Panic attacks, like most consciousness-altering physiological events, are aggressively cyclical. I was in my sophomore year of college, presenting some hastily researched notes on Pre-Raphaelite art to 15-to-20 listless English lit classmates, when I experienced my first; a bungled exordium that misattributed a Rossetti painting to William Holman Hunt gradually hardened into a pearl sac of mental worry, and after passing out a list of chicken-scratched citations I became light-headed and shaky. My 3x5 note cards fluttered to the floor and, as I glanced down at them, the world melted into white. There were distant voices, and pulsating images of a vaguely violent nature. After a few minutes, the tyranny of blankness abdicated, and an odd, otherworldly coolness replaced it. I was on my back, peering up at my blond, six-months-pregnant English professor, who seemed outlined with piercing electricity, like a psychedelic Virgin Mary.
I've rarely seen the blissfully illogical calm that's followed each of my anxiety climaxes rendered accurately in film, though two movies come frightfully close with sharp formalistic symbolism. In Black Narcissus, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger halt Sister Ruth's sex-denied frenzy by boiling the screen to a primary red that diffuses into primary blue. (This is panic and self-soothing as cinematographic essence, as Technicolor.) But Lars von Trier's Antichrist contains more than simply a technical flourish of a breakdown; von Trier dilutes the anxiety-attack cycle and utilizes its fatalistic incomprehensibility as his narrative arc.
Antichrist is one of the cruelest jokes ever produced and unleashed on the film-going public, but it shouldn't be mistaken for a practical one. It's a deadly serious comedy of excess, a not-quite-camp, not-quite-clinical journey through deeply personal psychoses that flails and rages against modern instruments of wellness (namely pills and therapists) and comes to rest, finally, against impossible contrivance. Its imagery is often resistant to interpretation, yet obliquely menacing. (A chick carcass plummets from a nest to be overtaken first by black ants, then cannibalistic birds of prey.) Much of the dialogue is preposterously heavy-handed (”…you'll learn the fear isn't dangerous”), a sardonic illustration of how science can be just as predatory and un-nuanced as the natural phenomena it's designed to protect us from by way of explication. And, despite a grisly third act, the photography (by digital specialist Anthony Dod Mantle) is gracefully supernal; it's almost like an entire film composed of the chapter stop-marking, motion-enhanced paintings that endowed Breaking the Waves with calculated, anti-Dogme opulence.
This opening scene contains the movie's most forcefully satirical content: A young boy dies in an unlikely fall from an apartment window while parents He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) satisfy their carnal desires in an adjacent room. The scene unspools with the deliberate slow motion, coruscating black and white, and gentle, operatic soundtrack of high-end jewelry commercials, a wholesome aesthetic von Trier can't help but undermine with an obligatory punch-in of hardcore, shower wall-buttressed penetration. But the arrangement of shots subtly, and soberly, foreshadows the pulpy materialism to follow.
Vacant facial expressions are shown pre-copulation, then eschewed in favor of hydraulic limbs and buttocks, displaced water carafes, and congregating snow banks-turned graves; rather than suggestive of connubial affection and filial regret, the framing glorifies impulsive animalism and the chill of dumb chance. The prologue's literal conflation of sex and death is also the first of several stubborn reversals of natural order that calcify the germ of unthinkable grief (the couple's intimacy, complicit in the son's fatal injury due to the neglect it inspires, is anti-reproductive). And the scene's shimmering, over-the-top beauty, sardonic detachment, and anti-social rancor are eventually revealed as the strongest hues in Antichrist's palette—watching the movie is like being caught off guard by a sullen atheist barfing up glitter.
Reeling from grief, psychologist/husband He tightens his grip on the downward spiraling She by urging her to confront her botulated guilt in “Eden,” an idyllic yet overwhelming wood where the family keeps a cabin for recreation and isolated study. This shallow plot bears the ironic narrow-mindedness of a prankster playwright's response to a fatuous “Pen your own Strindbergian drama!” high school prompt, and despite the methodology behind von Trier's infantilism, he can't help drawing attention to his mismatched seams. Why bother, for example, dividing the clumsily amorphous story of Antichrist into titled chapters (each drawn from the faux-gnostic abstracts She fixates upon and personifies as the Three Beggars)? In Dogville and Manderlay, the rigid narrative structure mocked the characters' nihilistic plights with Samuel Johnson-like impishness; here, the act breaks are intermittent plateaus on an upward trail of maleficent weirdness.
