Lars von Trier’s ANTICHRIST: Why I Think It’s Not Pretentious Garbage

Lars von Trier’s controversial, anti-Award winning film Antichrist is probably the toughest film to sit through of the last decade, with the exception perhaps of A Serbian Film, which I don’t take seriously as a movie anyway.

.Antichrist has garnered a fairly mixed reaction, with a 46% score on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.6 rating on IMDb. Before I launch into the review, I’d like to clear up that I am a fan of Von Trier-in fact, he is one of my five favourite directors. I have never seen a film of his that I’ve hated, and Antichrist is no exception. It deals with subjects such as the infinite problem of misogynism, and how women have been mistreated throughout all time. Though some critics have denounced von Trier, saying he is a misogynist, I see the film as condemning misogynism rather than promoting it.

It opens with a sequence that has to be one of the best scenes von Trier has ever directed. It is the film’s prologue, shot in black-and-white and presented in slow-motion to the achingly beautiful music of Handel. In this sequence, the film’s two protagonists, He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are making vigorous love in the shower, while in just the other room, their four-year old son climbs out of his crib, up to an open window, and falls to his death. The scene struck me the first time I saw it as just pure von Trier in every way. Few (if any) other directors would choose to present the scene in such a simultaneously moving, depressing and enlightening manner. And we can confirm that this is a von Trier movie by the unexpected penetration shot in the shower early on.

The film initially deals with mourning, which is what He and She are doing after their son’s death. She is grieving, almost unnaturally so, often reduced to a fit of rage and tears. He is a therapist, and tries to treat her, but discovers that the only thing that might do them any good is to return to their second home in the forest, ominously called ‘Eden,’ (one of many religious references). They go there, and settle in. Around them as they settle in are the dark woods, where He spots three different animals: a deer, a fox and a raven; these animals form The Three Beggars, a constellation in the night sky which may be partially responsible for the erratic and unnatural behaviour that is to come.

As well as a prologue and epilogue, the film is split into four chapters: Grief (represented by the deer), Pain (represented by the fox) and Despair (represented by the raven). As each chapter goes on, the way they act and make love is influenced by the growing claustrophobia of the emotions represented by these animals. Grief deals with the initial hurt of losing their child, Pain deals with their first few nights in Eden and Despair tells of the disturbing behavior that ensues. Some of this includes She smashing He’s genitals with a block of wood and then proceeding to graphically masturbate him until he ejaculates blood. Von Trier does not censor a thing. After this, she attaches some sort of clamp to his foot so it is difficult for him to move, and then flees. He escapes by crawling, then she comes back to find him gone and and madly searches for him. When she finds him, they return to the cabin and in a fit of insanity, she cuts off her clitoris with a pair of scissors. Again, everything is shown.

Sure, the movie is graphic. And that is likely to put a lot of people off. It’s difficult for me to watch, God knows how I got up the guts to buy the Criterion DVD, but I honestly believe it’s a really good movie. And the clit-snip, as it is affectionately known, does not seem pointless to me. Throughout the film, She is aware of the cruelty inflicted upon women throughout history, and a product of her desperate grief is to inflict this cruelty on herself, half as a punishment for what she sees as her own incompetence (forgetting to tell her husband that their son has been able to escape his crib for some time now) and also as a mad way of escaping the constant grief she feels and moving on. The woods of Eden are portrayed in a dark, ominous manner throughout the film, and like the hotel in The Shining, it seems they have some sort of deathly presence residing within them, represented in physical form by the Three Beggars, constant reminders of the darkness that has chased them throughout the time after their son’s death, and the grief that will not go away.

