As Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist” arrives on DVD, I felt compelled give the film a second viewing. What I found was this: despite the overwhelming controversy surrounding the film’s gratuitous sexual violence, the most troubling, terrifying moments in “Antichrist” were essentially sexless and bloodless — and talking fox-less.
I realized that much of “Antichrist’s” terror stems from Mr. Von Trier’s use of the woods as a representation of paranoia, anxiety, and dread of the natural world. The first image we see of the woods is when He (Willem Dafoe) and She (a mesmerizing Charlotte Gainsbourg) are still in the drab, but nevertheless safe, surroundings of their apartment. After She accuses He of indifference towards their son’s death, the scene shifts from their bedroom to a starkly black and white image of a wooded area. There is no music, but a sinister, restrained roaring noise, as if the woods are seething. The color is so contrasted that it looks more like a painting then actual woods. The trees and bramble are bone-white and skeletal, jutting out from the underbrush like the claws of some indiscernible but omnipotent beast. Some branches are shaped like arches, almost as if they are portals to a parallel state of reality where, as She later asserts, “nature is Satan’s church.”
Likewise, the eerie white glow of the branches also illuminates Ms. Gainsbourg when, almost like a macabre fairy tale, She is shown in a dream-like sequence, in extreme slow motion, walking over a wooded bridge. It is a long shot from above, and her figure is glowing in an incandescent, ghostly white in contrast to the gray and rust colored wood. What is most unsettling about this shot is that we can clearly see her figure from afar, and that She is gazing straight at us. Yet, her face and eyes are slightly blurred, giving the viewer the impression that she can see us, but we cannot see her, instilling the feeling of being watched by some unknown and indiscernible entity. The image is at once breathtakingly beautiful and chilling.
In another scene which similarly draws on the claustrophobic terror of the woods, He (Willem Dafoe) is attempting to guide She through her fear of the natural surroundings with a “game,” wherein She must walk from one stone to another through several feet of grass. Her bare feet exposed to the long, overgrown grass, again shot in slow motion, gives the sense that each moment the bare foot is exposed to the earth is one of profound vulnerability. The simple, rational action of walking on grass is no longer safe, and any rational thoughts about nature and the woods we’ve been clinging to thus far are slowing disintegrating.
The penultimate moment of these disturbing scenes in the woods is She’s flashback of hearing what she believes is the sound of a crying baby. At first, the wailing sound is distinctly human, but there are certain moments when the crying has an animalistic, bestial edge; the beginning and end cadence of the cries sound more like snarls, and we are unsure as to whether or not She is hearing the sound of a child, her child, or whether it is the howl of some fabled, terrible beast. The most unnerving part of this scene is when, after searching all over the perimeter of the cabin for her son, she finds him blithely playing in the shed. In a conventional horror film, this would be the moment when the crying, imaginary, psychological, whatever, would cease: “Tah da! Just my mind playing tricks on me! My child is safe and sound, I must just be paranoid!” But not this time. As She stares right into her child’s face, who gives her a somewhat chilling, toothy grin right on cue, the howling continues. There is a close up on She’s stunned face; then, the camera drifts up, up, until we see the vast expanse of the deep woods, which itself may be the origin of the incessant, infinite wailing.
I admit that I do admire Mr. Von Trier as well as Mr. Dafoe, and especially Ms. Gainsbourg, for their artistic fearlessness and audacity. However, I ultimately feel that the film would have benefited from more use of the woods as an expression of this extreme grief and depression rather than the literal mutilation which occurs. For instance, the scene where He crawls into the foxhole, of which the shape is distinctly yonic (female phallus–yup, there’s a word for that!), and She frenetically stabs and tears at the dirt in desperate effort to unearth him, has violent sexual undertones which could have easily and artfully replaced the extreme sexual violence that ensues.
Using the wild, arcane, and dangerous elements of the woods as a representation/expression of the “grief, pain, and despair” that She feels may have been the more imaginative and tactful choice. But then perhaps, the disquieting, subtle moments detailed above would not be as effective if not juxtaposed with the film’s more physically ferocious moments. I personally am mesmerized by films that have those wild, outrageous moments, when you’re staring, (or forcing yourself to look away) from the screen in awed disbelief. That’s what “Antichrist” was for me: a film that took me to the edge while also maintaining moments of quiet, understated power.
*A version of this article first appeared in Alt Film Guide, June 22, 2010. It has been published here with permission from the author and copyright holder.