There’s a message buried beneath the decayed narrative of all of Lars von Trier’s films, but I’m not so sure I want to find it. Even if I did, I’m not sure I would know what the fuck I was looking at. Though chaotic, fragmented, and pretty goddamn demented, to dismiss von Trier’s work as mere torture porn would be disingenuous and immature. Antichrist is a difficult piece from a difficult director: a messy and lunatic study of grief coupled around graphic and disturbing sexuality. From the first poetically gorgeous and unnerving frames, you can tell what you are experiencing is nothing less than a work of art. But it’s an ugly and unpleasant film. Von Trier doesn’t push the envelope; he burns down the entire fucking post office, but for what cause, I couldn’t begin to fathom. A graduate studies candidate’s wet dream, Antichrist is resplendent with so many layers and motifs they could spend decades rooting around in the mulchy, fetid mess. It’s sloppy and fucked-up, both thematically and narratively, and it will affect you on a gut level unlike any other film you may ever see. It’s a morbidly demented vision that seems to revel in scarring you just because it’s holding something jagged.
In gray tones, a couple frantically mount one another — bottles tumbling, sweaty faces contorted — as their infant son climbs up to an open window and topples to his death. It’s beautifully horrific and painfully artistic, done in slow motion intercutting, graphic and yet understated. It’s haunting yet entrancing. Had the rest of the film not descended into what amounted to an emotionally-abusive kumate, fistfucked with scenes of such sexual depravity that Mapplethorpe just got necrophiliac’s remorse. It could have been an artistic masterpiece. Instead, we watch two stunningly talented actors — Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg — stumble and unravel through von Trier’s masturbatory phantasmagoria. It’s a disturbing psycho-sexual duel culminating in such hideous violence that Eli Roth would drop his glove and run home screaming to his mother.
Many critics have panned the film as mere highbrow torture porn, which is not just thoughtless but flat out, shamefully wrong. Pornography, at any level, is meant to be erotic and stimulating. There’s plenty of sex in the film: sweaty, nasty, explicit sex. But I can’t imagine how unbalanced an individual you’d have to be to be turned on by it. The characters rut like desperate, frenzied animals, always steeped in pain or savagery. Begging, sobbing, grunting, seething — but not something as pedantic as rape. It’s just as vicious and cruel as rape, but it’s done out of a misguided sense of healing, which somehow makes it worse. When violence explodes like a festering boil suppurating, it’s messy and gruesome and graphic, adding yet another splattering layer to the curdling of any hope of eroticism. If anything, von Trier is making a treatise against sexuality. He’s torturing the audience by forcing us to watch these two characters mutilate each other — and themselves.
There is a bit of an elephant in the boat that I would be remiss to not address in this review, but it would assuredly be considered a spoiler. So if you plan on seeing this film — out of morbid curiosity, toppling Alice-like down the outhouse hole, no doubt — you may want to skip the next two paragraphs. (Or all of them.) However, even knowing what’s going to happen won’t prepare you. The choice is yours.
When taken in the context of all of von Trier’s cannon, Antichrist is a brilliant strategic gambit against all of those detractors who swath him with accusations of misogyny. Gainsbourg’s “She” is a women’s studies student to Dafoe’s “He,” a psychiatrist. Again, I’m extremely baffled as I attempt to puzzle this out, but from what I gathered, She determines through her studies of the witch trials that all women are essentially flawed and deserved to be punished because it is in their nature to be evil. Now, on the base level, to make a statement like that would seem pretty boldly misogynist. However, we can’t forget that her character is clearly a disturbed individual who just underwent a pretty severe trauma — so it’s the mental state of a deluded person. It’s delicious that von Trier put forth a women’s studies major determined that women are evil from studying women too intensely. Also, throughout the film, Dafoe attempts to soothe his hysterical and insane wife with psychiatric exercises while the entire time he seems relatively calm and in control. Lest we forget, Dafoe is a pretty shitty psychiatrist who should never under any circumstance try to analyze his own wife. Also, he’s simultaneously suffering his own breakdown — unless everyone sees visions of a fox tearing its own entrails while whispering “Chaos Reigns.”
At the end of the film, She has a Annie Wilkes moment, smashing her husband with a log and then bludgeoning his erect penis with the same blunt force trauma. She then takes hold of his cock and jerks him off until he ejaculates blood. She cripples him in a manner that would make the Saw writers quit, and then, lying next to him in a fit of madness, masturbates furiously. Then she takes a pair of rusty scissors, and in grotesque close-up, snips off her clitoris. At this point, there is no point to make. Whether you choose to view this as an act of female empowerment — that she controls and thus chooses to destroy all sexuality that she finds evil — or as an act of misogyny, you look like a fumbling fanatic trying to decry your own cause. It’s just not that simple. Even a day after the fact, I can’t come to terms with why. And that’s the ultimate problem with the film.
Antichrist doesn’t have any answers. It’s not cinematic blueballs, so much as an artistic disconnect. It’s what makes the film so discordant. It’s such a foaming, self-conscious piece — complete with its own prepackaged pedestal — it’s virtually impossible to dismiss as torture porn. It’s complex enough to be art, but it doesn’t automatically mean you have to accept it as sacrosanct. If you choose to expose yourself to Antichrist, you’re going to walk away changed, whether you view it as shock-value dreck or morbid poesy. It’s a seriously disturbing visionary work that’s too thought out to be dismissed as a woman-hater working out his sexual issues with karo syrup and latex. Personally, I found the entire film distasteful and unpleasant. Dafoe plays it straight and kindhearted, which is all the more unnerving. He reminds me of how monsters would act if they were pretending to be human, like he’s wearing a people costume. And Charlotte Gainsbourg is mindblowing, a skittish animal that may bite you when you turn your back. Von Trier created something deep and personal and savage, but I just wish I knew exactly what the hell it was. I wish it were something that I could easily dismiss as mere shock for shock’s sake, but there’s too much depth to be boobie-cutting boy games. Actually, I wish I never watched this damned mess at all.