What if Ingmar Bergman had discovered torture porn? It’s a question no one asked, but the answer is Antichrist, a film that begins very good, becomes oblique by midpoint, and by the time it ends has taken leave of its senses, your senses, my senses — any and all manner of sense. What does any of it mean? It would be easy simply to react to it, but having already subjected myself to it there’s no reason to take the easy way out now.
It’s written and directed by Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark) with ruthless effectiveness. I was reminded of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, which could not have been so relentlessly unpleasant were it not made by a filmmaker of great skill. Sometimes you long for hackwork.
Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg star as a married couple who are never named, perhaps because they are meant to stand in for everyone — or no one. In a prologue beautifully filmed but self-indulgently styled — slow-motion, black-and-white photography, with an operatic aria as grand accompaniment — the couple engage in graphic sex while unbeknownst to them their toddler Nic wanders out of his crib and falls through a window to his death. It’s a poor first impression; the film has only just begun and already we are overwhelmed by ostentatious technique.
The film settles as it begins the story proper. We discover that the wife has been in a mental hospital for a month since their son’s burial. Her doctor believes her grief is manifesting in irregular ways; we will learn later that her doctor has a gift for understatement. However, her husband, who is a therapist but has no doctorate, believes she is over-medicated. He takes her home to treat her therapeutically; she must work through her grief, he says, not drug it away. To overcome her anxiety, he brings her to a cabin in the woods called Eden (a pointed reference? What point?), where the previous summer she worked on a thesis paper she never finished. She has dreadful fears surrounding these woods. It is there that she must begin to heal.
Suffice it to say she doesn’t heal. To even describe the events that follow might be as gratuitous as the film is to show them, so I will be sparing with the details. I struggled to engage with the film’s ideas even as we are swallowed into unmitigated brutality, but they begin to evaporate into the murky fog. As part of her treatment, the husband attempts to identify her greatest fear. Nature? Satan? Herself? He crosses out each item and keeps revising his diagnosis, and that seems to be what the film is doing; von Trier, in a losing battle, tries to find the story’s locus but keeps changing his mind, until at last the mire of despair obliterates all meaning. Finally, we’re just wallowing in it.
The story is divided into four chapters, plus the prologue and an epilogue. The chapters are titled Grief, Pain, Despair, and The Three Beggars, in that order. The three emotions are represented by a crow, a deer, and a fox — don’t ask me to identify which is which — and together are known as the three beggars. I think. I don’t know of a spiritual or philosophical antecedent for these metaphorical animals. A poem called The Three Beggars was written by William Butler Yeats, containing the following passage that seems fitting:
They mauled and bit the whole night through; They mauled and bit till the day shone; They mauled and bit through all that day And till another night had gone, Or if they made a moment's stay They sat upon their heels to rail ...
Yeats references a crane, but none of the animals in question, and “pain,” but only in passing. As the poem seems otherwise irrelevant to an interpretation of the film, we can likely rule it out its title as a coincidence, or just another diagnosis von Trier scribbles and scratches out along the way. Roger Ebert has a saying: “If you have to ask what something symbolizes, it doesn’t.”
Grief, pain, and despair, as used in the film, don’t mean anything. Or rather, they don’t mean anything distinct from each other that would merit the chapter divisions. The story is a constant escalation of misery without pauses, breaks, or transitions. The three emotions are, in effect, synonymous; more appropriate might have been “Bad,” “Worse,” and “Worst.” At the end of the Pain chapter, a self-cannibalizing fox says, “Chaos reigns” — an expression of theme, or just von Trier’s narrative strategy?
The film has been called misogynistic. I would disagree, to the extent that I could call the film anything at all. There are startlingly vicious acts of violence committed against the wife — mostly self-inflicted — and indeed the subject of her thesis was to be historical gynocide, but the violence inflicted on the husband is equally vicious and degrading. And to accuse von Trier of hatred implies he expresses an opinion about the violence. He doesn’t. Or if he does it’s unintelligible.
The director reportedly made the film while suffering from depression. Misery loves company. In an interview for The Independent, he explained, “The script was filmed and finished without much enthusiasm, made as it was using about half of my physical and intellectual capacity.” Nevertheless he has inspired courageous performances from Dafoe and especially Gainsbourg, who won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival and goes to places emotionally I would think there’s little way back from, and the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) is breathtaking, capturing the deepening, darkening gloom in-between the film’s grimly luscious bookend scenes. All the more reason von Trier should earn their commitment, and earn our commitment in watching it. He squanders both.
The title Antichrist was the first thing decided about the film, and like all the rest is meant to evoke ... something, but it’s never decided exactly what. In me, it evoked discomfort and resentment. It’s a vile and useless exercise, which perhaps helped the filmmaker out of his depression but seems likely to put his audience in one. I will never watch it again and expect to live a long and happy life.