AntiChrist (2009): Psychological Horror Tale from Denmark Enfant Terrible Von Trier

Cannes Film Fest 2009 (In competition)–Almost every year, there’s one film in Cannes that’s designed to provoke, irritate, and outrage. This year it was “AntiChrist,” from Denmark’s enfant terrible Lars von Trier, an excessive psychological horror film in which the climax depicts the mutilation of a sex organ–in close-up.
Von Trier continues to suffer from the reputation of a misogynist director who puts his actresses through hell. The agent-provocateur had a falling out with Bjork while shooting “Dancer in The Dark,” which went on to win the 2000 Palme d’Or, and with Nicole Kidman during “Dogville” in 2003. In fact, whether by intent or not, no actress has worked with him more than once.  In his defence, the filmmaker has often claimed that it’s his charcaters, not him, that are misogynist.
A victim by his own admission from severe depression over the past few years (claiming he had doubts whether he would ever make another picture), von Trier has described “Antichrist” as a therapeutic and personal work. Which again shows why we should not confuse authorial intent with end result, motivation to do a film and what’ shown on screen. 
More than anyting else, “AntiChrist” is a movie that demands to be noticed and be talked about. Yet it’s one thing to evoke Hitchcock and other horror masters, but quite another to dedicate this preposterous film to the brillliant Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, an inscription greeted with both laughter and boos at the very first press screening in Cannes.  Why Tarkovsky?
Let me start with some positive observations. We are fortunate that von Trier has moved away from the minimal, restrictive style of Dogme, a rigid platform of which he was co-founder, and which lasted about about five years. Stylized (shot in black and white and color) and visually striking throughout, “Antichrist” is impressive on a technical level. This has always been the saving grace of von Trier—he is too good a filmmaker to be dismissed entirely. 
Von Trier’s issues with women and female sexuality have been evident in previous films, such as “Breaking the Waves” and “Dogville,” but in “AntiChrist,” which he claims was inspired by the playwright Strindberg (“Dance of Death”) he goes way beyond dealing with the battle of the sexes between a husband and a wife who have lost their only child.  In this case, it’s a war for survival–literally and metaphorically–in a place called Eden.  Why Eden?
Like many of his former movies, “AntiChrist” is divided into chapters.  There are four chapters of more or less equal duration, bracketed by black-and-white prologue and epilogue. The titles of the chapters are “Grief” (the best one), “Despair” (with the subtitle of “Gynocide”), “Pain,” and “The Three Beggars” (the weakest).  And while the labels of the first three segments fit, the title of the fourth one remains enigmatic.
The two central characters are nameless (usually a bad sign), He and She, suggesting that they stand for Everyman and Everywoman (Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?).   In a slow-motion black-and-white prologue, von Trier depicts a married couple, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe. They are engaged in an intense sexual ecnounter, during which the accidental death of their son occurs, when he falls off the window into the snowy grounds. She blames herself, and He (and by implication von Trier) doesn’t deny it.
After spending some time in a psychiatric ward dealing with her grief, the husband, who’s a psychotherapist, defies the advice of her doctor. He decides to take his wife off mood-stabilizing medication and insists on giving her therapy himself. Which means that from that point on, he occupies the powerful positions of both a husband and a professional in charge of the needs of a woman, who gets increasingly more temperamental and erratic. 
Throughout the narrative, he’s condescending to her about everything, her creative work, her maternal skills, her grief, and even her needs for sex. After one such session, he remarks ironically and semi-jokingly, “Never a good idea to screw your therapist.”
Moreover, he convinces his wife that they should retreat to their house in the secluded forest, so that he can teach her how to face her innermost fears directly. The house is already haunted for the very reason that the wife used to work there on her dissertation on Gynocide, dealing with mythic and real violence targeted at women, including witchhunting.
It’s implied that the husband had dismissed her subject matter and discouraged her from pursuing an academic career. Feeling that her own sexuality is responsible for her son’s death, the woman internalizes the suffering and pain and the thesis she was researching. In other words, von Trier makes her the embodiment of “evil.”Question: Does von Trier punish women because he thinks they are sexually instatiable creatures? In “Antichrist,” Gainsbourg chops off an intimate sexual organ with scissors. Earlier, during another sexual intercourse, she hits her husband on the penis with wood and he ejaculates blood, after which she impales him and leaves him on the floor wounded.

