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Antichrist (2009) Dir. Lars Von Trier 10 August 2009

Posted by jordanfarley in Cinema Review.
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Every few years a horror film comes along that the critics like to dub ‘grotesque’, the tabloids run stories about how it will deprave and corrupt anyone who doesn’t take a moral stance against it immediately, while PR men delight in tales about audience members vomiting, feinting or (if they’ve done their job really well) ‘dying’ in their seats. In that sense Antichrist is this year’s Exorcist, Omen or Evil Dead; but crucially its depth and art-house sensibilities means it is about as far removed from so-called ‘torture porn’ horror of recent years as the best of the genre.

The film is a startlingly chilling and effective two hander between Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (named only he and she) who, in perhaps the most visually striking opening scene of the summer, lose their child only for Gainsbourg to be overcome with inconsolable grief. Defoe is a therapist and takes it upon himself (against the ethics of his profession) to take on his own wife as a patient, and comes to the conclusion that her best chance at a full recovery is for them to spend time in the place she feels most fear – a cabin in the woods they own called Eden. It’s here that the proverbial shit hits the fan as the pair descend into their own personal hell complete with a talking demonic fox, a deer running about with a half-born fawn hanging out of its body and some truly gut-wrenching gore effects including, and not limited to, violently graphic genital mutilation.

Antichrist manages that rare trick achieved by so few films nowadays – it makes you feel uncomfortable in your own seat. Squirming at an eyeball hanging out of someone’s skull or a pencil being jabbed into someone’s Achilles tendon is not the same as being genuinely unnerved by what is unfolding onscreen and for the best part of two hours that is exactly how Antichrist makes you feel. The film starts extremely slowly with close to an hour of build up before they’ve even made it to Eden, but it was these scenes that I found myself thinking about more and more once I’d got past the initial shock of what occurs in the films climax.

Gainsbourg was the well deserved winner of the Palme d’Or for best actress at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Her portrayal of a woman in the extreme stages of grief during the first half of Antichrist is profound and emotionally devastating. Watching her struggle to breathe will leave you clutching your own chest, literally more breathtaking than any CGI spectacle could hope to achieve. Later her rage and desperation completely convinces as a woman who has irreparably snapped, scarier than a thousand machete wielding maniacs for my money.

The film goes downhill slightly as it enters the woods, veering into the ridiculous on more than one occasion, even if you’ve bought entirely into the world that Von Trier has created. I’m not going to go into details about what unfolds during the second half but needless to say more than a few people walked out of the screening I was in. At times it seems gratuitous and its central thesis (that women are the root of evil) is horribly misogynistic, but there’s no denying if Von Trier set out to deliberately provoke his audience he has succeeded completely.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Antichrist is that for a film with such ugly and disturbing content it is easily one of the best shot films of the year. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (who won an Oscar this year for his work on Slumdog Millionaire) has helped Von Trier create scenes of extraordinary beauty in amongst the chaos – astounding monochrome slow-mos, a forest which convinces as the very depiction of hell and Lynch-esque cutaways to the foreboding environment, complete with an unsettling low rumble. It’s all shot on HD as well which removes the layer of artifice that film puts between the audience and the events onscreen, making what your witnessing seem even more distressingly real. Von Trier made his name as the Dogma 95 director of choice, but here he proves once and for all that his work is far more effective outside of its confines.

Antichrist is a film you are either going to detest with every fibre in your body or something you are going to willingly endure. I doubt anyone with a healthy mental state could enjoy Antichrist, particularly as Von Trier seems to have gone out of his way to create a film no-one could possibly like – art house exploitation. But with brave lead performances, a moving (at times) narrative and a genuinely shocking final half Von Trier has created perhaps his best work to date and one of the most startlingly original horror films in years.

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