Review by Gordon Justesen
Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Director: Lars Von Trier
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 108 Minutes
Release Date: November 9, 2010
Film: (film star rating withheld)
It would appear that I chose the wrong film to introduce myself to the vision of Lars Von Trier or, as he labeled himself in such humble like fashion at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, The World's Greatest Filmmaker. I had long been wanting to see such films of his including Zentropa and Breaking the Waves, but I simply never caught up with them. But after hearing all of the immense controversy surrounding Antichrist, the very film Von Trier brought to that year's film festival, I knew I had to see what all the fuss was about.
This is quite possibly the first film I've ever seen that has me seriously conflicted, thus explaining the first time rating I've given it. On the one hand, the filmmaking displayed is undeniably powerful and at times visually stimulating. Having never seen a Von Trier film before, this confirms that all of the acclaim he's received over the years as a pure artistic filmmaker is more than well justified.
On the other hand, what unfolds in the film ranges from reprehensible to incomprehensible. As it progressed, I simply got the impression that I was watching a game show called “Endurance Test of the Century” with your host, Lars Von Trier. From the very opening of the film, it's clear that he has set out to shock the audience with an endless series of unexpected graphic imagery, which only grows more disgusting as it goes along before delivering a conclusion that forces you to just throw your hands in the air and simply give up.
The sequence that opens the film is without question one of the most beautifully haunting sequences you will ever see, shot in stunning black and white and executed entirely in slow motion. A married couple, referred to in the credits as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), make passionate love while in the shower. While this is happening, their infant child is seen crawling up to a window, which he then jumps out of and plummets to his death.
The tragedy obviously has a horrendous effect on the couple, more so on the wife than the husband. He turns out to be a therapist and subject his wife to an extended therapy session as a way of dealing with the grieving process. It requires a trip to a cabin in the woods, thus resulting in a film that has replaced, of all movies, Cabin Fever as the woods-based horror film to turn me off the most.
Yes, as it turns out Von Trier's film is classifiable as a horror film, but only in the psychological sense. As the therapy session grows more intense, and the husband is causing the wife to trigger some truly horrific emotional demons, we do indeed get some grotesque results on the visual end. Trash the Saw and Hostel movies all you want, but even they don't go as far as Von Trier does in the last 45 minutes as far as shock value is concerned.
Part of me wants to detail for you the very moments that really tested my endurance. But I then come to my senses and realize how much I don't want to disgust you, not to mention most of it was hinted at ever since reports from the Cannes premiere came flowing in. In case you're unaware, let's just say that genital mutilation plays a heavy role in the film's last half.
But even without that, there are still moments of Antichrist that left me baffled in terms of what exactly Von Trier was trying to get across. Such moments include the infamous scene where an actual fox utters the exact words in the quote preceding my review. And don't get me started on the very last sequence of the film, which I'm convinced was done simply for Von Trier to leave his audience puzzled to no end.
And yet, I can't find it in me to completely write this film off simply because there are various elements that did have an effect on me. The cinematography is of pure exquisite beauty, even during some of the film's more troubling moments. And the performances from Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg represent some of the boldest acting you will ever see in a single film.
And one most also accept the fact that Von Trier felt a need to make this film, having spent the past year and a half going through an extended therapy session of his own. It was that experience that no doubt inspired the film he made. But in the end, I honestly can't think of anyone I can truthfully recommend this to, except devoted Lars Von Trier fans and those who are curious, as I was, to discover what all the fuss was about in terms of controversy...and you will definitely get your money's worth in that regard.
Proceed with extreme caution, that's about all I can say.
Criterion continues their unending streak of amazing high def releases with this title. And given Lars Von Trier's knack for establishing artistic beauty, the only way one should experience this film (should you feel the need) is on Blu-ray. The opening black and white slow motion prologue alone is enough to grant this a four star rating on the visual end, but everything that proceeds it is presented in pure fantastic form. The woodland setting does show off the greens very nicely. Von Trier also offers some neat visual tricks along the way, especially during the more disturbing bits. No matter what your view of the movie is, you can't deny that this is a remarkably effective looking presentation.
The DTS HD 5.1 mix does come into play quite a bit in various areas. First off, the classical music piece that accompanies both the opening and closing of the film will remain with you long after you see the movie, thanks to how it is delivered through the channels. This is mostly a dialogue oriented piece but, just as he does with the visual tweaks, Von Trier does find a way for sound to effectively accompany a pivotal scene in one way or another. Even as the film made me feel uncomfortable, I couldn't help but feel totally immersed in the atmosphere because of the effective way in which various sound and music cues were delivered. As the feeling of complete dread increases, so do the brooding sound elements used in accompanying them.
You will either end up admiring the film or loathing it. But what can't be denied is that, in either case, you will be eager to discover how such a film came to be. And since this is a Criterion release, you will get all the extensive info you seek through some knockout supplements.
To start with, there's a commentary track with Lars Von Trier and film scholar Murray Smith. It's quite a revealing listen, as Von Trier cooperatively answers the many probing questions asked of him by Smith. There's also well over an hour's worth of interview segments (all separate) with Von Trier, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Each interview is intriguing and offers a great deal of insight. In Von Trier's segment, we learn how this project came to be as a result of battling personal demons, while Dafoe and Gainsbourg both offer reasons why they felt the need to take part in such a risky project. Next up is “The Making of Antichrist”, which is a collection of featurettes that cover various grounds including technical aspects, research and the overall creation of the film. These included “Behind the Test Film”, “Visual Style”, “Sound and Music”, “Eden – Production Design”, “Make-Up Effects and Props”, “The Three Beggars” and “The Evil of Women”, which can be played separately and add up to about an hour in length. Then, there's footage from the 2009 Cannes Film Festival in the form of three segments; “Chaos Reigns at the Cannes Film Festival”, “Willem Dafoe at Cannes” and “Charlotte Gainsbourg at Cannes”. And, in case you're wondering, you will be able to hear Von Trier proclaim himself as The World's Greatest Filmmaker in this section. Lastly, we have three Theatrical Trailers and a terrific booklet insert featuring an essay by film scholar Ian Christie.
No other film in my time as a film reviewer has left me more conflicted than Antichrist. It definitely turned me off even more so than I expected even after hearing all the insane controversy surrounding it, and it is a film that I can safely say I will never revisit again. And yet, there are certain elements that I find tremendously effective. The Blu-ray is yet another fantastic release from Criterion and, should you be at all curious to see the film, is without question the way to experience it. Did I mention that this film really left me conflicted???