Two Films in One…

“I’d love to watch that film with the Women’s Studies Group at the Graduate Theological Union.”

You won’t hear me say that phrase too often; however, Lars von Trier‘s latest release, Antichrist, would make for an engrossing discussion with the right audience.  I also wouldn’t mind discussing the film with ministers, therapists, and those in training.  The film has polarized critics like most of von Trier’s work is apt to do.  Whether critics love it or hate it, most of them realize that what we have in Antichrist is really two films in one.  While this duality worked for some and alienated others, I found that the beauty and emotion of the “first” film far surpassed the absurd attempt at horror of the latter.

Antichrist opens as a couple, He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), have sex in nearly every room of their apartment.  Wrapped in such ecstasy, they fail to notice that their toddler has made his way down from his crib, climbed onto his desk and fallen out of their upper-story window, plummeting to a slow motion death.  He, a therapist of some sort, handles his grief better than She, who descends into inconsolable depression.  Gainsbourg’s performance here is the highlight of the film, and if Viola Davis can be nominated for an Oscar for around ten minutes’ worth of screen time, then Gainsbourg ought to have her moment in the sun as well.  However, I fear that the genital mutilation and talking animals that take place in the second “film” will distract from said performance.

In an effort to help her recover, He begins to counsel her through her grief and asks what scares her the most.  She tells him that the woods surrounding their cabin (ironically named Eden) are what frighten her the most.  In an unparalleled move of emotional, intellectual, and relational genius, He suggests that they take a trip to their cabin in an effort to overcome those fears.  Once they arrive, all hell breaks loose, and, as a self-mutilating fox tells us, “Chaos reigns.”

I’ll save the bloody details of the second half of the film…you can find those in most other reviews.  Suffice it to say that the woman’s grief (guilt?) gets the best of her and she takes it out on her husband (and herself) in brutal ways that von Trier won’t let us miss…or forget.  As disturbing as some of these images are, what stuck with me after watching the film was the relationship between the man and woman before they went into the woods and just as they arrived, particularly his attempts to counsel her.  If the saying is true that you should never date your therapist, then perhaps the reverse is true, therapists should never treat their partners.  What She needs from him in her time of grief is a partner, not a therapist.  At times, She wants to alleviate her grief by having sex with him, but He refuses, pushing her away and arguing that it is not healthy.  In these moments, He might be a good therapist, but He is a lousy husband.  She needs someone to do the wrong things for her…to say the wrong things to her…to fight with her…to have sex with her.  He keeps his education and professionalism at the forefront of their interactions with one another without truly listening to her.

Debates are taking place over whether or not the film is sexist, which is why I believe the film might make for interesting viewing within a faith-based context.  The title, with its accompanying female symbol, seems to suggest that She might be the Antichrist.  Although, von Trier doesn’t seem to suggest that all women are like this, especially since She initially spent time in the woods to complete her thesis on the evil, violent treatment of women throughout history.  People keep asking me if this is a good or bad film.  I don’t know that I can use those terms for a film like this, or any of von Trier’s films for that matter.  I’m attracted to his films and have appreciated the experiences of watching his films like Dogville and Manderlay (I hope to revisit those for reviews later), because they at least provoke emotional and visceral reactions.  I’d certainly suggest Antichrist for the not faint of heart, but perhaps out of selfishness so that I could have someone to talk to about it.