So, is Antichrist any good – or pure evil?
The Cannes audience walked out, critics are divided, women's groups outraged. Now Lars von Trier's film is on general release – so we sent four writers to make up their own minds
Saturday 25 July 2009
'Beautiful, moving and rather delicate'
By Alice-Azania Jarvis
This is a list of things I'd heard about Antichrist before I saw it. It's anti-women. Pornographic. It is so shocking that people faint, cry, walk out, and some people – in particular the people at the Cannes Film Festival – boo.
It features not only mutilation of the female genitalia, but also at least one shot of penetrative intercourse, more full-frontal nudity than you're likely to see in a Soho sex shop, and a scene involving Willem Dafoe ejaculating blood. Oh, and a baby falling out of a window.
Gosh, I thought as, under editor's orders, I bought my ticket. What further taboo-shattering horrors lie in wait?
The answer is not an awful lot. A cannibalistic fox here, a dying crow there, and a rather unedifying shot of a baby bird being consumed by ants.
Yes, there is a lot of nudity; yes, there is a lot of violence – but after the reviews I was rather well prepared. And, judging by the number (or, more accurately, the lack) of exit-bound audience members, I wasn't the only one. Of the 10 others scattered around (almost all male, almost all on their own, and almost all of the tweed-and-denim disposition that brings to mind self-studious philosophers) just one walked out, only to reappear, to my disappointment, five minutes later, a replenished popcorn bucket and paper cup of cola in hand.
Is the film misogynistic?
Maybe, a little, when watched by a misogynistic viewer. Charlotte Gainsbourg's instability is, after all, a fairly straight-up representation of what some men would call "female hysteria". But by the standards of the silver screen, a place where a woman's dress-size tends to be valued over her performance range, and female roles better-known for their shoe collection than their brain, this is nothing.
Watch the trailer for 'Antichrist'
Indeed, were the final controversy-courting scenes of the film ignored, or, as many may well-prefer, censored, we would be left with a rather beautiful, moving portrait of a relationship gone sour. Von Trier may have built his reputation in large part upon shock-jockerey, but he's under no circumstances a terrible director. On the contrary, for a hefty proportion of the film I found myself taken aback by just how delicate the whole thing was.
Gainsbourg is quite wonderful as the nameless heroine, or anti-heroine, whose already-cracked mental state is wholly shattered by the shock of her son's death (a horrendous incident under any circumstances, made all the more horrific here by von Trier's agonising set-up: the couple making love in one room, their child clambering to the window in another). Dafoe, as always, is unnerving in his precise portrayal of a pedantic, domineering partner-come-shrink, with his angular proportions accentuated by Von Trier's shadowy photography.
Sadly, by the time the film does reach its bloody, maiming conclusion, much of this is forgotten – blotted out by von Trier's adolescent fixation with the shocking, the prurient and the puerile. Still if you, like me, can manage to sit out a bit of gore in the hope of good cinema – by all means, go and see it.
'Well-lit rubbish for hard-core fans'
By Rob Sharp
At long last. The most significant scene in Antichrist is not the genital mutilation, nor is it the bit where a man's leg is horrifically punctured. No, it's definitely the scene where a couple are having sex and the lady bursts into tears – finally, proof that it doesn't just happen to me.
I don't have a particularly good track record with horror films. I look back with fondness on the first date to Takashi Miike's genre-busting 1999 horror flick Audition, thinking it was a romantic comedy. For the first half it was – but then came the real-time (with accompanying sound-effects) sawing-off a man's leg, certainly not the tamely erotic ice-breaker I expected.
By the time I ventured to the Soho Curzon on Friday afternoon, the only people left who still wanted to see Antichrist were the hard-core cineastes. Much like a 1970s porn cinema on Times Square, the screening room contained a smattering of moderately-embarrassed-looking middle-aged men. Who knows what they made of my gurning and chair-based contortions, which culminated with my slouching near-horizontal, my polo shirt stretched over one eye, other hand clamped to my face.
To be frank, the first two-thirds of Antichrist are incredibly mild, even if excruciatingly well-shot. To give Lars von Trier his dues, the cinematography is sublime. The plot, on the other hand, has gone out to lunch – what remains are a series of visual metaphors (miniature statues with words like "pain" written on them) and the odd bit of shagging. It's a bit like watching a slightly bawdy Danish male model in the middle of an extended therapy session. "I jarst dunt think peeple get me," he says, over and over, as people start getting on with other things, like Tweeting.
Then, in between gurgling like a new-born at how well-lit Willem Dafoe is when standing in a shower of acorns, the sudden whine in the background prepares you for the worst. Something's going to happen. They did this in Jaws.
