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Antichrist shocking, but a good film, too
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Antichrist shocking, but a good film, too

by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

Antichrist
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We've all been there. Standing in the big box super-store trying to find weather stripping or cheap socks when we encounter a shitty mom. She's on the cell phone fingering the clearance items while her filthy little kid sits in the shopping cart with a string of snot tickling his upper lip while chowing down on an open bag of Doritos.

With preternatural awareness, she looks over as the kid slips her pack of Marlboro Lights out of her humongous knock-off Louis Vuitton bag she ordered from QVC and she says into the cell phone, "Just a sec."

Then she screams at the kid through smoke-ravaged vocal cords, "What the hell is your problem?! Drop the cigarettes and stay the hell out of my bag. I paid a lot of money for it and if I catch you in it one more time I'll slap your face into next week! Do you hear me?!"

The kid looks at her blankly while awkwardly stuffing another handful of Doritos into his mouth.

We've all been there. Standing there thinking, "she must be the shittiest mom in the world." Well, the bar has just been lowered.

Antichrist, the new film by Lars von Trier (Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves), opens as a child dies while his parents have sex. The grieving mother (brilliantly played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) crumbles and is hospitalized. The grieving father (Willem Defoe - always good) becomes her de facto psychoanalyst. After the mother is released from the hospital, the couple decides to retreat to their idyllic cabin in the temperate rainforest to seek the healing power of a benevolent mother nature. Unfortunately, nature, environmentally and emotionally, turns out to be more like Tennyson's unreasonable beast, all red in tooth and claw than the patchouli-laced image of Gaia we all know from tree-hugger bumper stickers.

Lars von Trier is no stranger to difficult cinema. Difficult, in von Trier's case, could refer to the filmmaker manifesto, Dogme 95, and its rigid filmmaking requirements known as the Dogme 95 Vow of Chastity. Difficult could also mean "tough to watch," as in characters in situations that offer devastating choices laced with moral ambiguity. Difficult can be a good thing, cinematically speaking.

Antichrist is a difficult film. In fact, the sentence you've just read is a fantastic understatement and I'm not exaggerating when I say Antichrist, made by the genre-jumping director from Denmark, is one of the scariest horror films I've ever seen.

This is pure horror, but with a heavy dose of intellectual overreaching and artistic integrity tossed in. If you don't run from the theater dizzy with nausea and cold sweat, you'll have something to ponder for a few days - or longer. This is the story of the bad mother, and there's nothing scarier than the bad mother.

I don't want to give too much away, but if you're a film geek like me, you've already read the worst. If you're not a film geek like me, you still don't deserve to have the most controversial moments spoiled. So, SPOILER ALERT. Stop reading if you don't want to know.

Willem Defoe gets his junk smashed, has a bloody orgasm, and his wife then proceeds to cut off her clitoris with a rusty pair of scissors - in close-up. On the big screen. Are we done being shocked? Good, then let's continue the review of the film.

Forget the Dogme 95 Vow of Chastity; von Trier is using every cinematic trick there is here, and to good effect. The images are hauntingly beautiful and work perfectly to explicate the narrative. The photography by Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later, among other cool stuff) is lovely whether capturing a tragic moment set in a mundane apartment or sifting through the disparities of reality and perception in a post-Freudian (anti-Freudian?) psychosexual landscape.

The acting is first-rate. Gainsbourg's courageous performance unfolds slowly with devastating results. Defoe is nicely understated as the father who smothers his own journey of grief beneath his desire to help his partner overcome her demons.

Antichrist is a horror film and it does not stray far from its roots. The biggest difference between this film and so many other contemporary horror films, films that might be gross but are rarely frightening, is in von Trier's insistence on connecting the violent fantasy to the familiar. He takes us into the safest place there is, the arms of the mother.

He then takes us inside the philosophical womb to uncompromisingly question the gendering of nature forcing us to consider the earth as a violent place without any connection to humanity's version of God or reason. The earth is mother, and mother is not so nice. This is scary stuff that makes for an awesome horror flick.

It seems von Trier willingly embraces the heavier intellectual weight of Antichrist with his dedication of the film to Andrei Tarkovsky in the ending credits. To purloin Senator Lloyd Bentsen's brilliant verbal volley directed at Dan Quayle in 1988: I know Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky is a friend of mine. Mr. von Trier, you're no Tarkovsky. Not yet, anyway.

That's not to say that von Trier is not a brilliant filmmaker. Anyone who's witnessed the last 20 minutes of Dancer in the Dark or endured the graceful sense of sacrifice and love in Breaking the Waves knows he is gifted. I just think comparisons to Tarkovsky are premature and ours to make, not his. But I'm a jealous (and petty) critic, and a director may dedicate his film to whomever he wishes in the end.

Antichrist is an amazing movie from a filmmaker with an agenda. Lars von Trier is a purposeful filmmaker (if you read my reviews regularly, you know this is high praise) and he's not messing around, even if he's messing with us. He may even become legendary, like Tarkovsky. We'll see.

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