Lars von Trier's film Antichrist has been controversial since its showings at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals earlier this year, and that judgment is not likely to change when it gets a wider release. To be frank, many of you reading this will not want to see the movie Antichrist. To be even more frank, at about an hour and twenty minutes into the film, Charlotte Gainsbourg mutilates her genitals with a pair of scissors, in extreme close-up. And maybe the most shocking thing about that scene is that it's actually totally germane to the plot of the film. It pretty much belongs there. Not a date movie.
Okay, now that we've lost pretty much everyone, did I like the movie? Well, not if you mean, did I have an enjoyable time? But, it is a visually-stunning film that deals quite directly with the eternal tension between nature and culture, and tries to evoke, or even explain the history of religious misogyny in Western civilization. It's hard to think of any other current filmmakers who would, or even could, aim so high. So, I would give it the award for audacity. It's a daring, brilliant, maybe even a great movie. No, I didn't like watching it.
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe play a couple (listed as He and She in the credits) whose child falls from a window while they are distracted by lovemaking. This sends She into a serious depression, which He tries to treat with intensive psychology- Dafoe plays a therapist in the film. The couple goes to a secluded cabin in the woods in order to confront her fear of nature and things go from bad to worse. His rationalist psychology is defenseless against the increasingly malicious natural surroundings and increasingly irrational partner. From the point in which a dying fox tells Him that "chaos reigns", the movie begins its descent into full-blown madness.
The woods are called "Eden" and, as that suggests, the film makes extensive use of symbolism. How you feel about the movie might depend on how you feel about symbolism. For me, symbolism works if the filmmaker goes all the way with it, which von Trier certainly does. Also, I tend not to see symbols as having one correct answer, but evoking any number of things in a sort of dream logic. There is a funny scene in Antichrist in which She says, of His nightmares that dreams don't matter in modern psychology. "Freud is dead, isn't he?"
Freud is dead because the irrational subconscious has been explained away. But, for von Trier, the irrational corresponds to nature, which is disordered and violent. As She becomes irrational, He tries to control her, and finally fails. The Apollonian and Dionysian battle through the last half hour of the film. Ultimately, his rationalist Western worldview has to resort to "gynocide" in order to survive; but nature has its revenge in the final shot.
Watching the film, I was reminded of everything from Bergman's Hour of the Wolf and Persona, to Medea. The visuals draw explicitly from Medieval woodprints of witches and other Christian imagery, and are often startling. The dialogue includes such gems as "Nature is Satan's church" and "Women do not control their own bodies; nature does."
It's probably best not to have any opinion of Lars von Trier before watching this film. He is often called a "provocateur", a slur that roughly translated means: "Don't pay attention to his work; he's just trying to get a response". I sort of wonder of von Trier made the film for anyone but himself. He is often criticized for "misogyny", and there is no doubt that he will be for this movie. While I think the film's subject is misogyny, I think his point is that woman-hatred comes from a masculine sense of frailty in the face of a natural world that cannot be controlled. Ultimately, I think he's making a horror film that suggests misogyny is at the core of all horror films and religious parables. Actually, to go even further, I think his attack is on the misogynist underpinnings of western rationalism as such.
You get the point that this movie is not fluff. Judging by the reviews I've seen, if you don't take von Trier seriously from the outset, you'll think Antichrist is pretentious nonsense intended to piss off the viewer. If you take the director and the movie seriously, you might come to the same conclusions, but you'll still spend hours thinking through the movie, trying to figure out just what was intended. I think that's the proper response.