But as the off-kilter and occasionally ridiculous scenarios intensify, He and She go down a slippery slope of panic-inspired anti-rationalism; a stillborn fawn dangling from a doe's backside and a talking fox leisurely dining on its own entrails are silly manifestations of the rather frightening notion that nature is only a thief and not a gift-bearer of life. When recollected in post-anxiety tranquility, such anthropomorphic spook tactics seem childish; when we're confronted with them in the midst of a fuzzy-eyed, tremor-inducing anxiety spell, we sweat in their presence. They're rasping hallucinations, provoked by a seeping adrenaline leak, that mock the suffering and imperiously chortle at the sight of futile Xanax ingestion.
She, who dumps her unnamed meds in the toilet in act one, is often interpreted as a recklessly intransigent “answer” to von Trier's alleged misogyny; her scholarship concerns the eerily medieval concept of “gynocide,” a macabre reading of classically anti-women texts that devilishly defends distaff violence. But while He becomes incensed when learning of this morally dubious thesis, he misses the bigger-picture assertion, partly implied by flashbacks to She's casual abuse of their son: that humanity's nefariousness is not only inherently deserving of punitive mutilation, but tantamount to a kind of black magic. Just as those who may have had the misfortune to experience epilepsy in a socio-religious climate that whole-heartedly believed in—or self-servingly promoted the existence of—mind-controlling incantations, anxiety patients undergo a modern bewitching with an often numinous, if intimidating, tenor. And fittingly, both the first and arguably the most gruesome bloodletting wounds in Antichrist are self-inflicted: She batters her forehead on a toilet bowl until He wrenches her away, sedates her with rough sex, and then hypnotically compels her to “melt into the green” of Eden's ferociously fern-ridden fields. It's only after her panic trip peaks with corporeal abhorrence that the final battle royale can occur, and She exacts definitive auto-punishment against her pleasure center.
A stiffly hermeneutic reading might translate He and She as dueling avatars of a single person's grief, but clean-cut id-versus-superego assignations fall short of von Trier's gnarled neuroses. If anything, He is the voice of practicality that wants us to trust and follow our therapists' advice, but who quickly appears despotic, conceited and uncaring when our conditions worsen; She is the urge to surrender to anxiety's looming crest, to punish the self for giving in and to batter traces of our palpable pain into agents of aid, both internal and external. Cadaverous limbs jut out from and intertwine organically about the erotic tree roots where the two entities intersect peacefully; bloodstained ejaculate marks the border of their internecine conflict. He is the somewhat hesitant master of the physical and the logical, wielding post-paternal optimism and a domineering member; She rules the chthonic symbols of malice that relentlessly betray him. (His subterranean battle with a squawk-happy crow is the film's funniest, and tensest, moment.)
That He rises to dispatch She once and for all after having his leg driven through with a massive woodscrew and weighted down with a bar and dumbbell mimics the manner in which the senses always return, against all odds, in the final moments of an anxiety attack. But though the wounds heal quickly, we're left with a gnawing unrest, and the realization that whatever we thought had been holding back the flood of nervous despair is not impenetrable. In the film's ghostly epilogue, He cavorts among faceless women wandering aimlessly through the forest, any one of who could—any one of who will, perhaps—easily replace the freshly conquered, dominating angst of She in due time. The title Antichrist thus refers not to the arbitration of doom, but the rejection of false saviors—of Freud, of Citalopram, of love. Von Trier and I might agree that while art isn't much more effective than any of these, at least it has fewer side effects.
"It's very pretty" were the first words that left my girlfriend's mouth as Antichrist's credits rolled, and, indeed, on Blu-ray Lars von Trier's joke seems far less cruel, at least on the eyes. Between this and their release of Secret of the Grain, Criterion appears to be launching a veritable defense for the otherworldly clarity and glinting colors of high-def video; a few scenes suffer from obvious chroma-key flatness, but elsewhere it's as if we're inside the Red Camera, soaking in the lines of resolution. Even when the images blur, they retain an unnerving crispness. The sound seems to have been mastered a tad on the low side, but the uncompressed 5.1 surround effectively encases the viewer in falling acorns and feminine bleats.
I'm torn. The hour-plus behind-the-scenes Antichrist documentary featured here offers invaluable production insight, but it also demystifies much of what makes the film so ineffably rancorous. Either way, it's nice to have the option of watching the thorough supplements here, even if Antichrist's principal photography seems to have gone smoother than that of von Trier's last three or four films combined. There's also a featurette covering the movie's controversial premiere at Cannes, a slew of interviews with von Trier, Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Anthony Dod Mantle, and an intermittently fascinating director's commentary that reveals which of the film's images were drawn from dreams. Von Trier governs the glut of extras with an oddly relaxed, roly-poly, "What me worry?" demeanor.
One of the most personal films ever made about anxiety, Antichrist is hitting retail stores just in time for the holiday season. Let your loved ones know that you care by letting chaos reign…in their Blu-ray player.