If ask, “Did you like it?” careful how you respond. You could be accused of taking pleasure in watching delicate body parts compromised with household and garden tools. And maybe you’ve never even seen the Saw or Hostel series. But with chapters labeled grief, pain, and despair the word “like” becomes relative. Anti Christ is audacious filmmaking filled with arresting and poetic images and provocative questions about the politics of power and sexuality. It imagines whether grief, pain, and despair are states of mind or whether they exist in nature itself - a question that supports Lars Von Trier’s own peculiar romanticism.
The inciting incident is a beautiful set piece: an artfully photographed and very graphic, black and white, slow motion, lovemaking scene during which the couple’s child escapes from a crib, clears from a table three statuettes - labeled grief, pain, and despair - and climbs up on the table and over to a window. Then, in exquisite slow motion, like an angel ascending to heaven, – the child falls to its death.
“He” (Willem Dafoe) is a psychologist whose dominating and inappropriate counseling of his own wife “she” (Charlotte Gainsbourough) ) Dafoe leads her to where she is suppose to confront that which she fears most – the woods. “Nature is the devil’s playground” she says. She ought to know. She’s written a thesis on witchcraft in ancient times with a collection of prints depicting inquisitional torture - mostly of women. She has come to the interesting conclusion that perhaps women actually can be truly evil, that women with their carnal desires and potentially wild natures are inherently dangerous creatures. Thank you Lars Von Trier!
From Breaking the Waves to Dancer in the Dark to Dogville and Mandalay, statements about Von Trier’s own misogyny are old hat. He also doesn’t like America much. It’s not a place that embraces his eccentricity and provocations. America also doesn’t like to be criticized. Is it possible he is actually protesting demeaning and oppressive attitudes toward women, maybe with particular emphasis on American patriarchic values? It’s not Von Trier who abusive, but the social circ**stances in which his women find themselves.
At one point early in the film the wife, as if suddenly possessed, no longer fears the woods. She becomes liberated and healed. But “he” and his psychotherapy won’t let her go. His “scientific” approach has to dominate. Big mistake. Horror ensues.
Being America, the story is a lot more reminiscent of Hester Prynne and Pearl than it is simple misogyny. I remember being told in college that when Hawthorne’s wife finished reading A Scarlet Letter she went out and threw up. This liberation, this nature business was all too much! Women’s “nature” begins in Wicken (Hester Prynne), which is defined as evil by society (the Puritans, Inquisitions), and descends into madness and delusion (the suppression of their nature). Von Trier who converted to Catholicism says “Perhaps I only turned Catholic to piss off a few of my countrymen”. But if the Anti Christ does exist then there are horror movie consequences, complete with mortification of the flesh, redemption, souls be redeemed released from hell. Without given away anything, all this imagery is in the film. Look at that amazing last moment.
Von Trier has also moved from the theatrical sparseness of Dogville and Mandalay to real woods with portentous talking animals, hideous nature, hailstones, constellations, heavy fog, and a reappearing fox, crow, and deer that I assume might represent man, woman and death. But why quibble over details? It’s a huge stylistic change and together with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle ( Slumdog Millionaire" )they create some fabulous images.
As the ‘fox’ intones in a particularly horrific/child-like moment: “Chaos Reigns”. Perhaps - but “Anti Christ” churns chaos into poetry.