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Movie Review: Antichrist at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2009

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Lars von Trier's latest film Antichrist was the talk of the town at the Cannes Film Festival this year. It split audiences, some admiring its artistic style and cinematography, others flat-out despising it for its display of extreme bloody violence and explicit sex (the word "abomination" has even been used to describe it). The film, then, has a lot to live up to in terms of shock factor with such a reputation – good or bad.

Although I didn't absolutely, wretchedly despise Antichrist, I still nonetheless fall on the "hate" side of the fence. This is a vile film filled with pointless, meaningless, gratuitous violence and sex scenes that redefine the dictionary definition of the word "explicit." It's very well put together, but I'm sorry, this is pretentiousness hitting a whole new level.

After the accidental death of their son, a couple try to deal with the problems that such a loss brings. The wife in particular takes her son's death hard, and develops certain mental problems. To help her get over them, the husband suggests a trip to a log cabin the woods where his wife once went to write her thesis and whilst there became afraid of the nature that surrounded her. Told in segments, book-ended with a prologue and epilogue, Antichrist delves into the darker side of nature both outside and within, with shocking results.

With Antichrist, Lars von Trier seems to be trying to make some sort of profound statement. But just what that statement is is hard to see amongst the sea of overly long, confusing sequences (which are hard to discern as real or imagined), raw sex scenes, and extreme bloody violence (torture). What starts off as a tragic tale of a man and woman's grief over losing a child ultimately turns into a tactless, pointless display of violent torture that makes Eli Roth's Hostel feel like a kids' movie.

Anything interesting that the film may have to say is shrouded by a distracting pretentiousness and intermittent explicit sex scenes (which border on pure pornography) that serve no purpose other than to compete with the violence on the shock meter. An elegant, super slow-motion prologue – which involves a child falling to his death whilst his parents make love in the other room, oblivious – sets things up as apparently tasteful. But it's not long before von Trier shows his true colours and intentions with this piece, as our elegant opening is interrupted by a hardcore insertion shot. If you can watch that and not be at least a little shocked, then what's to come later on in the film should get you (if not, I applaud you). This is like David Lynch's Blue Velvet without the sophistication, or Takashi Miike's Audition without a point.

Antichrist can't be completely discounted as, admittedly, it is a well made film, one that features two excellent lead performances from Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Both actors fully commit to the material here, particularly Gainsbourg, who does some things that other actresses simply wouldn't dream of. And for that I applaud her, even if I can't see what she, or Dafoe, saw in this project beyond the opportunity to show to what extremes they're willing to go. Apart from some extras at the beginning and end of the film, they're the only two to be seen. The film also has beautiful cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (who recently won an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire), but any effect of that is virtually lost when what's taking place on-screen is so vile.

Along with Antichrist feeling like it was made with a feeling of superiority on the part of von Trier, it also feels like it's been made simply to draw attention. And if that was the aim it certainly worked, as it was one of the most discussed movies at Cannes this year and with more chatter coming out of its UK première screening than when fanboys flooded to the theatres for The Dark Knight last summer. But if that aim means we have to endure a barrage of horrid, offensive content, then I say no thank you, Mr. von Trier.

If you look hard enough, von Trier is exploring such ideas as female sexuality and women's ability to be as evil as men (the latter is portrayed more frequently in the movies). But is the latter, in particular, really that interesting to warrant an entire movie about it, especially one that's so explicit? Some would argue it needs to be in order for it to feel real, and I'll give it that – it's certainly realistic. But watching some of the things that happen in this movie (if any of you are anticipating this thing, I'll leave some of those things as surprises) is not my idea of quality, and certainly not entertainment.

To add insult to injury, the film is also very confusing. The problems of the wife (who's listed in the credits as "She") are started by the loss of her son and the grief that inevitably ensues. But the reason she fears the nature of the woods, for example, is never really clear. Not unless I missed it within one of the film's many apparently profound dream sequences. Even the structure of titled stages – Grief, Pain, Despair – doesn't really help.

I guess films like this will always be needed to generate discussions with audiences who have an explicit yea or nay opinion. I am in the nay corner in this case, and find it hard to see why someone would be on the opposite side. Antichrist is without a doubt a technically well made film, and von Trier clearly had a specific vision in mind that he has put firmly into place without fear of the backlash he may receive (perhaps that's exactly what he wants). But I found it to be a disgusting piece of work that aims to do little more than shock and provoke its audience in any way it possibly can.

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