Artificial Eye The opening title arrives as a provocation, a mission statement. Over the years the international press has grown accustomed to the antics of the puckish Dane.
This, after all, is the man who once dumped his festival prize in a dustbin, who dragged Nicole Kidman through the wringer in Dogville and provoked hoots of outrage when he won the Palme d'Or for his death row musical, Dancer In The Dark. And yet nothing — but nothing — could prepare us for the film that followed. Antichrist opens, simultaneously, with a blaze of unsimulated sex and the death simulated, one hopes of a child, who topples from an upstairs window and cannons into the snow below.
There, matters go from bad to worse. Oppressive Defoe winds up hobbled and impotent, while Gainsbourg runs clean off the rails and starts hacking at her own genitals with a pair of scissors. Sitting in the dark of the Cannes Palais, the audience yelped and howled and covered their eyes.
Legend has it that at least four viewers fainted dead away in their seats. If Von Trier had come to cause a stir, he succeeded with bells on. Antichrist provided the one bona-fide scandal of this year's festival. While Gainsbourg eventually went on to win the best actress award, the director was barracked at the official press conference and the reviews, by and large, were incandescent.
Antichrist was accused of rampant misogyny; of being "an abomination"; "easily one of the biggest debacles in Cannes film history". Variety labelled it "a big fat art-film fart". For the critics at Time magazine, the film "presented the spectacle of a director going mad".
As it happens, there may be some truth to this last accusation. According to Von Trier, he wrote Antichrist on his sickbed while battling an epic bout of depression and conceived the tale as a form of catharsis. Small wonder, then, that the finished product is so torrid and unrefined, frequently preposterous and on the brink of outright meltdown. One might even argue that these very qualities are what make it so electrifying. Is Antichrist a misogynistic movie?
That, inevitably, is in the eye of the beholder. Von Trier constructs the drama as a fun-house of terrors; a warren of dark nooks and crannies, spring-loaded with trap doors and rearing phantoms.
Here is a film that explicitly confronts the director's intertwined fears of primal nature and female sexuality. But does a fear of femaleness automatically equate to hatred? I'm not convinced that it does. Yes, the "She" character is anguished and irrational; a danger to herself and those around her. And yet for all that, she proves more vital, more powerful, and oddly more charismatic than "He", the arrogant, doomed advocate of order and reason.
In one audacious scene, Von Trier has Dafoe blunder through the bracken where he encounters a talking fox who informs him that "chaos reigns".
Reason, the director implies, is a paltry defence against elemental forces. Von Trier is now back in Denmark, battling his demons in private. When I spoke to him last week, he claimed to have no immediate plans to make another film. Instead, he aims to lead the life of a convalescent, pottering gently around his garden. It has a greenhouse. It's just that, after sitting through Antichrist, I now have an altogether different image of Von Trier's garden.
It is a place of slithering serpents and Arthur Rackham trees. Behind the greenhouse lies a dark, dank hollow, and on the lawn sits a garrulous fox. The graceful yet ecstatic beauty of death — literal and symbolic "la petite mort" — sets the tone. Black and white scenes, in which the camera moves with a dreamlike slowness, are followed by dazzlingly dyed scenes of claustrophobic carnage. The effect is breathtaking and compulsive, like a drug; I would have watched the film a second time if it had been possible.
The theme of the film is an ancient one: Despite the erotic beginning, Von Trier has little interest in desire; his focus is on Sadeian extreme pain and enjoyment, the abject emptying of self and other including the audience, who are made complicit in the sexual violence infusing the film. Antichrist circles relentlessly around acts of transgression. The violence is defiantly excessive and beautiful. It is gendered, but more misanthropic than misogynistic. The man's violence is the heartlessness of rationality.
Patronisingly, he sneers at the woman's research project on gynocide. He is a rationalist cognitive therapist, who bullies her into exposing her inner demons. In contrast, the woman embraces the mysterious, uncanny energies of the unconscious and unknowable elemental forces. Her violence against the man and her own body is unbounded. The scenes of her crushing his penis and then snipping off her clitoris and labia are graphic. But it is not designer violence, intended to appall and titillate in the same breath.
