I’ve never praised a film before by saying I felt a wash of relief when it was over, but that is undeniably true of this incredible, horrific film.
While in the throes of passion, the son of a couple (Charlotte Gainsborough and Willem Dafoe) falls to his death, leaving them broken. The therapist husband tries to help his distraught wife address the fears and anxieties left from the incident by taking her to a remote forest location to make her face her phobias. But her past research into gynocide comes to light, and her terror runs deep into the mythology of the three beggars: pain, grief and despair.
I’m not going to pretend I understood every aspect of this film after one viewing, but it is an undeniably powerful piece, which drags the audience from the depths of despair, through the misery of the couple’s existence, to some of the most brutal scenes ever put to film. It’s far more atmospheric, shocking and emotionally exhausting than most horror films, but never feels like an exercise in gratuitous terror, like, say, the Hostel films, Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Only God Forgives. The film’s more horrific elements feel like the natural result of the story Lars von Trier wanted to tell, rather than the point of it.
The fact that there is so much more going on here than just the violence and fear is part of the reason it’s so shocking. While many more conventional horror films have just enough back story to lay the groundwork for the gore or loud bangs, in Antichrist we really get to know the characters. The couple are superbly portrayed by Defoe and Gainsborough, who deserve huge credit for what they must have gone through in making this film.
But it’s also so shocking because of the way it’s made. Filmed in a very naturalistic way, every aspect of this film, including its most infamously gory moments, looks completely real. But with the care and attention that has clearly gone into shot composition, lighting and music it’s visually splendid for all its bleakness. The prologue and epilogue are particularly notable for their combination of the beautiful and the grim.
While there is a religious element implied by the title, it doesn’t employ the same tacky Christian/satanic imagery that has been used time and time again by uninspired horror fare. Instead it uses less familiar mythology, giving the film an important sense of mystery. I’m not going to try and interpret it here, but I will say that it’s a film that gets you thinking and lingers in your brain long after the credits have rolled. It may be possible to interpret this film in a misogynistic way, in terms of how the characters are portrayed, and aspects of what is said about gynacide, but this is open to interpretation.
Not many films leave you gasping for breath with your hand in your mouth, and also manage to boggle your mind. This is a deep and fascinating piece or art, incredibly constructed and acted to bring von Trier’s daring, visceral vision to life.