OK, finally reached a point where I was mentally armed to see the controversial art-horror-porn film Antichrist by “the greatest director in the world” Lars Von Trier (his words, not mine). We chose a Sunday afternoon showing, at the splendid-if-premium-priced Curzon Soho, rather than a late night one, thus guaranteeing sunlight for soul-examination and mental-wound-licking afterwards. (Nothing like building yourself up, is there? I do like a tingle of anticipation before a film, and after some of the makeweight Hollywood dross I’ve had to sit through in the name of holiday cover, I was grateful for that.) I’m afraid I had read way too much about Antichrist before seeing it – what it means, what other critics think, a detailed account of its shocking content – but that’s just me. I like exploring new cities, but I always thumb a tour guide beforehand.
That said, having now seen it, I am surprised by how much of what forms the dramatic climax has been described, catalogued and dissected by critics. Have they not heard of spoilers? (Even in saying that, I have disclosed that at least some of the notorious shock moments come at the end, but you don’t know which ones. I pretty much did. Are the rules different with arthouse movies? Is it OK to discuss them to the point of giving away at least part of the ending? Discuss.)
Here’s what you probably already know: it’s an English-language film shot in Germany predominantly by Danes and funded by six European countries, starring an American and a half-French Englishwoman playing an American couple from Seattle, translated from Von Trier’s native North Germanic tongue and thus giving the dialogue an almost in-built stiffness and poetry. It’s ultimately about a bereavement and the resulting grief: the couple, unnamed, lose a child, and – he being a therapist – they hike out to a cabin in the woods to confront her fears and work out her anxiety. (And here’s the first example of Antichrist‘s deep-seated misogyny: she is emotional, unpredictable and nutty; he remains stoic and calm. Chicks, eh? Probably her time of the month etc.) At the cabin, cut off from civilisation, the powerful effects of nature on the mind and the body take terrifying hold, and the line between reality and fantasy becomes blurred. Are the couple going mad? Or are we?
The story is divided into four chapters, and bookended by a prologue and epilogue. It’s in chapters three and four, entitled Despair (Gynocide) and The Three Beggars, where the film goes off the rails and turns into a graphically gory horror movie, albeit one with a more serious psychological intent than to just show you horrible physical pain. (Either that, or you go along with the view, widely shared, that Von Trier is simply taking the piss out of us all, especially those Guardian-reading arthouse apologist among us, who will swallow any old exploitation if it’s dressed as art. Clearly, as one of those people, I refute this. It can’t be that simple, surely?)
Antichrist is beautiful. It begins in what seems to be knowing parody of advertising, in pristine, slo-mo monochrome, set against Handel, as if selling shower gel or perfume – except the scene, which is far more explicitly sexual than any Calvin Klein ad will ever be, contains, even conceals a horrifying dramatic event. Right from the start, Von Trier is – if not playing with us – playing with form. He dares us to be titillated, again and again, and punishes us for our bad behaviour. So what’s going on? Is this a masterpiece? I don’t think so, as its intentions seem so confused, beyond the definite motive of casting women as the root of all evil. (I won’t give any plot points away, but the mother feels the death is her fault, and, well, the unfolding narrative done not make a very good job of dissuading us otherwise.) Beauty and ugliness have been juxtaposed many, many times in art and in cinema – Peter Greenaway might have made this film, had he an interest in horror, or, as Von Trier claims, had he plunged into a mighty depression and used work to claw his way out of it. This is a pretty dark piece of work, and when it stays this side of exploitation, it’s intriguing and clever and, yes, truly scary: the weird animal presence (you’ve heard all about “the talking fox” – well, if you find yourself laughing when the fox says, “Chaos reigns” then you have an odd sense of humour, like the men in the row behind me); the stunningly shot forest, with its fairytale quality, possessed of a malevolent character even in broad daylight; the sound of the acorns landing on the cabin roof; the creaky doors and rusty tools. Von Trier has not thrown this film together; the sheer craft is there to behold.
And yet, for my money, he undoes much of his good work by seeking to shock. Although I had planned on closing my eyes for the bits that I’d read about but had no wish to see, I lost my nerve at the last second, and saw both of them. Yuck. (There’s a third act of violence which I hadn’t anticipated, so I saw – and felt – that one, too. Ouch.) I had presumed that I would get through my life without ever seeing one of these things – the “money shot”, as it were – and although it was clearly achieved using special effects, it’s pretty unforgettable. It aims for the same impact as the eyeball-slitting shot in Un Chien Andalou, that’s all you need to know. I watched that, too, and have never forgotten it. But the Bunuel/Dali film was made in 1929, when the very grammar of cinema was still being forged (and sought to sidestep the kind of analysis that dogs arthouse cinema today, by claiming to represent and symbolise nothing). Antichrist comes off the back of a wave of post-9/11 “torture porn”, and simply borrows the same techniques, while merely changing the context from functional frightfest for teenage boys to Freudian examination of grief and depression.
And then there’s the frank sexual content. It used to be that an erect penis entering a vagina was the preserve of hardcore pornography. That all changed with a new wave of art movies beginning in the 90s: Lars Von Trier’s The Idiots, Catherine Breillat’s Romance, Julio Bedem’s Sex & Lucia, and Michael Winterbottom’s Nine Songs. (I’m not saying these were the first, clearly – Oshima’s Ai No Corrida, which I started watching at the weekend as it’s being reissued by the BFI, shocked the world in 1976.) Anyway, these are 18-certificate films, perfectly fine for 18 year-olds to watch. We have to get over this. It’s progress, and no floodgates have been opened as yet. The sex in Antichrist is realistic. It is also violent. But it reflects the psychological problems that exist within the relationship. It is part of the story, not decoration, and certainly not titillation. If you want to be turned on by an erect penis entering a vagina, I believe this act has been cleaned up, depilated and relieved of all narrative baggage for you in a specialist type of film. Once again: discuss.
I can’t read Antichrist as the “hoax” other critics have identified. It is what it is: a tale of grief and madness in the woods, which takes a very nasty turn at the end. The nasty bit will dissuade many from seeing it, while attracting others. But you should go and see a Hostel if you want crowd-pleasing gore. Go and see Antichrist if you want to see a film whose misogyny is at least subject for discussion, rather than, say the romantic comedy The Ugly Truth, which takes the shallowness and inferiority of women as a given, and makes jokes out of it.