After their child dies, a therapist (Willem Dafoe) and his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) flee to their cabin in the woods, where they hope to mend their emotional wounds. But the grief-stricken couple watches their troubles multiply when very strange things begin to happen. Acclaimed Danish auteur Lars von Trier divides this tale into multiple narratives, revealing a surreal, horrific psychological adventure about the evils of nature, humanity and desire.
So I’ve been having a hard time writing a review of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. For starters, I really, really, didn’t want to watch it. I was afraid of it. And I was afraid of writing a bad review. Then I did watch it, and it’s a pretty strange film and I had a lot of thoughts but it’s hard to find a straight line through them, which means, maybe it’s not a good movie? or it's supposed to be confusing and unsatisfying, in which case, great job? But I realize, the Arrangers never asked me for reviews. They just want reactions from me. They know, I think, that it’s hard for me to express myself without an explicit invitation, and that this fun little game that’s been going on all these years has given me a scaffolding to do that on without being too self-conscious about it. But I’ve still grown to take this experiment too seriously, and I made reviews a thing I thought I should do, so I started reviewing instead of reacting, and worrying about making them good, about what people would think, because I’m always worrying what people will think.
Anyway, I’ve been reacting to Antichrist for several months now, if we count all the time I procrastinated even watching it. I didn’t even know how on the nose it would be — like this film was specifically designed to mess me up. It’s about a woman suffering debilitating anxiety, and her therapist husband who attempts to treat her, and those two relationships going violently awry. It’s kind of funny that it didn’t mess me up. I will get to that in a bit. I just messed myself up worrying about it.
I have anxiety disorder, have for my whole adult life. My mind is always rehearsing these violent scenarios of the most minor social conflicts devolving into chaos and murder, and I spend a lot of energy shutting it up. It’s hard for me to be out of the house or the office alone unless I have a place I’m invited to be or a thing I’m allowed to be doing. If I feel like rational communication with someone has broken down, I get into a bad state of being kind of afraid of everyone, that can take a few months to get out of. I’ve been in therapy for a while now, after a few tries at it, and this time it seems to be sort of working. I understand more what is going on now, and I am learning to distinguish between things I want to do from things I just think I should do so nobody will get suspicious. It turns out that I don’t really know what I want to do! when I’m not driven by fear of real people with their real people ID cards rejecting me. I am patiently waiting for honest motivation to appear.
What I need is to reconnect with my friends and family, because I had some bad communication-breakdown times last spring, or the year before? I honestly do not remember, except that I know I pretty much stopped talking to anyone, except for the most safely predictable utterances. And I’ve been trying to fix it, but now it’s like, what is there to talk about? Who am I, anymore? Well, there’s this movie, let’s look at it.
I didn’t want to watch Antichrist because I was afraid it would make me feel really bad, and also it's hard to choose to watch things. Even things I was so eager to see, like Ned Rifle. Which is waiting there on the table under Henry Fool and Fay Grim and why is it so hard to just sit down and trust the experience that is being offered? Not the watching itself, the getting ready to watch — imagining it fills me with dread. Imagining having feelings. Imagining this moment of trying to share them.
It wasn’t so terrible, actually. Why did I think it would be? I haven’t actually seen a lot of Lars von Trier stuff since his Kingdom Hospital series. I dreaded seeing an actress suffer and feeling complicit, I very much dreaded seeing a character suffer injustice and never have it made right. I read descriptions of Dancer in the Dark and Dogville and they convinced me that that’s what von Trier’s stories are about. Grim, merciless humans and systems grinding the life out of an innocent. I can’t handle people being cruel for no reason. I don’t know if I was being fair in expecting that here. But I do remember reading about the Dogme95 movement and feeling sort of disgusted. It seemed so arrogant, and a movement towards throwing away useful craft for the sake of an empty purity. But what do I really know about it? Not fucking much. Anyway, Antichrist sure as hell isn’t Dogme. So much slo-mo. So many wounds.
