Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is a film as beautiful as it is horrifying, its beautiful compositions juxtaposed against emotional and physical brutality. Its leads, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, are given occupations rather than names, and it is the weight of those occupations, as well as the weight of their grief, that crushes them both. She is an academic. He is a therapist. While making love one afternoon in the winter, their son manages to escape his cradle, climb out onto the window-ledge, and fall to his death. During the funeral, She faints and is placed in a hospital for psychiatric evaluation. He, being a therapist, believes himself more capable of treating his wife than the new doctor she’s been assigned and, proscribing a course of exposure therapy, removes the two to their cabin in the forest, which, without irony, the two call Eden.
von Trier, who declared himself the world’s greatest director after Antichrist‘s contentious showing at the Cannes Film Festival, has said that the film began as an exercise in making a horror picture, and elements of the genre certainly inform Eden’s trappings. The couple take a train and a rented Jeep out to the woods, where they must hike through the woods to their cabin, which is every bit the genre’s typical rickety shack, with secrets hidden in the attic and beneath the floorboards. When the two sleep, acorns rain from the sky as though trying to soften the resolve of an obstinate Pharaoh. He leaves his hand hanging from an open window and wakes to find it covered in fungus. These are Biblical trials, made no easier by the appearance of “Three Strangers,” but they pale in comparison to the psychological horror Eden represents for the therapists wife, and the physical manifestations of that fear that she will later visit upon him.
Antichrist is a movie with witchcraft in its heart. Though She casts no spells and He isn’t under any but the pull of his own ego, the reason for their trip to Eden ties back to her attempt to finish a thesis on gynocide; notebooks He finds in the attic are covered in with-hunt imagery and handwritten notes that grow more erratic as she becomes unbalanced. What’s clear is that she not only came to believe that women were inherently evil, but that she came to practice as a witch, in essence becoming her double. Until ramping up the violence in its final act, Antichrist plays on witch imagery are subtle, but there: child endangerment, insatiable libido, desire to commune with the impenetrable will of nature. He is so off-put by his surroundings—a deer with a stillborn fetus hanging from its vulva, a decomposing fox—that her behavior passes as part of the grieving process until it’s far too late.
Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance as She is brutal and uncompromising. Antichrist doesn’t make her the villain, but she is a puzzle Dafoe’s character must solve, and her resolute sadness over the death of her son creates a mask that’s impossible for that character to permeate, but one that nevertheless engages the viewer. Antichrist—written by von Trier as he was coming out of a bout of depression that he believed would be his undoing as a filmmaker—is sly in arranging the puzzle pieces; the viewer and Dafoe are given the key piece of information that fits everything together at the exact same time. The result is the creation of two viewing experiences, one in which the audience fumbles around in the forest as lost as Dafoe, and one with all the facts in evidence; one film about depression, the other about a demonic vessel.
Throughout both versions of the film, it is Gainsbourg, not Dafoe, who is our hero. Never mind the torture she employs to his anatomy, Antichrist is first about a grieving mother, second about a woman’s power. Both are considered from the point of view of the film’s male character—and thus rendered abstract—and both happen to be more terrifying than the compelling bits of body horror von Trier conjures. In grief or in thrall to the devil, Gainsbourg’s character is the same: without God, or, put secularly, living in the absence of mercy. There’s certainly an element of horror to what von Trier puts Dafoe through, but that’s just window dressing. Hers is the struggle, and with such futility: chaos has already reigned over Eden so long.
Antichrist. With Willem Dafoe (He) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (She). Directed by Lars von Trier and produced by Meta Louise Foldager. Screenplay by von Trier.