Antichrist was my first foray into the world of Lars von Trier since Dancer in the Dark, and what a re-initiation it was. The film tells the story of a married couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Defoe) who suffer an unspeakable personal tragedy and decamp to a cabin in the woods to deal with the wife’s resulting mental breakdown. Defoe plays a self-important clinical psychologist who, defying all professional strictures, appoints himself as his wife’s psychotherapist and guides her through preposterous therapeutic “exercises” that made me wonder why she wasn’t laughing hysterically at his futile attempts to master a situation that had clearly spun out of control. The longer they are in the woods, foreshadowingly called “Eden,” the more her madness seems to expand, merge with their natural surroundings and become a threat to her husband. “Nature is Satan’s church,” she tells him. We know then that she is mad, and that “The Fall” is imminent, but he doesn’t see her violent denunciation of him and all he stands for coming. And in a way, neither did I. The tonal shift at the climax was as jarring as any I’d seen, and while too disturbing and uniquely horrific to be dismissed as merely a cheap twist, it did seem like part of a separate film.
Von Trier is a masterful filmmaker. The visuals in the film are stunningly beautiful and sinister. Even majestic landscapes seemed to be menacing, hiding some dark secret. Watching the furtiveness of Gainsbourg’s character’s madness and its reflection in the sylvan surroundings was mesmerizing and deeply uncomfortable. The unease was the horror. Then all of a sudden I was watching what seemed to be a pornographic iteration of the Saw franchise. The film is simultaneously a well-made art piece, prurient pornography, and a gory horror flick. The melding of the three didn’t work for me, but there is something to be said for a director who has the chutzpah to go there. Even with these reservations, I still recommend the film.