The Criterion Collection advertises itself as “a series of important contemporary and classic films.” That is an understatement. It’s more accurate to describe Criterion as a moveable museum, containing films from all over the world, preserved in gorgeous detail, unpacked with creator interviews and essays written by film scholars. The folks at Criterion have gathered a community of like-minded individuals who believe that film is art and should be treated as such.
“Hell is other people.” ~ Jean-Paul Sartre
Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is a terrifying film. It is hard to know where to begin with it, because in its short 108 minute running time, there is a great deal that needs explanation. When the film premiered at Cannes in 2009, von Trier was aggressively pushed to justify the making of his dark, graphic, sexually violent, and boundary pushing movie. His response: “I do not feel the need to justify my making of this film. That is a strange question, that you would ask me to excuse myself. You are all my guests, not the other way around …I have made this little film that I am now rather fond of. I did not make it for you.”
This is von Trier in a nutshell, and many auteurs like him. When you watch a film by von Trier, you know it’s his. When you watch a film by Wes Anderson or Stanley Kubrick, there is no question that you are watching an Anderson or a Kubrick picture. It’s akin to looking at a Picasso. To call von Trier’s films boundary pushing or to force him to justify his work is to miss the point of von Trier ‘s work. Says Willem Dafoe, “It’s an interesting story. If you get something out of it, great. If not, what can I say? All films can’t be for all people.”
On the Criterion special features of Antichrist, von Trier explains what it’s like to experience an anxiety attack. von Trier has lived with a severe anxiety disorder since he was six years old. I also live with a severe anxiety disorder; when I look at the film through this lens, it opens up a whole new world of comprehension. Antichrist is, essentially, like watching the very worst of anxiety attacks unfold over 108 minutes. It is based on actual anxiety-fueled nightmares von Trier experienced. He would wake up, following his nightmares, and write down in great detail every part that he could remember. von Trier finds a way to suck us in to the movie so that, at times, we may feel like we are experiencing our own anxiety attack and/or nightmare. I do not recommend viewing this film before bed.
von Trier’s science fiction film Melancholia works as a vital companion piece to Antichrist. Both deal with an outside force of destruction, slowly moving in and, in the most insidious manner, connecting with something inside of the characters. In the case of Melancholia, a planet prepares to collide with Earth, which connects to Kirsten Dunst’s depression and anxiety. In the case of Antichrist, nature itself connects with Charlotte Gainsbourg’s depression and anxiety. Both films open with a piece called Prologue, in which a luscious piece of music is played over a montage of images reflecting the overarching themes in the film. In Melancholia, it’s Wagner’s Prelude from Tristan and Isolde and in Antichrist, it’s Handel’s Tuva Semmingsen Lascia ch’io pianga.
In the Prologue of Antichrist we watch as, in black and white, Willem Dafoe, known only as “He” and his wife, Charlotte Gainsbourg, known only as “She” make passionate love in their shower. As they are making love, their blonde toddler, Nick, opens the window by his crib on a snowy night and falls to his death below. Then begins Chapter One: Grief. We watch as Dafoe, the therapist, treats Gainsbourg like she is one of his patients. Rather than act the role of the supportive spouse, he counsels her through her grief . He doesn’t even acknowledge his own grief. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance earned her the Best Actress Award at Cannes in 2009, and it is in these moments of “emotional nakedness,” as she says on the Criterion features, that we can see why. Her grief is tangible and painful. She even manically jumps from wallowing and weeping into Dafoe’s arms to slamming her head till it is bloody against the toilet to wrestling her husband to the floor and violently fucking him to which Dafoe replies, with a smirk, “Never screw your therapist.”
