If you’re a fan of cinema with a capital ’C,’ you’re surely aware of the buzz surrounding Antichrist, the latest from Danish enfant terrible Lars von Trier (he of the Dogme 95 manifesto, that phobic and depressive auteur rumored to have driven Björk to eat her own sweater during the making of Dancer in the Dark). The film garnered a Best Actress prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for its leading lady, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who was upstaged only by her director proclaiming to be the Holy Father himself. Gainsbourg plays “She” to Willem Dafoe’s “He”—they’re a couple whose toddler crawls right out an open window while they’re engaged in some hot, slo-mo, B&W-shot sex. Unable to come to terms with her child’s death, She spends an unproductive month drugged out in a hospital before He, a therapist by trade, decides the only cure is to whisk her away to a cabin in the woods called Eden for some intense fear facing. Of course, since this is a von Trier film, things can only get devilishly nasty.
You’ve probably heard about the fox that takes a break from devouring his own entrails to announce “Chaos reigns,” about the close-ups of human penetration, and about genitalia (both intact and mutilated). Most importantly, though, you’ve probably heard about von Trier’s misogynistic depiction of female sexuality, as Gainsbourg’s character alternates between bottomless despair, insatiable nymphomania and all-consuming anti-heroics, her clueless husband getting caught in the evil female tide. Well, forget what you’ve heard—or at least reserve judgment. As Dafoe’s He says about fear, “Your thoughts distort reality, not the other way around.” The reality is there ain’t one misogynistic frame in this simultaneously sexy, scary and hilarious flick.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Antichrist occurred off-screen. Von Trier, who normally operates his own camera, created the film in the midst of a debilitating depression that left his hands trembling so badly he had to turn shooting duties over to his highly skilled crew, including cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. The first half of Antichrist is rather tedious and slow, full of stilted dialogue and film school thesis images, as if the usually controlling director wasn’t strong enough to carry the production and lost his way. He finds his footing once he gives into the freefall in “Chapter 3,” which begins the couple’s descent into Eden’s heart of darkness. As the story unfolds, what becomes thrillingly apparent is that this “misogynist” filmmaker is, in fact, not objectifying Gainsbourg’s character but bravely identifying with her.
Von Trier made it clear as far back as Breaking The Waves that he’s interested in exploring the good virgin/evil whore dichotomy (as was Hitchcock, only in his case that “misogyny” was spun as a harmless “fetish” for blondes and bondage). As in any BDSM relationship (and what is S&M if not the eroticization of fear?), it is Gainsbourg’s submissive character that’s in control and calling the shots, ordering Dafoe’s “daddy” He to hit her during sex. (And tellingly, the screwing never involves foreplay; it’s only nature’s sexual act of creation that we witness.) The Danish director’s contempt for rational analytical answers—which take the form of psychobabble such as He’s “What the mind can believe and conceive it can achieve”—shines through in Gainsbourg’s own angry lines. If Gainsbourg’s She is the Antichrist then so is von Trier. And it is Dafoe’s arrogant character that must be taught a lesson, must learn to embrace the irrational if he is to survive. “Chaos reigns,” indeed.
Recently, writer Diablo Cody—who I’m far from being a fan of—gave an insightful interview in which she expressed her fondness for slasher films because she viewed those nubile-coeds-get-chopped-to-pieces movies as empowering. After all, it was always one of those hot young things that took the knife or axe into her own hand in the end. In its own way, Antichrist is not a condemnation of female sexuality, not a retelling of that age-old vagina dentata myth, but simply an acknowledgment of those human impulses beyond our control—a humbling celebration of nature’s triumph over mankind. In fact, Antichrist, with its evocative atmospheric sound design and gorgeously stylized cinematography (which includes one startling image that resembles a Brueghel painting and stays with you long after all the B-movie blood and guts have faded) has more in common with Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo than it does with anything in the horror genre. And like Herzog, Denmark’s premiere provocateur knows not to be afraid to laugh at the absurdity of chaos. Especially when the joke is on him.