I can't truly say I enjoyed watching a man nail his penis to a wooden board in the 1997 documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. I can’t even truly say I saw more than brief glimpses before I averted my eyes, as if confronted by a solar eclipse. Nevertheless, the close-up atrocity summed up the obsessions and life experiences of a self-punishing performance artist with a fatal case of cystic fibrosis and a surprisingly tender marriage.
Lars von Trier’s Antichrist eventually reveals how unguarded genitalia hold up against carpentry utensils, but without the justification of Sick’s humanism or thematic clarity. An instantly notorious award-winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Antichrist proves to be an alternately draggy, repellant and opaque cinematic experience, while clearly representing devoted efforts from several master screen artists. Were Antichrist a piece of hackwork, so to speak, it'd be easy to dismiss.
How pretentious is Antichrist? Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play a married couple identified as He and She, who speak wistfully of their cabin retreat called Eden. In the prologue, He and She have sex in sumptuous black-and-white slow motion, complete with a Handel aria on the soundtrack and a penetration shot from the actors’ body doubles. When their toddler son wanders out of bed and heads out an open window to join falling snowflakes, Antichrist looks like the most depressing and sexually graphic perfume commercial you’ve ever seen.
A month later, She’s still grieving, so He, a psychologist, decides to take over her therapy and insists she face her fears at the remote cabin. The first hour or so of Antichrist consists of terse “In Treatment”-style exchanges, interspersed with ugly, ominous shots of the woods. One character declares “Nature is Satan’s church,” and at one point a woodland creature snarls “Chaos reigns.” On the surface, von Trier seems to be saying that nature is inherently savage and women, as child-bearers, are closer to nature than men. At one point She, who uses sex as a coping mechanism for her grief, furiously masturbates in the nude at the foot of a gnarled tree. (You can’t say Gainsbourg didn’t earn her Best Actress award at Cannes.) Seldom has cinema showed such raw images of crazed feminine sexuality.
In the film’s final act, She turns on He with inexplicable and stomach-churning acts of violence. Whether von Trier intends viewers to take Antichrist’s misogynistic content at face value is difficult to gauge. As one of the Danish founders of the Dogme 95 filmmaking movement, the director has a reputation for putting his leading ladies through emotional wringers, including Breaking the Waves’ Emily Watson, Dancer in the Dark’s Björk and Dogville’s Nicole Kidman. Given that Antichrist depicts a male control freak forcing a woman to tap into her deepest feelings, He and She’s relationship could represent some aspect of von Trier’s creative process. Antichrist seems like a knowing, humorless exaggeration of his films’ apparent hostility to women.
Dafoe’s intimidating, icy restraint and Gainsbourg’s pendulum swings between internalized despair and unpredictable outbursts compellingly capture the dynamics of spouses divided against each other. Antichrist also features stark, dreamlike photography, including visions of twisted bodies reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch or H.R. Giger. The film’s virtues, however, don’t compensate for the dramatic inertia and ghastly mutilations. For all the talent and effort Antichrist puts on display, the film seems only intended for an audience of one. Any other viewer will feel like a supermasochist.