Some have viewed this film as ‘pretentious.’ Well, that can be said for von Trier’s entire career, and whether I disagree with that does not change what people think. Sure, he’s done some stupid things such as calling himself ‘the greatest filmmaker in the world,’ but what he’s done and his attitude does not influence what I think of his films; they all have a clear and present point, and it is never misogynistic, pretentious or spiteful; it’s just graphic. As for the unsimulated sex, which some see as a big deal; you must remember that growing up, von Trier’s parents were nudists, so he was raised to treat nudity and sex as much less of a big deal as we might see it. Almost all his most popular films deal with sex in a frank and confronting manner (with the exception of the surprisingly sexually calm Dancer in the Dark), and it’s good that we have these films to do that because without them, we’d all be one step closer to being like the MPAA: cowardly, and scared shitless at anything new.

Von Trier is a reminder of what’s wrong with censorship: everything. Sure, none of his film’s are suitable for kids, but he refuses to censor any of them. He puts in uncensored sex to fuck with us and tell us that this is real life and that we should get used to it. Are the shots of Dafoe’s erection and Gainsbourg’s vagina shock tactics? Yes and no. Antichrist is not just his take on horror films, it’s a powerful portrayal of sexuality and the way it is treated by people as dirty and to be censored and only shown privately. Von Trier is a rebel, I suppose you could say, attempting to liberate us from this strange fear of sexuality in films that so many of us have.

I’m proud to say that Antichrist is one of the best horror films made in recent years, and that von Trier is one of my favourite directors, a man whose films I always admire and love. There’s nothing erotic in his films, no strange shit that turns me on; it’s just the way he’s so honest about things; if he wants to put his protagonists through Hell, then he’ll do it, only because it’s real and it happens. Antichrist is not only a great horror film but a great movie about grief, pain and despair, and how it can ruin us, turn us into strange mockeries of our normal selves, and change the way we look at life. After losing someone close to us, everything becomes fractured and eerily different; the world suddenly seems more spiteful and nihilistic, just as it does in Antichrist, and we can feel like we would rather die or mutilate ourselves than continue to go through this horrific grieving and despairing process.

I realize I’ve been ranting for quite some time now, and I’d like to apologise, but there are a lot of people out there who hate von Trier and this movie and I just wanted to get my thoughts on the matter out to them. If you disagree with me that’s fine, and you’re more than welcome to post a nice, lengthy comment about why I’m wrong in the comments, I will not begrudge you that, and I will not try and contradict you or be rude to you; this site isn’t a debate club, but if someone wants to have a nice, healthy debate about a film than I’m more than welcome to participate. This is just me putting my two cents in on a film and a director that I love, and I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind if they don’t want it changed. This is just another one of my reviews that turned into rambling, and I hope you’ll forgive me for it. Thanks.

My Rating:

Average Rating:


Posted on August 20, 2011, in Movie Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 30 Comments.

  1. i’m quietly envious of how much of yourself you put in to your reviews tyler. nice one.

  2. I’m gonna get the guts to watch this movie one day. One day. I mean, I’m interested in watching it…I do like to make myself feel uncomfortable some days.

    As Toby said, I’m quietly envious of how much of yourself you put into your reviews, too. When I try to do it I think I sound self-obsessed, so I don’t do it. Well done!

    • You will feel more than uncomfortable. You’re very mature, though, so I think you can handle it, but this is one rare film that I believe is fully deserving of the R18 label.

      Thanks, Stevee. I try to make my reviews unique and opinionated without becoming arrogant about my opinions. It’s a difficult skill to perfect.

  3. The clit-cutting scene is one of the few scenes that have made me look away…and i’ve seen some pretty violent stuff. Generally for me i can handle most things as long as it doesn’t involve mutilation of either the eyes or genitals. And as for the unsimulated sex…for me it didn’t add anything to the movie. I wasn’t bothered by it or anything like that, it just seemed pointless to me.

    And as for the misogny thing…my dad once said something that the line between showing something and condemning it a thin line, and that it isn’t always clear which side of the line a movie is on(I don’t think it was these exact words, but it was something close). So far i’ve only seen 1 movie that made me feel like it was at all trying to promote misogny, and even then i can’t say for certain that was the filmmakers intention…but it certainly come off that way to me.

    As a whole, i think i found Antichirst too strange at first to see the bigger theme behind it, but after reading this i do feel i understand what Lars was trying to do better.

