Antichrist (2009, dir. Lars von Trier) opens with the typically graphic yet stylised images we have come to expect from von Trier: Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe fucking in slow-motion monochrome is intercut with their young child jumping from a first-floor window and falling to his death in the crisp snow outside.
The guilt and grief at the death of their son overwhelms Gainsbourg’s character. She develops severe anxiety and her husband (Dafoe), a therapist, assumes responsibility of her treatment against the advice of his peers. The two characters are set up along stereotypical gender binaries: she is emotional, he is rational; she feels, he thinks. While she blames herself for their son’s death, he rationalises her feelings –“Grief, it’s not a disease, it’s a natural healthy reaction”—while showing a disturbingly ironic lack of feeling himself. Gainsbourg’s performance is astonishingly physical, completely fearless as an actor, she is intoxicating to watch and conveys her character’s all-encompassing anxiety and grief with a blisteringly raw power.
Von Trier’s presentation of the therapeutic exchange in Antichrist varies between critically simplistic and beautifully picturesque. A way of exposing Dafoe’s character’s arrogance, his tricks and techniques feel cheap and inadequate in addressing his wife’s trauma. The pyramid diagram designed to structure her fears, for instance, is so removed from the overwhelming reality of her suffering that it almost mocks her situation. Whereas she is drawn to physical comfort, needing sex to heal her pain and subconsciously return to the last moment before her son’s death, he sees their intimacy as an obstacle to her recovery. In contrast, it is when Gainsbourg describes her fears in her own words that the therapeutic exchange gathers real weight. Framed on a rickety wooden bridge in the forest known as ‘Eden’, she picks her way in extreme slow-motion across the frighteningly static landscape. The shots of this dream-like state are beautifully eerie, pervaded by gossamer-thin mist and entangled in foreboding foliage. Deciding on a cognitive behavioural route, he encourages her to confront her fear associated with the woods. The colour scheme is inverted from the dream-like images; much warmer and filled with natural movement and sounds as the two figures trek across the forest towards the cabin.
At the time of Antichrist’s release von Trier came under a lot of criticism for the misogyny portrayed in the film. Its presentation of extreme violence and genital mutilation notwithstanding, the attitude of Dafoe’s character to female psychology and Gainsbourg’s consequent reaction to his ‘treatment’ is troubling; he explains away her fears and visions as a manifestation of her psychological weaknesses. Yet as she appears to grow stronger, to be ‘cured’, he begins to fall apart. The beautifully surreal falling acorn sequence conveys the beginning of his disassociation between truth and reality as her dark world begins to envelope his rational one.
And this is where it starts to get weird. Discovering his wife’s abandoned thesis, “Gynocide”, and images of rape and torture, he experiences visions of dead and decaying animals, including a demonic talking fox. Entranced by the historical abuse of women, she subsumes these ‘evil’ qualities and becomes, in turn, obsessed and possessed by these ideas. From this point on Antichrist descends into an orgy of violence with the particularly disturbing use of hand-operated drill and mill stone. As the two writhe around on the cabin floor in their own juices, the film loses its intriguingly ambiguous premise, ending with a surprisingly uncharacteristic and somewhat hollow definiteness.