So, okay, it didn’t make me feel as bad as I feared. I don’t know if any film could have. Maybe Human Centipede or Hostel. Neither of which I am willing to see, FYI. What did it make me feel, then? Bewildered. I don’t know what the ending meant. I don’t know if it was meant to be a relief or a damnation. It felt like both.
I guess a recap is in order. But already we’re about to be so weird, this movie defies explaining on every level, down to not naming the principal characters. What can we do but wade on in. A man and a woman have a child and love him very much. They are just He and She, but the little boy is Nick. The man and the woman are making love one day and Nick climbs out of an open widow and falls to his death. He grieves, but She falls into a pit of despair and anxiety so deep she is hospitalized for weeks. He is a therapist and insists on taking over her treatment. Determining that his wife’s anxiety seems centered around “Nature,” he takes her out to their cabin in the woods, a place she once loved, to make her face her irrational fears. This is also where she did research for a degree she abandoned to raise their child — her thesis was on the topic of historical violent misogyny, all bound up in a thick book labeled “Gynocide.”
Therapy is initially successful! He walks her through her fear and she resists and cooperates in ways I found very familiar. Sidebar: I don’t know what the actual medical rules are, but it seemed really super not okay for a therapist to treat his wife, and this point is circled and underlined and it’s all down to his ego that he thinks this is going to work out. He keeps throwing out his own rules and it’s more and more clear that this process is no longer about treatment, but about control, about editing out this mystery in his wife’s mind, this sense of horror and evil that she can’t articulate. Another sidebar: this is something that can only happen in film, the whole film is like this could not possibly be told in any other medium, so it’s frustrating to try to describe it — because it was so clear when I watched it: the moment of inversion where there was a chance they were going to get out alive. But no, he pushes in and peers into Gynocide. He sees that the work was destroying her, that her words towards the end devolved into a meaningless scrawl. He pushes further in his attempt to impose reason on what is, to her, an organic, fundamental wrongness in humanity, and with the most disastrous example of mansplaining ever committed to film, unleashes a storm of violent possessiveness in her. She maims him so he can’t leave, then mutilates herself so she’ll stop. Probably not a good first date film.
There’s an insistence on juxtaposing beauty and horror, leading us into her mind where all beauty is rotting and fearful, until by the last third all signifiers are inverted and one feels instinctive dread and revulsion, not only at the sex scenes, which are getting textually dangerous and literally violent, but any nature scene or parental memory. Everything beautiful and desirable becomes a source of fear, and, well, that resonates with me very deeply. So it’s very… disruptive and uncomfortable for me to then try to tease out what is actually really going on at that cabin, since there honestly does seem to be some supernatural shit afoot, either that or the husband is hallucinating talking animals.
There are two ways to track this story — you can treat it like a mental health history, or as a supernatural horror film. Neither allows the other to stand on its own, but I’m not sure that both together form a coherent whole. There’s so much more I could say, all this duality between He and She, the way He only tells and She only shows, but I don’t know if talking about it would help -- I just saw all these signs in a language I didn’t understand.
Film Crit Hulk says that the ending is the message. (I’ve been reading a lot of Film Crit Hulk.) So what do I make of the last scene? The man, hobbling out of the damned forest after strangling and burning his wife, who seemed possessed. Perhaps they both were. There was a scene to suggest it, that only makes sense because it's film. He hobbles out and eats some berries (in a reference to Jesus in the wilderness? I’m hung up on the title here), and then scores of faceless women file out of the woods, up the hill, out into the light. What the fuck does it mean? Are they free, because of what he did? Why did they need that to happen? Is he the Antichrist? Are they good or evil? It is hard to imagine them as other than innocent victims finally free to walk away from their unjust murders, but why does another act of murder free them?
It’s breathtaking piece of work, truly. It may or may not be appallingly self-important, I can't tell. It’s certainly often ugly and unsettling. Maybe you want to see it. Charlotte Gainsbourg acts her freaking brains out, I’ll tell you what.
If you’re one of the Arrangers, you may be asking yourself if this is me saying no mas, and it’s not. I’m just trying to explain.