  4. Excellent review. Out of his films that I’ve seen (which is most, I think I’ve only got Manderlay and The Five Obstructions left to watch) this is my favourite. He is a very impressive director, and while challenging, his films are often refreshing. Admittedly, one does have to be in a certain mood to fully appreciate von Trier, but I would recommend Antichrist to anyone with an open mind.

    I’m very excited to see what he does with Melancholia.

    • As am I. Melancholia looks like a real treat, and the poster and trailer promise something very good. I’m sure he’ll deliver.

      Manderlay was good, a fine follow-up to Dogville, with a less bloody but still disturbing ending. The Five Obstructions has to be my favourite non-film von Trier has made (if you get what I mean). Interesting and darkly comic.

      It takes guts to label Antichrist your favourite von Trier movie but I do like it a lot.

  5. The ‘pretension’ debate over art versus entertainment is like debating evolution versus creation, you can’t win.

    Lars is an ‘arty’ director if you have to categorise him and so the connotations of pretension come with the label. Antichrist for me though felt genuinely artistic as well as being effectively chilling, especially the imagery that comes with the introduction of The Three Beggars.

    Because it is both beautiful in imagery and daring in subject matter it is an arty film but the very fact that it is so entertaining (in the effectiveness of the genre) it is hard to criticise it as pretentious.

    The sense of forbidding is thick and continues to culminate until the rather grotesque climax (no pun intended as that would be wrong) and leaves the viewer rather drained and with a sense of disbelief to which I suppose is why there is so much diversity in its interpretation.

    As for its reputation for being misogynistic I most certainly think it is, whether intensional or not though and to not see the undercurrent theme is hard to believe. Of course people don’t want it to be misogynistic out of some misplaced morality but it IS okay for a film to discuss taboo themes, you don’t have to support them to appreciate the film.

    What I liked about the film as well was the established mythology of The Three Beggars and the history of (and misunderstanding) of women. It played well even though it was completely new to me and gave the film a academic basis, another reason it could be called pretentious.

    I gave it 3 1/2 stars out of 5 after first seeing it and I will stand by that.

    • I suppose you’re right. I just want to believe the best about von Trier, but I’m trying not to let that cloud what’s obvious. The film deals with misogyny; it is one of its main themes, and von Trier examines that in depth. One can debate that in the end when He kills She and the spirits of the forest are finally freed, this could be viewed as von Trier trying to state that killing the woman will free the spirits, thereby advocating misogyny. It seems that She is painted as a witch of sorts, and He killing her frees the people she has taken, if you’ll allow me to speak metaphorically.

      I think that, whether you believe She is a ‘witch,’ you cannot ignore He’s blatant misogyny. Perhaps he doesn’t hate his wife, but he clearly views her as a sub-par being, lesser than him. He scolds her with psychiatric babble to try and help her overcome her grief, and when it obviously doesn’t work he sees this as one of her weaknesses and the visit to Eden is simply Him humouring Her by calling her bluff that there really is evil there.

      Misogyny ensues as a theme of historical significance. Images of women being tortured and mistreated are shown in one scene as being discovered by He, and it seems that She has some sort of misogynistic attitude; it could be that her discoveries of misogyny throughout history have prompted her to think of herself as a lesser being, but I think what’s more likely, and “deeper”, is that von Trier believes She is a witch and this is her simply cursing herself and her creator for making her a woman. I realize this whole ‘witch’ layer might seem like a bit too much, but the film refers to the history of women being hated various times, and the main reason women were hated in history was for being witches. I simply made the connection that von Trier was trying to reference this.

      I could be full of shit; it’s a matter of opinion and what sounds best to a certain person, but I strongly believe there is a layer of witchcraft behind the motives of some of the events in the film.

      Another aspect of misogyny is She’s overpowering sexual appetite. One could attribute this to a fusion of the madness caused by grief, pain and despair, but I believe that it’s another reference to the way women were seen as simply sex objects and nothing more, and von Trier is trying to communicate how women were viewed throughout history.

