Nasty, Brutish and Long

Lars von Trier’s latest exercise in nihilism may illuminate his own depression, but it isn’t art

Peter Whittle

OK, let’s get this out of the way first. Lars von Trier’s new film Antichrist features a baby falling to its death, a man ejaculating blood and a woman cutting off her clitoris with a pair of scissors. 

These incidents were responsible for the mixture of booing, derisive laughter and ecstatic plaudits which greeted the movie at its premiere in Cannes. Actually, the giggling might have been at the sight, halfway through, of a talking fox. But it is undoubtedly the scenes of genital mutilation and explicit sexuality which have earned this film the publicist’s dream label of Most Controversial Movie of the Year, and it is this that will get the turnstiles spinning. 

But with which punters? The sensation-seeking, torture-porn horror crowd will feel impatient and restless, rather like the dirty-mac brigade of yesteryear who had to suffer hours of tedious talky exposition in Swedish in order to get a few flashes of bare breasts in seedy West End cinema clubs. They should give it a miss, and wait for bits and pieces to fetch up on YouTube. For, make no mistake, with its heavy stylisation, chapter headings and use of Handel on the soundtrack, Antichrist is an art-house film with a capital A. 

Don’t look now, but we’ve been here before. The film’s only two characters, He, played by Willem Defoe, and She, Charlotte Gainsbourg, are a young married couple who retreat to their remote woodland cabin to deal with their grief after their only child accidentally plunged to his death from an open window while they were obliviously and very explicitly making love (explicitly, but not, mind you, erotically — bony-arsed and bloodless, they are the sort whom only people with access to higher planes of understanding profess to find attractive). He is a therapist, she some sort of academic. They say things to each other like, “Can’t I be afraid without a definite object?” and “Nature is Satan’s Church”. They are themselves the very types who would be first in line to see this film. 

They rip into each other over the space of about an hour. The man, full of cold reason, tries various therapeutic exercises. But consumed by her guilt, the woman spurns and then eventually turns on him. The possibly innate evil of womankind in general is put briefly under the microscope before she immobilises him by drilling a hole into his leg and attaching a bolted weight. Finally she turns on herself and delivers the prosthetically assisted coup de grace.

Because of all this, the film has been accused of misogyny. But actually it is therapists who come out of it worst. The glib, distant approach of the man is no match for the turmoil that has been unleashed in the woman. To emphasise this, there are images throughout of the overpowering force of nature which surrounds them. The dark, wintry woods which encroach on the cabin are alive with fear and violence. The setting is like a satanic Genesis. As if to underline the point, the cabin is called “Eden”. Crows menace, acorns fall ominously and a deer — its dead baby hanging from beneath its tail — stares passively on. And yes, a fox speaks the words “chaos reigns” — a very unnecessary pushing of the point, which, as at Cannes, provoked a round of laughter at my screening. It also demonstrated how thin is the cord from which most art-house films dangle. One false move — or should I say, one especially false move — and the whole artifice can fall apart. The audience’s attention is recovered here simply by the fact that the really gruesome bits occur later.   

There’s no question that Antichrist is stylistically very accomplished. It veers between exquisitely slick, black and white, pop video slow-motion and the quick, hand-held camera work which distinguished the dogme film-making movement of which von Trier is the best-known proponent. But in the end, what is the effect? 

Apparently von Trier wrote the script after a particularly bad bout of depression. He intends the film to offer us “a glimpse into the dark world of my imagination”. Dark it certainly is. Those seeking to discern the director’s worldview might even conclude that in its nastiness and brutishness, its sense of an ultimately uncontrollable natural world that cannot be rationalised away, it is quite a conservative film. There appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel. It is, as they say in Hollywood, a major downer. 

Of course, even downers can make you feel oddly alive. But not this; we spend an intense 100 minutes with von Trier’s couple, and by the end of it we still care little about their fate and the events which have brought them to such self-destruction. If it disturbs you, then it will disturb you in the way that witnessing a car crash can do so. As I left the cinema, and emerged into what was a stunning summer evening, I felt rather like I did when I once chanced upon the aftermath of a suicide from a tall building in the King’s Road in London. It was jolting and saddening. But it was not illuminating. It was not art. 

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