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Antichrist Review: Art that will Shock and Awe

Shane Steinberg | Thursday, February 4, 2010

A few years back I heard a story about a mysterious occurrence in Japan that was tied to a film once slated for release but immediately banned after only a couple of test screenings. I never learned the name of the film nor do I know any details about its plot, but what’s important about this particular film is the rather perplexing, or horrifying to be more precise, effect that it had on some members of the few audiences unlucky enough to see it. For you see, as I was told, following the film there happened a string of suicides that were committed largely without clear motives. The individuals who took their own lives were then somehow linked back to being members of that same test audience, which then raised alarms about the film. It’s unclear just how much of an effect the film actually had on those individuals or the others who saw it and then admitted to suffering from depression and/or thoughts of suicide afterwards, and until recently, I always thought it rather foolish that a mere film could have that kind of impact on a person. I don’t know what was in that film that so dramatically scarred those individuals and then propelled them to commit the unspeakable acts that they committed, and until recently it never really made any sense.

Lars von Trier’s bare-as-bones, free-fall into the confines of human suffering and madness, “Antichrist,” is the film that finally opened my eyes to the true visceral power of film—its naked ability to at once unnerve an audience, abandon it, get under the skin and stay there, and then tear at one’s insides until the mind and soul can’t take it and all that’s left are scars of an ultimately terrifying experience. This is the first film I’ve ever seen that I will not only recommend but near implore you not to see. You either won’t understand it (which is the best-case scenario), walk out in disgust, or worst of all, get sucked into it to the point that you feel it going on in and around you, until, at a certain point, it becomes too much to bare.

For those of you who have seen this film or who’ve heard the rather grand tales about it, I will caution you right now by saying these words: ejaculated blood and severed clitoris. This is no “Saw,” and I don’t think it necessary to explain the obvious reasons why, but at second glance, it’s not the gore that will unnerve you here. From my own experience I might never for the life of me explain what I felt the first time I saw this film in that small cramped theater, and I won’t because I don’t want to revisit it, but I know that some part of me not as a critic but as a human being was left broken by what I saw.

“Antichrist” is entirely von Trier’s story. The product of its admittedly then-chronically depressed filmmaker, the film is the tale of a couple, He and She, who tragically lose their son one night when he falls to his death out of an open window as the couple has sex in the other room. It’s the themes of sex, as violent and downright disgusting as it gets, and loss, the landscape on which this film is set, that go on to dictate much of the film’s four chapters which chronicle loss and how we deal with it. But where the film truly takes its dive is at an unnamed, almost unidentifiable point, where suddenly the co-stars (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) begin to give their entire selves unto von Trier’s uncompromisingly and unapologetically bleak view of human nature. It’s Gainsbourg though who goes way beyond where any actress should, capturing the true essence of suffering, and it’s through her performance that von Trier pushes forth not only the film’s brilliance but the essence of what makes this trip into Eden so unbearable.

To explain “Antichrist” is to take a trip back to Eden that opens up wounds on the self, better left alone. To understand “Antichrist” is a trip in and of itself, for the film, especially towards its end, takes a turn for the utterly perplexing. To see “Antichrist”— to actually see it and not merely watch it — is an experience better left for only those truly able and brave enough to understand von Trier as he projects himself in this film. For all else, it is an experience best left not experienced.

I once heard someone say that the best way to keep from feeling both the worst and the best of what life throws your way is to “don’t play it for real, until it gets real.” “Antichrist” is a nightmare of a film. It’s the kind of film that crosses over into the very rare and almost uncharted territory of being truly affecting art — art that at once will (if you play it for real) unnerve and bewilder you and, at its end, leave you utterly broken.

Contact Shane Steinber at ssteinb2@nd.edu