Room In Hell when I get the time this week.)

    and Chris: There are clearly way more interpretations than I thought just based on these comments alone!

  7. hello
    i did a review of this movie not so long ago
    and i have to say it were one of the best movies ive seen in such a long time, truely amazing!

    nice review!

  8. Thanks Drew! I just read your review. Did you have chance to revisit the film since? I'm curious what some of your interpretations are.

  9. I have to say Em your explination makes the most sense out of any of the various theories and interpretations I've heard.


  10. Thanks Bryce! We'll see if my theory holds up the next time I'm in the clitori-cutting movie mood and sit down for a rewatch.

  11. Haha... a rewatch? I liked this movie quite a lot (define like), but I really don't think I could ever watch it again.

    That's an interesting theory you've got there. I never bothered looking at this film from His point of view, but you may be right.

    I perceive this film as a study of human nature, and He and She are prime examples that human nature is chaotic and evil by definition. She discovers this unfortunate truth through her studies, and goes along to learn that gynocide took place not only because men are evil, but because women are evil as well. She decides to torture Him in order to unleash his evil nature, which ends with Him killing Her, an act which affirms that both women and men are evil. The fox He encounters in the woods tells him that "chaos reigns," which pretty much means that "nature" will always "reign," and the primitive side of humans will ultimately take over.

    Glad I discovered your blog, you've got some pretty cool stuff going on around here. Cheers!

  12. Thanks for stopping by Atorxion (if that is your real name; I have my suspicions).

    I can see your theory making sense too. The Fantastic Mr. Fox's words are definitely the turning point, so 'chaos reigning' could indeed refer to something more than just He letting our his inner beast. When I watched it (still only one time, but I'll totally break out the popcorn for the next viewing!), I just never believed that She's actions post-fox were actually hers. The photo of the shoes seemed like a simple mistake, something HE rewrote as being her intentional abuse. Same goes for SHE seeing the son fall out the window.

    I do like your theory about both characters being evil due to their nature. My biggest beef with a lot of Antichrist's criticism comes from people who just huff and call it misogynist. I think the only 'wrong' reading one can have is that Von Trier sides fully with HE. That, to me, overlooks everything under the surface.