If you go down to the woods today…

 

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist arrives laden with a reputation for shocking violence, misogyny and questions regarding the nature of censorship that have had people clamouring for the director’s blood rather than concentrating on the film itself – all of this is a great pity as it’s one of the most astonishingly beautiful films (albeit filled in the last twenty minutes with ugly, ugly moments) to be released for a long time. Certainly the last twenty minutes are a gruelling experience (one image that I didn’t have a problem with last night is certainly proving memorable in all the wrong ways now) but none of it is gratuitous in the way that films such as Saw, Hostel and other torture porn are – the violence here feels like an extension of the narrative that has gone before rather than a means of closure (something this film offers little sense of).

The film follows a simple narrative on which a dreamlike atmosphere is created; further split into four chapters – Grief, Pain (Chaos Reigns), Despair (Gynocide) and The Three Beggars, with a Prologue & Epilogue also. The narrative becomes less important as the film progresses and the film presents a cascade of symbols for the viewer to interpret (and I suspect that there are as many interpretations of this film as there will be viewers) as a means of unravelling the meaning (if any – a point I’ll return to later). For much of the film it consists merely of the two leads (and for 99% of the film there is no one else visible on screen unless in a photograph) referred to only as He & She are talking about the way in which one is intending to force the other to confront their grief following the death of their child. However, throughout there’s a sense of tension as you await the denouncement that is to come and almost a sense of relief when it begins – there was a lot of nervous laughter as a means of coping with some of the scenes.

One of the things that all of the publicity has done is create a sense of worry about how graphic will the end be? Certainly it’s far less problematic than much of the press has lead you to believe (although it is still full of deeply disturbing imagery) but a curious result is that no one goes into this film unprepared for what is to come – sensible if cinemas want to avoid cues demanding to see the manager to complain. As such the tension that the narrative (and a number of subliminal images) creates is enhanced by knowing that something is going to happen. There is the possibility that this has been done on purpose – von Trier certainly has a habit for self advertising and publicity – but it does allow for the film to take an interesting path.

As such the film can concentrate on creating its own internal logic rather than leading the audience by the hand. More interesting is that the director can concentrate on creating one of the most unsettling atmospheres created by a film for a long time – this is what leads me to wonder if the film actually has a meaning (not that a film has to have one, but it’s hard to argue that this film was created purely for entertainment purposes). The Prologue is as good an example of this as any other point of the film, the couple make love in what can only be described as a pornographic perfume advert whilst their small child climbs onto a table and falls out of the window of their seventh floor apartment. The film is cut in such a way that the shots of the woman silently climaxing match the sense of wonder on the child’s face as he falls – unaware of the consequences – to his death. The effect is deeply disturbing, even though we are saved the actual sight of the impact of the child on the ground (something I feared we might see) the age old mixture of sex & death still pokes at you. Elsewhere, long moments of silence interrupted only by the augmented sounds of nature (as much a villain in this film as the two leads become) crawl under the skin in the same way as they do in a David Lynch film. The mundane becomes more and more terrifying as the film progresses.

The film also hints at its arthouse horror roots with links to past horror’s of a similar ilk. The scenes of the couple having sex bring to mind Don’t Look Now, whilst Blue Velvet gets a nod in its damaged female protagonist (although you could argue that ultimately She’s dealt with the grief far better than He does). Similarly, the setting (a old shack in the woods) is an old horror staple – but here the twist is that it’s nature rather than supernatural forces that assault the couple.

The claims of misogyny are harder to address. Neither myself nor K thought that it was particularly guilty – She certainly comes off as the more sympathetic of the two – although it does raise some uncomfortable questions. Whilst She expresses the idea that women are punished for evil because they are, the film is fairly explicit in the fact that He is both emotionally and mentally controlling her to the point where she loses her mind. He is certainly more afraid of Her than She is of Him (until the end). Likewise, whilst many horror films delight in the “Women in peril” scenario, for the most of the film it is Him that is being subjected to the worst horrors of the film (although not the worst, the final, horrifying act of violence being incredibly difficult to watch). Yet another sense of discomfort that this film creates.

Technically the film is astounding, with the cinematography creating a lush natural landscape that it is difficult to tell whether it was shot on location or is artificial (I suspect a mixture of the two). The sound design and score are also superb, ever present growls mixing with the score to further the sense of unease the film creates. Effects are kept to a minimum, although those that appear are very well done for a film with such a small budget.

The film belongs to the actors, with Dafoe & Gainsbourg going further than many actors would even dare contemplate (although body doubles were used for some scenes). Gainsborough deserves all the praise she receives, it’s an astonishing performance and one that even if the idea of the rest of the film leaves you cold should certainly be taken into account.

Which brings me to the principal problem with the film – as good as it is (and it is superb) I cannot recommend it, I think people have to make their own decision whether they want to see it or not. It’s a long time since a film left me so impressed and repulsed at the same time – I do want to see it again if only to start to unravel all of the symbols that appear throughout it, but I’m not sure when. Certainly the studios responsible for financing it should be applauded for risking money on such a project (likewise the censors for allowing people to make up their own minds) as should everyone involved.

For my money one of the films of the year, but certainly not something to be taken lightly.

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