20 November 2009

At the movies: Antichrist.

Following the death of their child, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes, and deservedly so) slips into an incapacitating grief spiral of loathing and disassociation. Naturally, her therapist husband He (Willem Dafoe) decides to embark on a rather extreme form of therapy for his wife, altering her medications and taking her to their cabin in the woods, Eden, to get away from the city and to help exorcise her pain and fears. And the thing about exorcisms, as we all know; they aren’t really easy, and once all that psychic turbulence is in the air, where does it go?

Antichrist sprang out of writer/director Lars von Trier’s crippling depression, one that left him questioning his career choices and life as a filmmaker. Made on the hush-hush with a couple of stars and little media attention, what emerged was the scandal of this year’s Cannes Film festival, where it provoked walkouts and vitriolic hatred from some viewers. Subsequent berths at the Toronto and New York Film Festivals found audience members vomiting in the aisles and mass chaos during the film’s extreme third act.

But it also found no less vocal a defender than Roger Ebert, whose championing of the film has given it a foothold in the precarious world of arthouse cinema. It also garnered a diverse following of film folk who dig on its hypersymbolic caterwaul, its arch sincerity, and its utter madness. This is one of the reasons the phrase "chaos reigns" has become an underground/overground phenomenon.

Antichrist is a strange film. Equal parts aggressive marriage therapy, Angela Carter-style fairy tale, Greek tragedy, and gorefest, it feels like nothing else Von Trier has ever done before, and moreso, its rough edges are infinitely revealing. There’s a sad helplessness to the violent underpinnings of He and She’s relationship, and anyone who has ever had to deal with abrupt shifts in medication will find a chord struck within in them by what this film does. Not for everyone, certainly, but a fascinating trip beneath the skin of what we call humanity.