It’s a horror film. It’s a battle-of-the-sexes drama. It’s a cabin-in-the-woods supernatural thriller. It’s shocking, controversial, provocative, explicit etc. Lars von Trier is just messing with you. Don’t get so worked up. He likes to poke (figurative) wild animals with (metaphorical) sticks to see what bites. Of course, the sense that he’s provoking his audiences shouldn’t be an excuse to dismiss his movies out of hand – they clearly get a lot of attention, and so he must be pushing just the right combination of buttons to incite so much reaction. Since the film so deftly elicits a set of stock reactions, I thought I’d withhold my own thoughts on the film and instead invite you to build your own review to the film based on the multiple choices below. Save yourself some time, and your knees some jerking, and select your responses in each of the categories most commonly used to talk about Antichrist:
Lars von Trier:
- He’s seriously interested in investigating the mechanics of film genre, breaking up the horror film into its component parts to show how it plays out simplistic cultural preoccupations with sex and death. Playful they may be, but his films are as entitled to thoughtful consideration as anyone else’s. Just because he’s interested in extreme emotions doesn’t make him exploitative – he makes difficult subjects accessible, and there’s a sense that his critics are just upset about critical attention being lavished upon something that smells populist.
- He’s a charlatan who has somehow managed to trick film critics into thinking he’s a serious artist rather than a skilful manipulator of the critical establishment. He hates you. He thinks you’re an idiot. You deserve this kind of schlock, and the proof of your idiocy is the way you rise to the bait and get all annoyed about it. He stands back to watch the fuss, safe in the arms of the old and untrue adage that a bad reaction is better than no reaction at all. You can’t win – if you don’t see the film, you can’t complain about it, which means he gets your money regardless of whether you like his work or not.
- He’s playing games. But the games themselves are interesting and rather gripping, so as long as you can take a step back and see how those games are played, rather than falling into the trap of getting emotionally involved in the lives of 2-dimensional characters. The prominence he gives to his own name (the “von” is an affected nickname retained in homage to Josef von Sternberg) is a good indicator to how he perceives himself as a pastiche of the notion of the monstrous, egotistical auteur.
Sex and violence:
- Needlessly explicit, spoiling what might otherwise have been another wry tale of middle-class holiday-makers who cope badly when taken outdoors. I’d much rather have been watching Nuts in May.
- Graphic, porny sex with close-up genital shots is a lazy shortcut to tabloid frenzy and the free publicity that goes along with it. It’s the quickest way for so-called art cinema to turn the heads of mainstream audiences or the kinds of people who wouldn’t normally be distracted from the latest Saw film, which is at least honest in inviting you to enjoy, rather than feel guilty about, spectacular displays of gore.
- The explicitness of the sex, violence and sexual violence is calculated to critique the ways in which women are frequently constructed as sexual accessories on film. She’s sexuality is a monstrous excess – she embodies the end product of repetitive projections that have been imposed upon her: since women have been expected to remain pliant, willing, masochistic and available sexual partners, the film shows what happens when she takes all that on board and internalises all of that violence, objectification and pornographic expectation. i.e. She becomes a monster.
- Antichrist is thoroughly misogynist because it shows a woman doing terrible things to her husband: she is the proverbial “ball-breaker”, yet another daft pun that von Trier loves to make literal. All of the husband’s suspicions about his wife prove to be true. Her violence is a result not of self-defence or self-preservation, but a natural outgrowth of her emotional instability. It even turns out that the death of her son is the fault of her neglect, and that she was tormenting him long before he died: her tendency to “hobble” the men in her life makes her a full-blown psycho whose irrational jealousy is enacted as physical mutilation. To build an entire film around the inherent danger of trying to understand and interact with women reveals a deep-seated hatred at worst, a simplistic misunderstanding at best.
- It’s an anti-male fantasy in which a psychiatrist arrogantly believes he is uniquely skilled in diagnosing and treating his wife’s fears and anxieties, little realising that he is creating and awakening them in the first place. Her violence is the equal and opposite reaction to his unfeeling pragmatism. He may even be trying to deliberately drive her over the edge or reduce her to a compliant sexual object. We see almost no evidence that he grieves for the death of his child at all. Men are rubbish, women their victims.
- It’s a film about misogyny, in which von Trier imagines satirically what it would look like if a woman really did embody all of the hysterical, irrational and deadly attributes which have historically been suspected of her. The unhinged viciousness of it all is supposed to point to the ridiculousness of folkloric associations of women with nature, mystery, witchcraft and hysteria.
- The symbolism is a bit “sledgehammer”, sometimes literally.It’s all pretty obvious – the setting is called “Eden”, the leads have no names, setting them up as archetypes of masculinity and femininity. It is built on simple binaries of male/female, rational/hysterical, nature/science, mother/whore, doctor/patient, etc. von Trier can only seem to imagine them in extreme opposition to one another, but the film achieves its clarity and its visual poetry by its careful arrangement of signs. It might seem to be about “chaos”, but it’s very carefully ordered.
- Everything seems to be invested with a symbolic value, even if it’s not clear what we’re expected to conclude about it – the closer you watch, the more you notice the repetitions of certain visual motifs such as feet, necks (and other body parts), grass/hair, earth, animals. None of these are difficult to miss, especially since von Trier is keen to label everything and divide it up into sections with titles on a chalkboard.
- Other. And isn’t the Other terrifying!?
The talking fox:
- I’m sure von Trier is chuckling to himself that everyone feels like they have to pass comment on something that was thrown in to tease us. It’s a joke that should clue you in to what he’s up to – he courts outrage by refusing to be consistent.
- A badly judged moment. It’s not even consistent with other events in the film. Is it in Willem Dafoe’s head? Why does he have all the visions if she’s the one who’s crazy? Are the animals just a manifestation of Her true nature? It doesn’t matter, because it’s a silly idea. There’s a time and a place for talking animals, and an intense horror movie is not one of them. Von Trier should’ve known that keeping viewers engaged in a fictional world requires a delicate balance between heightened expression and adherence to plausibility – talking animals cross a line into a different generic heritage (cartoons and kids-stuff), so it was to be expected that people would get distracted and laugh at it.
- It’s all part of the film’s heightened sense of magical possibility. As with the final shot of Breaking the Waves, von Trier loves to throw in those moments that confound expectation or interpretation – you might think you’re watching something that has a good explanation (it’s all in her mind!), and then with a little bit of CGI, the director can show that you couldn’t have been right all along; in this case it’s a blow to Dafoe’s rationalised sense of self. It’s worth noting that, despite the conglomeration of creepy portents, and a talking fox, his character never questions his own sanity.
- It’s a pre-emptive attack on Wes Anderson’s Roald Dahl movie. This fox is far from fantastic.
See more stills from Antichrist in the slideshow below, and add comments below if you feel like none of these reviews represent your position on the film.
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