A couple called He and She make love soundtracked by Handel whilst their child climbs out of his cot to fall to his death from an open window. He (Dafoe) is a therapist who tries to help Her (Gainsbourg) in her grief. They go to ‘Eden’ in the countryside in a forest. She describes a sort of dream vision of her walking through a ghosterized forest. They are assaulted by falling acorns, there’s a talking fox, a pregnant deer, a mad jackdaw, human body parts in trees. She is into the study of ‘gynocide’ about the male war on women and how male imputed evil is actually the evil of nature, which is Satan’s theatre. She gets increasingly wild, bolts Dafoe’s leg with a screw clamp, bashes him with a spade, cuts off her clitoris. He kills her and comes across a crowd of forest pilgrims walking past him, once again that Handel song.
Initially I was ready to slag this off. The whole thing looks like a pretentious scam, a non film with do-it-yourself symbolism devised by a prankster contemptuous of his audience.. The film looks like Equus as written by Steven King or D.H. Lawrence as a Halloween stunt. Is it satire on torture porn? If so, I wanted to dismiss it as fake satire because it’s complicit in the vileness it ridicules. The relationship between He and She is partlly intellectualized and partly magazine supplement mystical. Occasionally they are pithy and their eroticism electrifies their corny forays into B horror movie concerns: feminist witchcraft, demonology, astrology (constellations are ‘Grief’, ‘Despair’, and ‘Pain’). Gainsbourg doesn’t have the technique to convey true menace or dark passions, she comes over all RADA trained and squeaky, like a convent-educated debutante self consciously screaming Lawrentian lust in the bathroom. The talking fox is silly and made me think of Basil Brush. The violence is sickening. At Cannes Lars von Trier no doubt enjoyed the publicity that predictable condemnation brought. Is this a film at all? Is it a series of happenings from the depressive mind of a mentally ill-film maker?
After saying all this, I have come to think this is an outstanding film. It’s like a narrative from a romantic author discovering nature after the buttoned up Rococo era. One critic compared it to Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, but I think Christabel would be more apt. Its depiction of nature is like the forest in Company of Wolves or the witchiness of Blair Witch Project and the menace of The Village. In this nature humanity is at least a mysterious and threatening presence. Nature is here on its own terms as a bloody and chaotic wilderness. The forest is menacing like in a Grimm fairy tale without von Trier having to rely on the tired tricks of mainstream cinema. It’s do it yourself symbolism, and the fun comes from the boundary between image and symbol, they each seem to merge then separate. Occasionally the film weakens into the self consciousness that comments on what doesn’t need commentary. As for the accusation of unfair treatment of women, I disagree in this film. In Antichrist Gainsbourg is a martyr to her nature, mysticism sanctioned by feminist rebellion against the academic arrogance of her husband. What Gainsbourg does is to herself, she suffers from a grief that her husband can distance himself from, alienated by his smug attempts at closure. As for the black and white sex scenes and the accidental death of the child, I think von Trier is parodying the cinematic urge to choreograph life’s horrors and it’s banalities. Look at those pompous shower scenes Will Smith gets into.
This film for me is more a thinking person’s Steven King: the remote forest farmhouse is not a place to escape to but a sort of terror of truth seeking. The forest house offers a violent redemption in self hate and self sacrifice: a rejection of the false security of their urban life. Fighting with the devil guarantees spiritual honesty better than deluding ourselves with the unacknowledged seeking for power over others that we often sanctify as love and the search for spirituality.
The film is undoubtedly derivative so there’s fun in searching for influences. There’s Arthur Rackham’s nature vision in those limb sprouting trees, though at first it reminded me of a skin cream commercial. The falling storm of acorns is like Pan’s Labyrinth. Scandinavian love of forests turns up in Bergman and Elvira Madigan. Von Trier depicts not Eden but a failed human attempt to realize it in spite of our sin and guilt. No one seems concerned about the title, what exactly is the Antichrist? For Nietsche it’s not satanism but the will power set against the bad faith of religious belittlements. It’s a celebration of vitality against the self deluding power seeking of religious self denial. Guilt v blame feed off each other in Antichrist like parts of the forest (natural forces), and so are not religious at all but devouring energies. Von Trier celebrates the amoral vitality of women freed from male control, their subversive energy is potentially anti-Christian. We see subliminal shots of a face passing through the greenery then Gainsbourg lies down on the grass and becomes green like the earth, and I think of people archetypically totemized as halloween forest creatures. The animalization of the male is a lurid phallus spurting blood. Gainsbourg becomes the spirit of animism fusing with the spirits of the forest against the corrupt fallen rationality of the male psychiatrist. Trier himself is I think a convert to Catholicism so he will doubtless think that original sin is a domestic problem which we enact in any attempted Eden.