Neither does it inspire compassion. Von Trier simply presents cruelty as "there", serving no liberating function for the audience. Pain — its infliction and its suffering — is integral to life. Von Trier has admitted that, of all his films, Antichrist "comes closest to a scream". It exposes us to an untamed erotic and aggressive aesthetic without redemption. It jolts us out of a passive voyeurism and, in despair, leaves us in the words of Handel crying over cruel fate. Gillian Wearing Artist This is the only film I have seen that clearly seems directed by someone with mental health issues.
And I don't say that in a negative way: I think it is genius. I know people who would hate me if I recommended them to see this — the violence is horrible and at times the film becomes almost ridiculous, such as in the scene with the talking fox.
But this is a visceral film. I rarely come out of films feeling that I have experienced anything of life, but Antichrist shows you how depression, dislocation and desperation feel. It is almost like a suicidal film — grief that can only be articulated through violence female or cold sterility male.
I sometimes wonder if Von Trier's films have led to his nervous breakdown — the fact that he allows himself time and time again to go to the very dark side of human emotions to try to show us the tormented mind, and in this case getting the actors to enact his own demons. I have read a few reviews where people were balking at Von Trier having a breakdown, implying that perhaps it was a gimmick.
But I don't think this film could possibly have been made without that experience. This is film as art. It's not trying to be reasonable, and I find it quite close to painting in the way it plays with the abstract, the real and the unreal. Julie Bindel Journalist and activist Watching this film was like having bad sex with someone you loathe — a hideous combination of sheer boredom and disgust. I hated it, and I hate the director for making it.
So, Von Trier was depressed a while back, had nightmares and decided to write the script of this atrocity as a form of therapy. Couldn't he have kept it to himself? No doubt this monstrous creation will be inflicted on film studies students in years to come. Their tutors will ask them what it "means", prompting some to look at signifiers and symbolism of female sexuality as punishment, and of the torture-porn genre as a site of male resistance to female emancipation.
It is as bad as if not worse than the old "video nasty" films of the 80s, such as I Spit On Your Grave or Dressed To Kill, against which I campaigned as a young feminist. I love gangster movies, serial killer novels and such like. But for me they have to contribute to our understanding of why such cruelty and brutality is inflicted by some people on others, rather than for the purposes of gruesome entertainment.
If I am to watch a woman's clitoris being hacked off, I want it to contribute to my understanding of female genital mutilation, not just allow me to see the inside of a woman's vagina. If there is any justice in the world, this film would sink into oblivion. Aside from the risible script and potty plot, we have rubbish acting. Having previously loved Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, I will now cross the street to avoid watching anything with them in. Apparently, both read the script and couldn't wait to be in it.
That makes them almost as bad as Von Trier. If you see this film you will be putting your money into something which deserves to bomb — and give a grain of validity to the sickest general release in the history of cinema. Lars von Trier first got my sexual-political back up with Breaking The Waves, a pernicious paean to female self-abnegation, which sees raped and murdered Emily Watson getting celestial postmortem applause as heavenly bells peal in the clouds above.
This was a horror film in the true sense, I thought. Now I am not so sure. Von Trier's tongue is often so firmly poked into his cheek, who knows where he's coming from, or going to? Antichrist is obsessed with bodies.
Clearly, for all its in-your-face qualities, no one should approach it expecting a pornographic romp. There is a money-shot, but it's bloody rather than ecstatic. Heavily referencing horror cinema, it's marketed as the arthouse answer to The Blair Witch Project, 10 years on. Teen audiences marinaded in the conventions of "spam in a cabin" movies — monsters in the woods, out there where no one can here you scream — will feel at home with the creepy noises, buried bodies and innovative uses for a woodsman's toolbox here.
Yet Antichrist hardly offers the "dare you to watch it" thrills of popcorn horror. For me, what is most shocking, and most interesting, is its frenzied meditation on sexual hysteria. Film academics have turned to horror cinema over the last 15 years because it reveals cultural sores, symptoms of our guiltiest pleasures and incomplete repressions.
At best, horror shows that in our sex-saturated culture, the body, surrealism and the unconscious can still hold imaginative power. Yet the most familiar sub-genre right now is the production line of so-called "torture-porn" meat-fest movies.