Lars von Trier has often been called pretentious and perverse, and his latest film, Antichrist, probably won’t do anything to change the minds of those who believe it. The film is, at points, extraordinarily difficult to keep your eyes on, punctuated by moments of seemingly senseless violence. It’s also an oblique film, filled with images of ancient practices and nature gone amok that could cause viewers to dismiss the film as “a big fat art-film fart,” as Variety did in its review. That’s certainly a more natural response than trying to sift through the difficult subject matter.
But Antichrist doesn’t deserve to be so quickly written off, although one’s initial reaction will likely range from the strong desire to never view it again (a position I certainly understand) to the angrily bewildered, like the journalist at the Cannes press conference who demanded that von Trier give an explanation for the film he made (the exchange can be seen in the bonus features).
That’s hardly ever the right way to approach any kind of art, especially a work as personally motivated as this. The imagery is largely the product of von Trier’s dream life, perpetuated by the anxiety attacks he himself has struggled with. The result is a film that is gorgeously captivating. The cringe-inducing moments don’t detract from the formal and aesthetic framework von Trier has built here — the film contains a dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky at the end, and there are plenty of ethereal shots of man interacting with nature to see the homage carried out.
Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg star as an unnamed husband and wife. The film opens with a rigidly composed set of slow-motion black-and-white images set to Handel’s aria “Let Me Weep” from his opera Rinaldo. The two are in the passionate throes of sex when their toddler son extricates himself from his crib, climbs up to an open window and falls to his death on the snowy street below. The incongruous interplay of horrific circumstance and formal beauty sets the stage for the film to come.
The woman is racked by grief, and the man, who is a therapist, decides he will guide her through the process and help her recover, leading to a retreat in a secluded cabin in the woods (called Eden, in a bit of perhaps too on-the-nose symbolism). Earlier, the woman had gone there with their son to work on her thesis on gynocide (the torture and killing of women simply because they are women, and believed to be inherently evil).
Initially, the man appears to be making progress, but the end result will be a horrific one, with the woman somehow beginning to believe that woman is evil and nature itself rising up in a kind of demonic fury that also seems like the product of an ancient age. Sexual violence, inexplicable rage and genital mutilation ensue in scenes that will test the mettle of most viewers.
So why would anyone want to watch this stuff? And perhaps more importantly, what kind of mind thinks to put it on screen?
There’s no question that von Trier is a provocateur, but Antichrist doesn’t simply succeed in eliciting a visceral reaction, even if that’s the one that’s most readily apparent. It also engages the mind and the senses with an expertly crafted tale of grief, anxiety, dreams and gender roles in a world that’s neither modern nor ancient.
The Blu-ray Disc
Antichrist is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The film was shot digitally on the RED One and the Phantom HD cameras, which ensures that the film has remained pristine within the digital workflow. The film and this high def presentation of it are stunning throughout, beginning with the black-and-white prologue that looks fantastic, with high-contrast, slow-motion images that show remarkable detail and clarity. The rest of the film exists in a somewhat drab, earthy color palette, but never dips in quality, even when the image is hazy or very dark, both of which are frequent occurrences. The visual presentation consistently wowed me, and I can’t imagine the film looking any better on home video.
The audio is presented in a 5.1 DTS-HD mix that is put to good use immediately by the soaring notes of Handel’s aria. This is a pretty quiet and dialogue-centric film for most of its middle section, but front channel sound is clean and clear and there are enough immersive surprises in the track to keep it engaging.
Criterion includes a solid set of extras here with a strong von Trier presence (although he’s not going to outright explain himself, if that’s what you’re hoping for). An audio commentary with von Trier and film scholar Murray Smith includes discussion of both thematic and technical elements. There are video interviews with von Trier, Gainsbourg and Dafoe, all from different sources and varying a lot in length (von Trier’s is just a couple minutes, while Gainsbourg’s is about 45 minutes). A seven-part making-of featurette is a fantastic inclusion, with talk of everything from location scouting to the prosthetics necessary to pull off the gruesome finale. There’s also footage from the Cannes Film Festival, where the film was met with very mixed reactions, and interviews with the two actors at the festival. Three different trailers and a booklet with an essay by the always-thoughtful Ian Christie round out the extras.
The Bottom Line
The saying “It’s not for everyone” has scarcely applied more to a movie, but Antichrist is a worthy and challenging piece of art presented in an excellent package here by Criterion.