What makes a film a horror film? Following Bobby’s insightful post on Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), I started thinking about films that take the horror genre as their foundation, but reject the hackneyed conventions that are unconsciously associated with the genre. The first film that sprung to mind was Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). I should state upfront that I am not a fan of von Trier: I don’t particularly like the Dogme 95 movement and, although I eschew applying feminist readings to films, I find his representation of women borderline insulting. Antichrist didn’t change my mind in terms of von Trier’s portrayal of femininity; however, it did reveal a more stylistic and assured approach from the Danish director in contrast to films such as Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000).
Well, I think that this idea that nature might be dangerous is something that has been in almost all my movies. Maybe it’s the nature of man, but this was kind of nature nature…I think the idea of Eden in the film is that it’s a peaceful place to rest. This is the interesting thing, was that I’ve always thought a place like this would be where you would love to spend time, and this would be the most peaceful, romantic place on Earth. The film has to do with the idea that maybe it’s not, but it is a typical place where I could go.
– Lars von Trier
The plot of Antichrist is deceptively simple: following the death of a child, who falls from a window while his parents are making love, the bereaved couple (William Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) retreat to a place called “Eden”. The woodlands setting is supposed to offer the couple a space to heal and to come to terms with the death of their child; however, the natural scenery is used to rupture the division between inside and outside and becomes a threatening presence that exacerbates the couple’s emotions of guilt and profound grief. The play on the symbolism of “Eden”, usually a utopian space of unspoilt beauty, and the ties between womanhood and nature are at the crux of Antichrist’s vision of horror. Are women inherently evil? Does malevolence arise from within or outside the self? These are some of the unanswered philosophical questions that are raised in the film.
More so than any of von Trier’s previous films, Antichrist is cinematically stunning. Although the content is at times repulsive, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle creates a tension between the setting and the film action. “Eden” is framed beautifully, albeit in a rather menacing fashion, and the cinematography provides an excellent contrast to the pain and suffering experienced by Dafoe at the hands of Gainsbourg, and works to destabalise the distinction between beauty and abjectness.
I recently had a conversation with a fellow cinephile in which I admitted that I like to use cinema to push the boundaries of what I find visually acceptable or tolerable. If I hear that a film has scenes that are excessively violent or troubling, I immediately want to watch it. Antichrist does feature scenes that are so intensely graphic that I found that I couldn’t get them out of my mind for weeks after I had viewed them. Some people have hailed Antichrist as a masterpiece while others have deemed it completely gratuitous. I’m not sure exactly where I sit in terms of these polarised views, but I find Antichrist, for all its flaws, a fascinating – and highly disturbing – film that presents important cinematic issues for discussion.