Grief, death, and rusty scissors collide in Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist.” A metaphysical sojourn with cinema’s loudest spoilsport, the picture stuns and sickens, almost daring viewers to keep watching as it articulates the ravages of the unwound mind, filling the frame with demented acts of unspeakable violence and deeply considered thematic stimulation. For fans of Trier, “Antichrist” is a return to his once irresistible provocative appetites, shamelessly exploiting suffering and misogyny to generate the outrage that fuels his daydreams (and bank accounts). It’s a pitch-black torrential downpour of pain, and should only be approached by those willing to allow Trier 100 precious minutes to play his madcap mind games.
Reeling over the death of their toddler son, estranged couple He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are devastated to learn their sexual appetites contributed to the loss of their one and only child. A therapist sickened by the care afforded to his wife, He takes the devastated woman to their remote cabin in the dense forest of Eden to confront her fears and repair their relationship. Once arrived, the couple finds the woods an unbearable reminder of their loss, with She plunging further into madness, feeding upon images and research of witches and assorted feminine horrors. He tries to counteract with logic and restraint, but learns of a special evil nature infesting the environment, which soon overtakes She, urging hell to break loose.
It’s useless to get upset with Trier over the ultraviolent antics of “Antichrist,” as this type of storytelling has afforded him a long career of polarizing successes. Of course, a reasonable deconstruction of the film is impossible, as Trier builds an interpretive mood of sin, volatile communication, and psychological suffocation, using expansive brush strokes of gothic imagery and sexual gamesmanship to motor his ideas on grief and depression, working the material into a suitable lather of audience-baiting theatrics. I’ll be the first to admit that Trier’s rascally ways often get the best of him. Still, when the director finds a proper scab to pick, nobody does it better. “Antichrist” doesn’t return Trier to the heavyweight shape of “Breaking the Waves” or “Dancer in the Dark,” but it’s an intriguing hailstorm of controversial subtext and confrontational, surreal visual mastery.
Finding a proper introduction to the mental illness of “Antichrist” is impossible. It’s a film that demands a cannonball into the deep end, though Trier eloquently opens the picture with an unnervingly peaceful prologue recounting the plunging death of the doomed child, intercut with He and She’s lovemaking session, building a devastating swell of anxiety while introducing the role of “The Three Beggars,” symbolic entities that drive She’s psychotic behavior, contributing the film’s “Grief,” “Pain (Chaos Reigns),” and “Despair (Gynocide)” chapters. Outstandingly observed with super-slow-motion cameras, the B&W sequence stuns immediately, commencing “Antichrist” on a dispiriting note of catastrophe. However, the mood still manages to degenerate from there.
“Antichrist” is a measured nightmare, monitoring the mental tug of war between She and He while they sniff out the depth of their damage in the middle of nowhere. Trier’s angle is one of invasion, as He uses his position of power to unethically coax his wife back from the edge of suicide, taking the role of icy therapist to offer She a mental penetration she cannot endure. Fighting back with sexual favors and hysteria, She is tormented by the forest, fearing nature as an evil force equaled to femininity itself, as explored through her thesis work on the historical reduction of women to primal, biblical spirits of malevolence. Stillborn and self-mutilation imagery (complete with a talking fox) only enhance the suffering for both characters, along with a curious acorn motif that mocks She and He as the trees loudly rain down their surplus fertility with every available opportunity.
It’s nothing but verbal hostility for the first two acts, but that eventually bores Trier, who kicks the horror into overdrive for the grand finale. Did someone say genital mutilation? Well, Trier brings out the freak show for his closer, with an impaling, bloody ejaculate, and a hasty clitoral circumcision to make the case for pure delirium in the forest of Eden. Once She finds pain is able crack He’s veneer of control, it’s game on for the character and the film, making the most of its unrated, unleashed status. The faint of heart need not apply.
The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) presentation digs into a wide variety of camera flourishes and temperamental environments, holding steady as the filmmaker arranges this widescreen Hell. Image quality is superb, with the majority of the film gifting excellent and communicative detail, with the 1000fps opening a real stunner in terms of BD clarity and screen texture. Facial work is exceptional, with a good read of reactions, especially from Gainsbourg, who conveys a precise read of madness the BD depicts with intensity. Colors are generally muted, but the greens of the forest are well preserved, along with the blues of the costumes. Hues are separated and pronounced when call upon. Shadow detail is shockingly supportive, considering the dark tangents of the film. Blacks are pure, allowing for detail in lower light sequences, capturing a caress of menace that continues throughout the film.
The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix is a genuinely immersive, feisty track that drags the listener into the middle of this whirlwind of madness. Dialogue is secured and pushed frontal to maintain a certain dramatic dominance, though voices tend to move with the action, following the divide of the characters. Directionals are active with brooding, ethereal scoring cues and atmospheric concentration, swirling around the surrounds with an effective sense of surprise (acorns!) and command. Low-end pulsation tightens the noose, along with the intricate sound effect presence that helps to advance the unease. The track is highly intriguing, adding layers of impish Trier personality to the listening experience, feeling sinister and enveloping.
English subtitles are included.
The feature-length audio commentary with Lars von Trier and film scholar Murray Smith discusses the corners of “Antichrist” with far more detail than I was expecting. Being a rather idiosyncratic fellow, I’m shocked Trier agreed to participate in this conversation, answering Smith’s probing questions with a pronounced sense of frustration, yet seems willing to explore the technical challenges of the film and its thematic leanings. Talk of special effects are especially appealing, learning how much computer tinkering was used in post-production, but the highlights burrow into Trier’s brain, investigating his shamanistic and cinematic inspirations that informed the spinning consciousness of the picture. It’s a fulfilling listen, helping to grasp the scope and effort of “Antichrist,” while humanizing Trier to a certain degree. Smith deserves a gold star for pulling so much out of him.
“Cast and Director Interviews” (67:04) sits down with Lars von Trier, Charlotte Gainsbourg (subtitled), and Willem Dafoe to survey the making of the film. Trier’s section is a short discussion of his depressive episodes and the creative fruit born from such misery, while the actors offer a semi-commentary experience, walking through extensive filmmaking process. There is no Play All function here.
“The Making of ‘Antichrist’” is a series of conventional but enlightening featurettes produced by Zentropa that cover the technical accomplishments, origins, and research of the film. Included are “Behind the Test Film” (6:32), “Visual Style” (15:31), “Sound and Music” (13:00), “Eden – Production Design” (5:10), “Make-up Effects and Props” (8:13), “The Three Beggars” (8:06), and “The Evil of Women” (7:42). There is no Play All function here.
“Cannes 2009” supplies three glimpses into the promotion of the picture and the heated response the film received when it premiered at the world-famous film festival. There’s “Chaos Reigns at the Cannes Film Festival” (7:22), “Charlotte Gainsbourg at Cannes” (6:18), and “Willem Dafoe at Cannes” (8:05). There is no Play All function here.
And three Theatrical Trailers are offered here.
“Antichrist” is a difficult recommendation to make. The film seems ideal only for the Trier faithful, but the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle is perhaps the year’s finest example of dreamscape imagery, with mesmerizing painterly compositions that linger long after Trier has kicked over all the furniture. It’s not an accessible, responsible film by any means, but “Antichrist” retains a specific daredevil mindset that keeps moviegoing thrilling, even in the face of a sinister director who shamelessly gets off on the controversy. “Antichrist” is an original, gothic and combative; a perfect night at the movies for those who enjoy cold sweats and the inevitability of post-screening divorce proceedings.