Antichrist

(SFX Magazine, Future Publishing)

Look, just ignore our star rating for the moment, okay? Antichrist is the kind of film that many viewers will give zero stars, or minus five stars, and no doubt the enfant terrible director Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, The Kingdom) would be gutted if they didn’t. The best we can do is offer a process of elimination. If you couldn’t stomach, say, Audition or The Piano Teacher, don’t see Antichrist. If you thought Synecdoche was unwatchably up itself, stay away too. And if you think there are some squidgy parts of the human anatomy that should stay unravaged on screen, skip this film. If you answered ‘no’ each time, you may still loathe Antichrist, but at least you won’t be throwing up over it.

Indeed, the audience vomiting may drown out the fact that Antichrist is, amid everything else, a showpiece for two fine actors, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who are practically the sole humans in the film. They play a married couple who lose their baby son in a glacially stylised opening sequence. Dafoe’s character is a paternal therapist, who tries to bring his wife through her agony of grief (and we’re talking agony, raw and bleeding). During their chaotic “therapy” sessions, the wife talks of her fear of the woods, and Dafoe promptly takes her to a remote cabin. Uh-oh.

What follows… Well, if you’ve seen the Japanese film Audition, then Antichrist follows a similar trajectory, only worse. What starts as a sinister but grimly compelling psycho-drama, with the occasional moment of tenderness, suddenly collapses into fare that makes Saw or Hostel look fluffy. There’s a lot about our primal terrors of nature, including a moment of Lynchian weirdness with a speaking fox, and some in-your-face provocation regarding nasty medieval misogyny. There are glimpses of Misery, The Shining and The Evil Dead, and some superlatively warped sylvan cinematography from Anthony Dod Mantle, fresh from shooting Slumdog Millionaire’s Mumbai. You may be gripped by Antichrist’s depraved fairytale, or write it off as arthouse excrement. Either way, we guarantee you’ll be relieved as hell when it’s over.

(I put some further comments in Judge Dredd Megazine, Rebellion)

Lars von Trier’s already notorious Antichrist opened to jeers and catcalls at Cannes. Last month, I complained that Sam Raimi’s horror film Drag Me to Hell felt tame and calculated compared to his Evil Deads. Antichrist, which takes us to another cabin in the woods, could be von Triers’ twisted response. Its violence is far uglier, and it’s about as much fun for the viewer as sawing your own arm off. Evil Dead was banned in Britain as a video nasty; a quarter-century down the line, Antichrist has been passed uncensored by the BBFC.

Antichrist begins with a couple having hardcore sex while their baby, unobserved, climbs to a window and falls to his death, filmed in lingering slomo like the inside of a snowglobe. The dead infant and timewarped sex feel like homages to Don’t Look Now. After Antichrist’s prologue, there are long stretches of misery as the father, a therapist (Willem Dafoe), tries to support his devastated wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) through bouts of hysteria and frantic sex (“Never screw your therapist”). Dafoe’s character is rational, clinical and possible to see as a saint or a monster.

Trier takes his couple into the woods for another slow build-up, involving talking foxes, threatening acorns and visions of nature’s ghastly fecundity. Finally the film “pays” off in acts of extreme violence, described in detail on the BBFC site. But let’s be blunt. If you’re thinking of seeing Antichrist for its grisly bits, you’d be better to wait for the DVD and skip through to the money shots. If you’ve sat through Audition and Hostel, you won’t find Antichrist much worse, though I doubt the specific acts would pass uncut in, say, Hostel 3.

Like Audition, the impact of Antichrist’s violence comes from its non-violent set-up, which is intense, gruelling and laden with the most sylvan symbolism since The Company of Wolves. I side with those who enjoyed – well, appreciated – Antichrist as a twisted fairy-tale, proclaiming the right of films to offend against acceptable thinking. A closing image of faceless figures in the woods is doom-laden and remarkably beautiful.