Eventually, Dafoe and Gainsbourg, the only actors in the film, take a train to the aptly named “Eden,” a retreat cabin that they own in the woods. It is here that the lush beauty of von Trier’s film making reveals itself. I have never been so terrified, however, of gorgeous green scenery. Something is lurking in the woods of Eden, we just can’t be certain what. Chapter One: Grief concludes with the introduction of a beautiful doe whose dead fawn is still hanging from her vagina as she runs from a startled Dafoe. The trees rain acorns on the tin roof of the cabin as the couple tries to sleep, signaling that something evil is coming. There is never a moment where I don’t feel very palpable dread of such scenes. In the opening of Chapter Two: Pain (Chaos Reigns), Dafoe awakens one morning to find leeches covering his hand and wrist. It is beginning to feel like nature itself is attacking the couple, making it damn near impossible for them to heal from the recent death of their son. In this chapter, Dafoe insists on exploring what Gainsbourg is afraid of. She tells Dafoe that nature scares her and that “nature is Satan’s church.” She says this just before a baby bird falls from a nearby tree and convulses on the ground as small insects devour it. We become painfully aware that nature is attacking itself. Dafoe and Gainsbourg, our Adam and Eve, are not exempt.
Early one morning, without explanation, Gainsbourg announces to Dafoe that she is “well again” and she smiles and skips through the tall grasses as Dafoe looks on confused and concerned. Gainsbourg’s response is, “You can’t just be happy for me, can you?” At this point another animal, a small red fox, appears to Dafoe. We cannot be certain that these animals, the doe or the fox, are actually real; this fox is eating its own bloody flesh and proclaims aloud to Dafoe, in a deep demonic voice, “Chaos reigns!” This is, admittedly, the cheesiest part of the film and very unlike von Trier.
Chapter Three: Despair (Gynocide) is the segment of the film where I felt the sudden urge to hide my eyes. That which has been lurking in the background of Gainsbourg’s grief reveals itself. Gainsbourg’s character had been working on her doctoral thesis prior to the death of their son. She would retreat to Eden to do her work. The central focus of her argument was that the brutal mass murder of women over centuries was a sign of great evil in the world. As Dafoe stumbles across her research, he discovers that her conclusion was the opposite. According to Gainsbourg, the very nature of women is evil and needs to be put to death. Her madness had been growing long before Nick’s death. Dafoe, who, in a certain sense, represents our civilized “values” attempts to convince her that she is wrong about women. He is, truly, only satisfied with himself and his marriage to Gainsbourg when he can find something to therapeutically process with her.
The third chapter of Antichrist devolves into the kind of graphic violence that is almost impossible to watch. Nature is turning on itself, yet again, like the insects that ate the baby bird. It is at the conclusion of this chapter that Dafoe meets the third and final animal, a crow. He has dragged his beaten and bloody body to a hiding place in the woods, where he hopes Gainsbourg won’t find him, and he is attacked by an angry crow whose home he has disturbed. Dafoe bashes its face in with a rock.
The final chapter is Chapter Four: The Three Beggars. This is the chapter that defies explanation or articulation. Gainsbourg does take a pair of scissors to her clitoris, a prosthetic, on screen, which may be the most horrific thing I have ever witnessed in the movies. The very thing that is her primary source of pleasure and connection to her marriage, which is largely governed by aggressive sex, has been destroyed.
In the Epilogue, Handel’s piece from the Prologue plays; in black and white, Willem Dafoe limps away from Eden with a crutch, the lone survivor of nature’s great war. As he is descending the hill, he sees the Three Beggars – Grief the Deer, Pain the Fox, and Despair the Crow — watching him from atop the hill. And coming up from the bottom of the hill, he suddenly finds himself surrounded by the spectres of, literally, faceless women. The film ends on an uncertain and unsettling note.
The late critic Roger Ebert insisted, in his review of the film, that the Antichrist character is Willem Dafoe, who is representative of all privileged, oppressive men. Others have disagreed. I have no idea, honestly. This is a film that is utterly beautiful to behold but painful to bear. It is, without a doubt, the most disturbing film I have ever seen. I cannot even begin to explain its themes to you. I have some hunches, but, I keep hearing Lars von Trier’s voice in the back of my head saying, “I did not make it for you,” and I give up. Is Antichrist worth your time? Yes, I believe it is, because, it may strike up a conversation about life, death, sex, grief, anxiety, and the problem of evil. While it may be a maddening conversation, it certainly reveals something about our very nature., does it not? Is Antichrist worth your emotional health? I could never be certain.
Josiah Richard Armstrong is a hospital chaplain from Western New York. He is also a playwright and amateur cartoonist. Follow him on Twitter @JosiahArmstrong and Medium, where he writes more reviews for film and television.