      Some of it is even biblical; the poster shot of He and She making love at the roots of a tree with people inside it is a reference to the Garden of Eden; She and He represent Adam and Eve making love at the foot of the poisonous tree. However, this reference is fairly easy to notice since the forest retreat of the film is named Eden.

      In conclusion: von Trier is trying to say how women have been spat on and hated for centuries, and how it is an ongoing problem. He hints that She is a witch who embodies sin (I first observed this on viewing the shot near the end where we discover that She let her child die). She is also sadomasochistic. Since her husband refuses to harm her, she resorts to harming herself, and the sex is only a tool that she hopes will make him do as she wants. You see, she enjoys sadomasochism, but it is not the same when she is doing it to herself; she wants her husband to do it for her, the demand of a Witch in an age where violence against women is frowned at, simply trying to have violence inflicted upon her. Upon severing her clitoris, she sees only one more thing she can do to experience the ultimate freedom and bliss, and that is to die.

      Wow, I’ve rambled. I’m sorry if any of it sounds like complete crap, but it’s just my view of how it appeared to me after three or four viewings. As to whether it condones mysogyny or not, well, that’s debatable, but I certainly don’t think von Trier is a misogynist. The references to the Bible are the first thing I noticed, and with that came the references to history and eventually a subtextual theme of witchcraft.

      What do you think? Is my explanation just a crock? Have I seen it too many times? Am I thinking too deep? Let me know.

      • I certainly don’t think Lars von Trier’s is a misogynist anymore than he is a Nazi.

        I agree with you on this and that’s what I was trying to convey, that themes expressed in a film are not necessarily the views of the filmmaker or the viewer. You certainly like the film but you don’t condone the debasement of women.

        The overall themes and allusions -biblical or historical – you could write a thesis on but by the sounds of it you have a firm grasp on it.

        • I’ve seen it four times now and as with all of Von Trier’s movies I’ve taken some time afterwards to think about what I’ve just seen because often the explanation is never simple.

  6. Many interesting themes and layers in Antichrist. Some that goes very deep. Concerning the biblical alegory I dont think He and She represents Adam and Eve. They represent human kind which doesn’t belong in Eden because humans are not Gods children but children of nature. Humans are the antichrist. When the two humans returns to Eden all hell breaks loose and someone has to die. There’s also a hint of a reverse Story of Creation.

    • Very interesting explanation. I certainly think that any morality those characters present is highly questionable, and that neither can be trusted, but I think it’s all up to Von Trier as to what sort of people he intends them to be. I’ll definitely have to think more about it next time I see it.

  7. I just watched Antichrist last night with a group of brave, unflinching friends- with no idea what was coming (I’m generally a fluffy sort of person with very little knowledge of Lars von Trier). Thanks for this thoughtful review and comments, it definitely provides some interesting things to think about.

  8. You had me at pretentious 🙂 Wow that film sounds amazing. I am also unfamilar with this Lars Von Trier cat. I have been hearing good things about his film Melancholia as well. I added Antichrist to my netflix streaming queue and will check it out.

    • He’s not a very accessible filmmaker – you either like his movies, or you don’t. I recommend BREAKING THE WAVES and DOGVILLE, as they are in my opinion Von Trier’s two best films.

  9. Just saw it and it was the most pretentious piece of shit I’ve ever seen.

  10. Luke Caxford

    I can see that has the impact that is intended. I haven’t seen it, and I’m not really old enough to either, but I read your review yesterday and I was up all night thinking about this film.

  11. Excellent review Tyler. The latter part of this film reminded me of artist Heironymous Bosch’s imagery. A true horror classic that I think many people have been unkind towards. Von Trier is also one of my favourite directors.

  12. Interesting review of a very polarizing film. After reading this I checked the trailer out as I remember watching the film and thinking it was too much. I’ll have to give it another watch after your intersting points.

    • The film is quite heavy, but definitely give it another chance. It’s easier to watch now that you know what’s going to happen and you can focus on the style and themes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: