Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is, at one and the same time, amongst his subtler works and one of the most blunt and, frankly, simplistic.
It’s his first movie since Europa (1991) in which the artifice of the cinematic image is explored for illusionistic effect, but that film was simultaneously emphatically Brechtian with its jarring, intellectual storytelling strategies and mise-en-scène — a creative track he has since been exploring in different ways in most of his films — so, really, the earlier work Antichrist most acutely recalls is the feature debut, The Element of Crime (1984). That film was an unabashed and visually striking, but to my mind rather pretentious and ultimately unsuccessful pastiche on the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, and it seems no coincidence that Antichrist is dedicated to the great Russian, on whose cinematic language it is a much more sensitive and independent take.
Antichrist is demonstratively aestheticised, especially in the crisp, black and white, indurate bookend sequences. It achieves breathtaking and unsettling moments of illusionistic poetic cinema during its course, situating us alone in a misty, primordial forest. As usual Trier is dead serious and assertively ironic at the same time — the opening sequence is hard to take as anything but kitsch, but the final image approximates the ineffable beauty of Tarkovsky’s best moments.
Nominally it’s a horror film, and in its best moments it recalls such qualities as Lynch’s murky darkness, Miike’s sense of menacing beauty, Kubrick’s sharp coldness, and Roeg’s subtle use of apparently mundane detail to great effect — the latter in a series of photos of the lost child at the heart of the story, wearing his boots. At others, Trier resorts to ham, unapologetically driving home his points. One’s mileage may vary of course, but these self-reflexive genre riffs in a sense provide him with his most palpable moments of Brechtian alienation of the film, throwing this viewer on more than one occasion. The much-reproduced image of pale souls writhing amongst the roots while He and She fuck in the foreground, for example, is just ridiculous (and not nearly as delightfully bizarre as the over-the-top wierdness of another probable source of inspiration, Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 docudrama on witchcraft, Häxan). At times, however Trier inexplicably manages to make the most contrived devices, such as the animatronic animals, work — ludicrous as it looks, the much talked-about fox, for example, provides a great moment of terror.
Antichrist purports to be an exploration of evil, working from the conceit that Satan created the World and Man. A great, simple premise, from which Trier spins the ancient mythograph of celestial masculinity versus cthonic femininity, of rationality confronted with chaos. Willem Dafoe insensitively attempts to understand and help his grieving wife, Charlotte Gainsbourg, by intellectually mapping her grief, calling forth her nature with dire consequence. While he gives one of his best performances in years, and looks great for the part, he is, however, simply too broad an actor to make us truly empathise with his situation, and Gainsbourg’s role is written almost exclusively as the film’s Other, affording the viewer precious little opportunity to enter her darkening self, formidable as her performance is.
In a sense, this is all typical of Trier. His is a cinema of ideas and his direction has always shied away from naturalism in favour of the stilted enunciation of his great, if totally different, progenitor and countryman, Carl Th. Dreyer. In this sense, Antichrist merely differs from his earlier work in that it provides an illusion of viewer involvement by way of its seductive imagery, but the problem, ultimately, is that the ideas it explores are rather basic, playing as they do on ancient concepts of gender and civilisation and their discontents. I cannot help but feel that the film would have been more effective if, like most good horror — and as with Gainsbourg’s flipside, Emily Watson’s Bess in Breaking the Waves (1996) — Trier had allowed for greater emotional immersion.