Except the worst doesn't really happen. Two headline-grabbing bits are over in seconds, and if you're like me, you can shut your eyes and whimper loudly enough to shut out the sound of on-screen sobbing. Unlike Paul Morley, one of the few critics who heralded this as art at Cannes, most people are not going to be interested in how depressed Von Trier was. Most of us have our own problems.
In fact, many might find it abhorrent that this onscreen therapy has been legitimised, mostly because it's rubbish.
'Incoherent, wooden and unconvincing'
By Bruce Anderson
There is nothing wrong with the camera-work or the directing. There, the compliments cease. It is a pity that any talent should have been wasted on such a dreadful film.
Lars von Trier set out to shock and to win awards. He has succeeded in both. What a pity that the judges were so gullible.
Von Trier used cunning to win them over. Apart from those over-used words obscene and pornographic, there is only one way to describe this film: pseudo.
There is pseudo psychology, pseudo therapy and pseudo history, all to give an intellectual gloss to a meretricious product.
Even so, the dialogue is wooden and the two characters around whom the film is based are entirely unconvincing.
The female one is obsessed by the witch-craze of the 16th and 17th centuries, in which large numbers of women were slaughtered, usually with abominable cruelty.
It is not clear whether that suffering helped to drive her mad, or whether she was bad enough all along to deserve the worst that the 16th century had to offer.
This lack of clarity has nothing to do with subtle characterisation or the complexities of feminism. It is simple incoherence, inadequately disguised by pseudo-intellectuality.
Some might be tempted to see the influence of the famous Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. If so, it is Bergman after a lobotomy.
Towards the end, the film is full of violence, most of it revolting. There is also a great deal of sex and nudity, almost all of it an-erotic. If gross violence and off-putting sex are to your taste, you should not miss this film. If not, make strenuous efforts to stay away.
I saw it in Soho, where similar products are available, I believe, in discreet cellar premises. Until yesterday, I had never watched a hard-porn snuff movie. I now have, for despite the Cannes laurels, that is the only way to describe Antichrist.
'Plenty of blood and gore but utterly drained of any emotion'
By Paul Vallely
The one thing I had not expected Antichrist to be was boring. The build-up to Lars von Trier's controversial film which opened yesterday had only offered two alternatives. This was a beautifully shot work of enigmatic art. Or it was just a desperate attempt to shock and win success through scandal. But in the end it was just pointless and tedious.
Perhaps the pre-publicity had lessened the surprise factor. So the audience – a rather sparse one at The Cornerhouse art cinema in Manchester yesterday – were waiting for the full penetration shot, the erect penis ejaculating blood, the log smashed in the man's genitals, the demented wife drilling a hole in her husband's leg and then cutting off her own clitoris. For all the spurting red liquid there was something curiously bloodless about it all, just as there was nothing erotic about the penetration shot. It was stylised, mechanical and, curiously – for a film which billed itself as about pain, grief and despair – drained of emotion.
That was one of the many implausibilities of a work which pivots on a child who dies falling from a window while his parents have wild sex, and in which the father, a psychotherapist, demonstrates not one iota of emotion at his son's loss. The most unlikely moment came when a disembowelled fox speaks – to say "Chaos reigns" – which provided the only laugh in the film, although I don't think it was supposed to be funny.
The first person to walk out, an hour in, was a balding middle-aged chap. Perhaps he had been hoping for a mucky movie. Soon after, a young woman left when the husband had a log thrust into his genitals. She came back five minutes later, because she had forgotten her bag, but left again soon afterwards when the autoclitoridectomy was in full flow.
"Can't I just be afraid without a definite object?" asks the wife. In real life you can; it is called depression. But not in art. There is no such constellation. "There is no good and evil in therapy," says the husband.
But there has to be motive in a film if it is to be meaningful. The random act of the mother deforming the feet of her own child by putting his shoes on the wrong feet every day says nothing to those of us who pass for normal.
Hannah Arendt wrote of the banality of evil. Mutilations in movies usually go with the twisted pleasure of sadism or the vicarious poetic justice of revenge. But this was just demented and there does not seem a great deal of artistic purpose in an arbitrary act of mental illness rooted only in the preposterous delusion that nature controls women and "Nature is Satan's church".
What of the religion? Antichrist is popularly taken to be the polar opposite of God, the incarnation of utter evil. But this was too vacuous to be that. In the Book of Revelation the Antichrist is an impostor who arrives before the end of the world and fools the gullible into thinking him Christ. But that had no resonance here either.
Perhaps the opposite of good is not evil but meaninglessness. In which case von Trier achieved his end. I just wish he hadn't wasted two hours of my time in doing so. He is a bit old now to play the enfant terrible. And if you take the enfant away you are left with just plain old terrible.
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