Thoughts on Lars Van Trier’s ANTICHRIST

Lars Van Trier has been a filmmaker that has long troubled me. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with his work. I had a conversation with a friend this week who refuses to see Van Trier’s films because of a perceived contempt for his audience. Von Trier and I shared the same faith until recently, so I have oft been interested in the way he sees the world through his lens. I have found profound meaning in many of the man’s films, namely Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville. Nothing in Von Trier’s previous work, however, could have prepared me for ANTICHRIST.

I should confess that I had read a fair amount about the film before seeing it. On an interesting side note, it was not an easy film to go see logistically. It is only showing at one small theater in the Los Angeles area. For a film that garnered so much attention at Cannes and other festivals, I guess I expected a wider distribution. After seeing the film, I suppose I now understand the very limited audience.

For those who are not familiar, here is a brief synopsis. A man and woman lose their child to a fall from a third story window while they are making love. The rest of the film explores the couple dealing with their grief. While the man (Willem Dafoe) resorts to his work, psychology that he in turn tries to use on the woman, she (Charlotte Gainsborgh)can only find relief in deep (usually sexual) pleasure and pain. The couple is overcome by their darkness at the film’s end.

The first 2/3 of the film are stunningly brilliant. The imagery and exploration of metaphor will remain with me for some time. The man and woman retreat to Eden, a place in nature that was previously paradise for them, after the lost of their innocence (their child.) Due to their loss of innocence, the former paradise is now a place of darkness and pure evil. Eden is now ruled by animals who proclaim “chaos rules” and parade through the forrest with the bodies of their unborn hanging from them. Eventually, the darkness of Eden turn the man and woman into evil shells of their former selves. It is a beautiful portrait of the early verses of Genesis, as strong as I have seen. There are other subjects thrown in the mix of layers. The suffering of women, self-loathing and the nature of fear are just a few to mention.

The final 1/3 of the film has certainly gotten the most press. It is graphic and horrible. Interested readers can dig into any variety of web sites to get the details of exactly what is on screen. However, I will spare you those details here. The actual acts perpetrated by the woman in the final portions of the films can be viewed through several metaphorical lenses. I have trouble as a filmmaker understanding why Von Trier would subject his audience to what he shows them. I find it hard to believe that he could not have found an equally powerful way to convey the same themes and ask the same questions.

Those that know me realize that I am not easily offended and am usually the first to stand up for edgy art and films that push barriers. ANTICHRIST is hard to defend. Supposedly Von Trier renounced his faith during the making of the film. Some have even suggested he lost his mind in the making of the final scenes. I am a staunch defender of story and of stories that require difficult elements. But ANTICHRIST didn’t seem to be most concerned with story. It seemed more concerned with trying to say something. But determining what that something is might be more trouble than its worth. I doubt Von Trier cares.