Lars Von Trier directs "AntiChrist", a film comprised of six clear segments.
Prologue: Whilst a husband and wife have sex at home, their toddler climbs out a window and falls to his death. In the film, the husband is a therapist and is known simply as He. Similarly, the wife is a researcher into the history of witchcraft and is known simply as She. Note: He is played by Willem Dafoe, who famously portrayed Jesus Christ in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ".
Chapter one (Grief): She collapses at her child's funeral and is hospitalised. He takes over her treatment, believing that He can cure her with the miracles of Science. His theory is that she must "re-live her deepest fears". She says she associates fear with Eden, a cabin in the woods where she spent the previous summer trying to finish her dissertation on "Gynocide" (the killing of women). The duo travel to Eden (the Biblical cradle of mankind) and hike through the woods. He sees a deer whose stillborn fawn is still partly contained in its womb. At this stage, Mother and Child, Nature and Woman, aren't yet at war.
Chapter two (Pain): He directs her in therapeutic exercises. "I understand that everything beautiful is perhaps hideous," she says. "All things cry, all things die." Out walking, He sees a wounded fox which speaks: "chaos reigns."
Chapter three (Despair): He discovers that She was deliberately injuring their child. Why? He confronts her. She knocks her husband unconscious, batters his genitals, masturbates him, and bolts a lathe wheel onto his leg. He manages to crawl into a foxhole where he finds an injured bird. It is unable to fly, he is unable to walk, both creatures bound to the land. Hands reach out from the Earth, man and nature re-embrace.
Chapter four (The Three Beggars): It is revealed that she was watching their son as he climbed up to the window. She let the kid die. She mutilates her own genitals with scissors. Her scream alerts the deer, fox, and bird, which come to the cabin. Seeing Him about to extract the wheel, she stabs him. He fights back, strangles her, and burns her corpse on a pyre. A modern man of science becomes a medieval witch hunter.
Epilogue: He limps away from Eden. Human bodies litter the landscape. He watches a host of women, their faces smudged, climb up a wooded hillside. Film ends.
Confused? Bergman on cocaine, "AntiChrist" is essentially the result of director Lars Von Trier's very public rejection of religion (which followed a prolonged bout of depression). An act of embracing a certain existential hopelessness, the film also sees Von Trier penalising himself for all the "wrongs" of Catholicism. In this regard, the film calls itself anti-Christ because it is broadly against Christ, Willem Dafoe becoming a collapsed version of pseudo-science and Christianity who is symbolically castrated and turned over to a hostile world in which Nature, wild and vicious, becomes the atheist's new Godhead. Von Trier then fetishizes his newfound pessimism (the ugly cruelty of nature, vagina, birth, death etc), the Godhead - more Satan than Saviour - symbolically sodomising the holy child back out of Mary whilst faceless women are resurrected from the very bowels of the Earth.
Everything is now wrong and we are already in hell. Nature has revealed itself as the relentlessly cruel, profoundly disgusting and indifferent monster it always was. Human nature is even worse, and women are as disturbed and disturbing as anything because they are nature embodied, able to create, bound to the cosmic cycles of menstruation, pregnancy and birth. Discovering this leads the wife to self hatred, self-mutilation and infanticide. Destroy the penis and the vagina and end the spread of Satan's church. Like Godard's masterpiece, "Hail Mary", Von Trier's women perceive themselves as being controlled, raped and duped by a Nature which does nothing but inscribe its will upon all bodies. She tries to fight back, to kill her child, but it's futile. You do not belong to "yourself". Everything about you is contingent upon the Beast.
The film is graphic, but more so for the paradoxes it raises. Men find it hard to reconcile the comforting warmth of the vagina with the monstrosity it becomes at birth. Menstration is itself now ambiguous, the regular heavy flow of blood stymied by a world of plastic bags, sanitized hospitals, air fresheners and pre-cooked meat. Female nature is likewise experienced in a bizarre, almost entirely individualised way. Biology, sex, defecation, in their raw and visceral states, have receded back into the realm of the private and the professionally managed. Eyes are shut. Doors are closed.
When the couple are later kept awake by acorns falling on the roof of the cabin, She tells Him that it takes a hundred years for an oak to reproduce itself just once. The tragedy of the only child dying is the fear of the modern age. Less than a century ago, over-investment in any given child would potentially be a massive waste of time - far better to churn them out and hope that some survive. Nature: brutally pragmatic.
"Antichrist" is not, however, straightforwardly an anti-Christian film. It is a heretical film in the Gnostic non-tradition. There is no hope, no salvation, no righting of order, a fact which brought about a profound state Antonioni-like depression in Lars Von Trier. But Despair, Grief and Pain (the 3 encountered animals), as Dafoe's character points out, don't even exist. There is no separating the natural from the unnatural, right from wrong, life from death.
7.5/10 – "Blair Witch Project" with a sprinkling of Herzog, Antonioni, Bergman and Dreyer, "Antichrist" fails to both produce a new mythology of despair or even horror. Of course its scenes of mutilation and have a visceral power, but this is cheaply achieved. Worth two viewings.