What makes a film a horror film? Following Bobby’s insightful post on Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), I started thinking about films that take the horror genre as their foundation, but reject the hackneyed conventions that are unconsciously associated with the genre. The first film that sprung to mind was Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). I should state upfront that I am not a fan of von Trier: I don’t particularly like the Dogme 95 movement and, although I eschew applying feminist readings to films, I find his representation of women borderline insulting. Antichrist didn’t change my mind in terms of von Trier’s portrayal of femininity; however, it did reveal a more stylistic and assured approach from the Danish director in contrast to films such as Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000).

Well, I think that this idea that nature might be dangerous is something that has been in almost all my movies. Maybe it’s the nature of man, but this was kind of nature nature…I think the idea of Eden in the film is that it’s a peaceful place to rest. This is the interesting thing, was that I’ve always thought a place like this would be where you would love to spend time, and this would be the most peaceful, romantic place on Earth. The film has to do with the idea that maybe it’s not, but it is a typical place where I could go.
– Lars von Trier

The plot of Antichrist is deceptively simple: following the death of a child, who falls from a window while his parents are making love, the bereaved couple (William Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) retreat to a place called “Eden”. The woodlands setting is supposed to offer the couple a space to heal and to come to terms with the death of their child; however, the natural scenery is used to rupture the division between inside and outside and becomes a threatening presence that exacerbates the couple’s emotions of guilt and profound grief. The play on the symbolism of “Eden”, usually a utopian space of unspoilt beauty, and the ties between womanhood and nature are at the crux of Antichrist’s vision of horror. Are women inherently evil? Does malevolence arise from within or outside the self? These are some of the unanswered philosophical questions that are raised in the film.

More so than any of von Trier’s previous films, Antichrist is cinematically stunning. Although the content is at times repulsive, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle creates a tension between the setting and the film action. “Eden” is framed beautifully, albeit in a rather menacing fashion, and the cinematography provides an excellent contrast to the pain and suffering experienced by Dafoe at the hands of Gainsbourg, and works to destabalise the distinction between beauty and abjectness.

I recently had a conversation with a fellow cinephile in which I admitted that I like to use cinema to push the boundaries of what I find visually acceptable or tolerable. If I hear that a film has scenes that are excessively violent or troubling, I immediately want to watch it. Antichrist does feature scenes that are so intensely graphic that I found that I couldn’t get them out of my mind for weeks after I had viewed them. Some people have hailed Antichrist as a masterpiece while others have deemed it completely gratuitous. I’m not sure exactly where I sit in terms of these polarised views, but I find Antichrist, for all its flaws, a fascinating – and highly disturbing – film that presents important cinematic issues for discussion.


11 Comments Antichrist

  1. Boji January 6, 2011 at 11:17 AM

    Von Trier showed this cinematic prowess early in his career with Zentropa. If you haven’t checked it out go see it. It’s pretty mesmerising. It’s sexual politics are much less controversial too. The series he made for Danish TV called The Kingdom is pretty darn fun too.

  2. Diana January 6, 2011 at 12:18 PM

    Seems so good…

  3. if jane January 6, 2011 at 12:28 PM

    Oh Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” was a brilliant film!!!

    (oh and I am curious Aronofsky’s “Black Swan”…plus that it was shot on super 16mm!)

  4. Deanna Pellerin January 6, 2011 at 1:33 PM

    Danica, excellent review on the movie. I completely agree with every word you said.

  5. KN January 6, 2011 at 2:05 PM

    i completely agree with danica. i am not sure where i stand on the film and the more i think about it the more i feel like i lose the message of the film. i also consider myself to be a little feminist and i saw the portrayal of the female as a little insulting. but Godard is almost on the same level, but the moral lines are a little more blurred.

    as far as jane’s comment on black swan and 16mm…i found it gross. should have shot it on 35mm or even digital to film. the first 5 minutes is 90% close-up and handheld (do you really need to use highspeed on top of that?). I found the use of high speed 16mm to give the film an unnecessarily gritty feel…especially because i sat particularly close to the screen (theatre was really full). If he was trying to make the audience nauseated, he succeeded (those fades to white were excruciating). personally i think it was a bit much…the story is good just TOO much style. it also underplayed some of the transformation scenes…the ripples on the skin were barely noticeable next to the film grain.

    but what do i know? i’m just going through a filmic minimalism phase. (weerasethakul, antonioni, Bergman’s religious trilogy).