“AntiChrist” represents yet another art film that tries to put a personal signature on what’s a horror feature. Von Trier is not beyond borrowing some familiar conventions of the genre, such as ancient burial grounds, haunted house, sex as a precursor to death, female sexuality as supernatural force, repressed desire that never goes away, above all revenge, with the twist that here the male is the victim and the female is in control (at least for a while).
Von Trier’s manipulative strategy is illustrated in the prologue. In the black-and-white opening sequence, composed and presented like a commercial, Gainsbourg and Dafoe make love while Handel’s choral music plays loud on the soundtrack and snow streams in through the open window. While the couple engages in intercourse, their son crawls out of bed and tumbles out the window to his death, his arms spread like the wings of an angel before he hits the ground. It’s a gorgeous lyrical sequence, which in a typical von Trierian mode is interrupted by a sharp cut to a huge penis penetrating a vagina.
Ace cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (who had shot the Oscar-winner “Slumdog Millionaire” in a very different style) elevates the film to the level of art film with his alternation of styles, the eye-grabbing monochrome of the proloue and epilogue and the more naturalistic (using hand-held camera) sequences in color, when the couple is inside the house or in the surrounding forest.
We have seen good films about married couples that have lost a child in freak accident and have never recovered from the traumas, such as “Don’t Look Know,” “The Son’s Room,” “In the Bedroom.” In this case, the parents were present but failed to prevent the disaster because they were distracted with passionate sex.   In most of the film’s sexual acts, the female is the aggressor (who’s often rebuffed), but we don’t know who initiated the first one, which led to fatalistic results.
The dialogue is uneven, veering from realistic discourse between husband and wife to abstract statements like, “Nature causes people to do evil things to women.” The movie descends into the ridiculous with the imagery of a crow and a disembowelled fox, which suddenly exclaims, “Chaos reigns.”
Aside from the lead actors, who give compelling performances considering the material and its level of intensity, there are no secondary characters. Some extras are seen at the beginning and the end of the film, whose story is nominally set in and around Seattle but was shot in Germany.
Deep down, Von Trier may know that his film can’t sustain all the religious and allegorical complexities he pruports it to have. “AntiChrist” is too calculated and manipulative to generate genuine feelings. And despite elements of shock and spectacle, the movie is occasionally dull and too preposterous to engage our attention.I write this review with mixed feelings since von Trier has made some of the most provocative and forceful films of the past decade, including “Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark,” and “Dogville,” all of which have centered on women, but I think “AntiChrist” represents an entirely different work, based on the notion that the most important function of cinema if to provoke and irritate.

See it and judge for yourself. Like it or not, you won’t see any film in 2009 like “AntiChrist.”
He (Willem Dafoe)
She (Charlotte Gainsbourg)

A Zentropa Entertainments23 (Denmark) presentation of a Zentropa Intl. Koln (Germany)/Slot Machine (France)/Memfis Film Intl., Trollhattan Film (Sweden)/Lucky Red (Italy)/Zentropa Intl. Poland (Poland) co-production, co-produced by DR, Arte France Cinema, ZDF-Arte Group Grand Accord: ARTE G.E.I. E, Film i Vast, SVT.
International sales: Trustnordisk, Copenhagen.
Produced by Meta Louise Foldager.
Executive producers, Peter Aalbaek Jensen, Peter Garde.
Co-producers, Lars Jonsson, Madeleine Ekman, Andrea Occhipinti, Malgorzata Szumowska, Ole Ostergaard.
Executive co-producers, Bettina Brokemper, Marianne Slot.
Directed, written by Lars von Trier.
Camera: Anthony Dod Mantle.
Editor: Anders Refn.
Production designer: Karl “Kalli” Juliusson.
Art director: Tim Pannen.
Costume designer: Frauke Firl.
Sound designer, Kristian Eidnes Andersen.
Visual effects supervisor, Peter Hjorth; visual effects, Plastige Image.
Running time: 105 Minutes.