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Art House & International movie directed by Lars von Trier

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Very disturbing, very beautiful

  • Mar 17, 2010
Pros: Beautiful to watch, intense story, acting, music

Cons: Unfortunately too intense/abusive for a wider audience

The Bottom Line: One of the prettiest movies I've ever seen.  The subject matter is a painful descent into madness but ultimately worth significant effort.

Directors categorized in the spastically defined “art house” generally create films that are usually (at least for me) difficult as all-get-out to review, their styles and subjects defy formulaic reviews. I think it’s safe to say that most directors in this school have a voice that carries theme, characters, visuals, plot, and mood for lack of a more precise word from movie to movie. In this area, the reviewer can thumbnail each element and explain whether it is consistent with this cinematic voice. After that, however, trying to give just enough information to entice or repel is often an onerous task. To give something tangible my quick favorate“art house” directors are David Lynch, Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman, Stanley Kubrick. Lars von Trier sits at the same table with these icons that explore the darker and sometimes darkest aspects of human desire and behavior. He, though, is the ne plus ultra when it comes to presenting a peculiar violence between intimates that leads to supreme cruelty towards the women in his vicious equation. Before reading any farther . . . I doubt many people are a fan of intentional cruelty, but if misogynistic quasi-barbarism induces vomiting, then best not to consider the film at all.

Quickly for those familiar with Mr. von Trier’s work: his pet themes of sexuality, violence, religion, humorlessness, misogyny are consistent in general but with Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark in particular. Antichrist is so beautiful that I was agape as often from this treat as I was from the horror of the events. It is pretty enough for me to consider it among my top ten or so prettiest movies. I would watch it again for this facet alone were it not for the metallic bile I still taste in the back of my throat caused by the plot. So, if you like his work, then there is no reason to skip this one.

The prologue is shown in extreme slow motion. A couple is having sex (there is no other way to describe it but pornographic). Their toddler son, Nic, climbs out of his crib and walks in his parents’ bedroom where they have left the window open. While they are in coitus, the son climbs onto the desk abutting the window leaps 20 feet to the pavement.

The husband is a psychologist who insists, despite professional best practices, on helping his wife through her grieving process. After a few “sessions” in their urban home, he decides that her best chance to have a meaningful breakthrough is to go to a cabin they have in the damp woods of the Pacific Northwest, a place they call Eden. She used the cabin as a writer’s retreat where she worked on her unfinished thesis on mass killing of women that societies believed to be evil. She had taken Nic with her on the last few trips, so it is the place most marked by his death.

She progresses through her therapy fairly well at first. But sensing something off kilter, he looks for her research. He discovers that the last half of her notes shifts perspective from the expected feminist castigation of a patriarchal society to agreeing with the misogynist stance. He had already pulled back from physical intimacy, apparently adopting the edicts against relationships between therapist and patient. This sudden and academically vicious about-face causes him to withdraw from her psychically also—this withdraw is starker because her psychological u-turn occurred before Nic died.

This is where the film takes on the most vicious of von Trier’s emotional palate: where love approaches exploitation and then to just a struggle for survival.

I need to offer clear warnings as I offer further explanation for why the movie is generally worth the extremely dissonant content.

The sex in the beginning of the film is not fake—or if it, is it is convincing enough to have the same effect. In a similar vein of supreme cinema verite, a doe gives birth and a fox appears to disembowel himself. I go into this detail because it is emblematic of the reason to watch the film. The high contrast black and white super slow motion used in the prologue is astounding. Emotionally we are put into an intimate space that porn necessarily denies; this is a totally different form of voyeurism that is made perhaps more shameful in being unable to turn away or skip past the scenes for the simple beauty of the whole thing. We may be slightly queasy with a live birth of a faun, but the high contrast color creates the same, though thankfully not shame-filled, space as the earlier scene. I almost vomited watching the fox—I couldn’t look away but I also could not make myself go back to examine whether this act was real—it was verite enough for me the first time.

The music is amazing, as magnetic to the ear as the visuals are for the eye. Peter Greenaway used the same sort of trope in Zed and Two Noughts where he used fantastic music to accompany fast motion decomposition of fruit and a couple of animals.

Von Trier shows the baser parts of nature in what is certainly a base manner but with so artful an eye and ear that I was equally compelled and repulsed.

Beautiful scenery and sound are one thing, but what makes Antichrist a von Trier primer piece is the intense emotional disintegration in general but specifically focused on the female in a way bordering on psychopathic.

Husband and wife abuse each other in grotesque ways. She was emotionally unbalanced before Nic’s death. Ironically, her grief masked this descent toward psychosis. He insists on using his therapist tools (and ignoring his therapist ethics) to enter her headspace to help her grieve; instead he finds that her headspace contains far more tetanus covered detritus than he anticipated. He pulls back partly, it seems, to try to gain his mental footing, but she sees this as the prelude to leaving her. Here the abuse shifts to physical. Most of the violence is sexual but her psychotic fear of abandonment leads her to get, quite literally, medieval.

Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are excellent. There are quite a few despairing films where I wonder how many psychiatrists were quietly kept on staff (Sophie’s Choice and Requiem for a Dream jump immediately to mind, and I’d rather not go digging further through that category at present), but all of the films had a wider cast that could offer moral and morale support. Antichrist is just the two unnamed spouses, just Mr. Dafoe and Ms. Gainsbourgh often shot with a hand-held camera. Due to these factors, there are more than a few moments where it seems that we are watching a home movie that would likely end up as evidence in a criminal trial.

If you’ve gotten this far and realize I won’t be saying “oops, just kidding” then it really is worth the effort. However you do need to be prepped for psychic strain and have whatever you use for emotional ice cream handy. If you like either actor then there is every reason to make a best attempt to watch it through to the end.

Other Lars von Trier reviews:
Element of Crime


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March 25, 2011
Really liked this movie as well!
More Antichrist reviews
review by . June 09, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
A woman and a man lose their son in a tragic accident. Rather than trust in the medicine prescribed by her psychiatrist to ease her grief, he (a psychotherapist) decides to subject her to his own therapeutic regime. She (in an incredibly devastating performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg) will face her fears directly, and see that there is nothing to fear. He doesn't consider that he may have something to fear from her, or that he, with his clinical detachment from feeling and incessant preoccupation …
review by . August 19, 2010
"Antichrist"    Not Just a Movie, an Experience    Amos Lassen    While a couple is having sexual intercourse in one room, their son falls out of the window in another room and dies. The mother is so grief-stricken that she is hospitalized but her husband who is a therapist brings her home and wants to treat her depression himself. They decide to confront their fears and go to stay in their cabin in the woods where something terrible happened …
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Paul Savage ()
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I name and describe everything and classify most things. If 'it' already had a name, the one I just gave it is better.
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