  6. John January 6, 2011 at 3:44 PM

    I just watched Antichrist for the first time a few weeks ago.I have to say I felt the message of the movie was striking. I felt it was more about horribleness being framed in a certain way. Atrocities are atrocities because we view it as evil and it was an interesting point of view to point out the victims of these tragedies are not always wholesome and good. It is offensive to women but I don’t think women were his only target—therefore my feminism ideals didn’t get offended. I saw it as he was saying that sometimes we connect to victims only because they’re victims and sometimes we can’t see the inherent evil in them.

    I have to say there were a few scene I did find hard to make myself watch especial when Charlotte Gainsbourg starts to physically assault William Dafoe. And yes, some of those images will not be making their way out of my head any time soon…

  7. Wojtek January 7, 2011 at 2:44 AM

    Fun fact: Damian Nenow (the creator of the recently posted “Paths Of Hate”) works for the same Polish company that did the CGIs for the Antichrist.

  8. Danica van de Velde January 7, 2011 at 7:18 AM

    @ Boji Thanks for the tip re: The Kingdom. I’ll have to track it down.

    @ if jane I am curious to see Black Swan too, but I have to wait a little bit before it is released on my side of the world.

    @ Deanna Pellerin Thank you!

    @ KN I found it really interesting to read your thoughts on Black Swan. I have yet to see the film and I am intrigued by your comments on the over-styled imagery. Also, I agree with you on Godard being slightly misogynist; however, I am always willing to forgive him. von Trier on the other hand…

    @ John That’s a really insightful reading of the film, especially on the gender politics and victim status. Thanks for sharing. And yes, the film is filled with images that are impossible to erase once you’ve seen them (the genital mutilation scene still gives me chills a year after watching it).

  9. if jane January 7, 2011 at 8:46 AM

    hello KN…
    i haven’t seen the film yet…and just heard that it was shot on super 16mm …
    (but it was also shot with the 7D…
    here is an interview with the cinematographer: )

    personally…i love film grain (versus digital pixels). i don’t understand why it would be considered gross? (wiseman shoots, in 16mm and later blows it up to 35mm…gorgeous!)

    i much prefer shooting on film and the final copy to be film as well to avoid any digital artifacts.

  10. KN January 7, 2011 at 2:31 PM

    @john…now that is certianly more enlightening. Like i said i tended to get bogged down when i started thinking of gender in the film. Also, i was sort of confused by the ending. who is the antichrist? was a question that popped up a lot and i never really had an answer for it.

    @jane…I agree with you in terms of work flow, yes. Film to film is good and i realize a lot of films do that. I also agree with the digital artifacts issue, but Anitichrist was shot on Red as far as i know, and i saw a 35 print in theatres, i didn’t notice any artifacts. i think the issue with digital now, is how you do the transfer. Maybe they stuck to 720p 24pn for antichrist? I also think film made a difference in Blask Swan also, the colors and the lighting would not translate as easily to digital. But the interview also said that he pushed the film, intentionally adding more grain to the film. when you blow it up to 35 these would only increase.

    I can’t imagine managing the assets for this film…i did a 10 minute short on one camera, i can’t imagine using 2 cameras. >:( I guess that is why they have such massive post departments instead of 1 person. The only movie i remember seeing artifacts in was intentional and it was Inland Empire. ahhh…anyway i don’t really have the option or money for film so i am probably going to be sticking with panasonic or 5d/7d for a while.

  11. Timothy January 11, 2011 at 10:06 AM

    Antichrist: To me the film was about the constant battle between reason and nature/instinct in the human behaviour. He and She was merely archtypes and we werent suppose to feel anything for them or sympathise with them. We were only suppose to watch them and the film from a distance. Because they are not real. Its fiction, which LVT also tries to tell us several times doing the film(ex. the fox talking) Ofc, men through history has been labeled as being the rational and women controlled by nature/instinct, so he uses them as archtypes to show us something about the human mankind.

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