Charlotte Gainsbourg as She in ANTICHRIST, 2009. Photo by Christian Geisnaes. Courtesy of IFC Films.
When Antichrist premiered at Cannes, the Internet went buzzing. Critics lambasted it as gratuitously violent, scatterbrained, and misogynistic. Director Lars von Trier, meanwhile, kept up his auteur-of-doom persona and, at a press conference, crowned himself the best film director in the world. I had to stop myself from reading the extensive, spoiler-laden coverage before seeing the film, but I’d read enough to assume that Antichrist—like the rest of von Trier’s work—would not be passive viewing. It wasn’t. Three-quarters of the way through the film I was squirming in my seat, covering my face with the press kit and, at times, admittedly, feeling a little faint.
Antichrist is the story of a couple (He and She, played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who take a trip to Eden, their cabin in the woods, in an attempt to get over the loss of their young son, who fell out of a window to his death while they were having sex. von Trier made the film after his own nervous breakdown, and his disdain for cognitive therapy is made clear through He, who convinces She to flush her meds and become his patient. Her resentment toward his therapeutic exercises materializes in their natural surroundings. Things get very strange very fast in the woods—the couple fall asleep to an ominous rain of acorns on the roof and constantly find themselves confronted with animals eating their own young. “Nature is Satan’s church,” She points out matter-of-factly, which He frantically attempts to analyze through more sadistic psychological exercises. Eventually the film becomes a husband versus psychotic, witchy-wife showdown, not without some supernatural elements (a fairy tale trio of a talking dead fox, a bird that burrows underground, and a deer with a half-miscarried fawn hanging out of it). The plot structure isn’t as pristine as in some of his previous films like the staunchly minimal Dogville or Manderlay. Any last traces of his Dogme 95 roots are noticeably absent, and occasionally ideas become muddled with the intense gore, but Antichrist does what a good horror movie should do: it haunts. Eating lunch in a West Village park on a perfect summer day after the screening, I looked up at some branches rustling in the light breeze. Remembering the wind hissing through von Trier’s sinister woods, I felt an incongruous chill. Maybe the trees aren’t as innocent as we’d like to believe.