Perversity amongst filmmakers can often be intensely offputting for audiences, that sense amongst some of the so-called enfant terribles of modern European cinema to poke fun at audiences in increasingly self-reflexive and judgemental ways. Last year’s most visible example of this came in the form of Michael Haneke’s US remake of his own Funny Games, seemingly an attempt to make audiences try to understand the urge to witness violence on screen through presenting a film which revelled in such detail.
Funny Games US didn’t work and Antichrist doesn’t either. I would posit that Lars von Trier is not seeking to punish or berate his audience in the way that Haneke was, but he does have a history of making films which make little, or no, concession to his audience. Dancer in the Dark, for all its moving brilliance, is as emotionally murderous as anything you will ever see.
Antichrist feels like his attempt to make a personal film which challenges its audience to try and understand the deepest, darkest recesses of his memory. Von Trier was reportedly going through a heavy bout of depression during the gestation of this film and that’s written all over the increasingly violent, self-flagellating scenes which he forces upon the viewer. This is a man seeking to exercise demons through the most primal, vicious imagery he can command and by inflicting such intense abuse on the film’s characters.
The film follows a couple, played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, in the aftermath of the death of their young child. The death occurs mid-coitus for the two with the child venturing onto a table in their home and stepping out the window. By this point in the film, for those keeping score, we have already been treated to full penetrative sex and the death of a child within around four to five minutes of screen time, all film in pristine black-and-white and cut slow-motion.
The two, he a therapist and her seeking to finish her thesis on female suffering through the ages, then decide to go to a cabin in a place called Eden and proceed to try and work through the pain and grief of their loss, all the while indulging in increasingly violent sex and witnessing nightmare-like images throughout their travels.
From here on in, the film takes a turn towards Von Trier’s darkest impulses. The escalation of the sexual violence between the two results in her hitting him in the penis, drilling a hole in his leg in which to put a kind of axel attached to a stone wheel, before finally giving him a handjob which results in the ejaculation of blood. The film goes on from this point to have Dafoe attempt the murder of a crow with a stone and culminates eventually in Gainsbourg’s character lying next to him in the cabin and slicing off her clitoris.
There are arguments to be made on all sides for the validity of Von Trier’s vision, but the fact is that none, literally none, of the violence in the film is ever earned. The scenes towards the start with the two characters are so oblique that you fail to become even remotely involved in the world of these two people. When the eventually denouement comes, you are completely removed from the film with every escalating piece of violence or imagery because there is no involvement.
The cinematography is incredible throughout, so kudos to Anthony Dod Mantle for his work on the film. But outside of that, this is a solipsistic slice of self-important nonsense which, for all its supposedly shocking moments, doesn’t involve you, or seek to involve you, and therefore earns absolutely none of the controversy or attention it so desperately seeks.