The Reputation of Antichrist
Antichrist, a film by the Danish director Lars von Trier, was hugely controversial and divisive as soon as it was released back in 2009. At its center, Antichrist is about a couple dealing with the tragic death of their only son. Besought with grief, the mother begins to undergo therapy at a hospital but the husband, a therapist himself, quickly takes her out of the hospital and decides to treat her himself without the help of drugs. Technically, the film is a horror film but it’s not the kind of film you would necessarily except from that genre. It deals with such themes as the overwhelming power of grief, the nature of humans, and the idea of inherent evil.
I originally intended to write this article intending to discredit the reputation of Antichrist. By reputation, I’m not talking about the film’s reputation amongst critics but instead I’m referring to the reputation the film has amongst people that haven’t actually even seen it. However, after re-watching the film last night, I feel like I need to rethink my strategy
My First Experience
I remember being one of those people who hadn’t seen the film but had heard horror stories about the graphic and disturbing content in the film. I never really heard specifics but, as it so often is, the less you know, the scarier it is (thanks to the wondrous powers of imagination). It was, without a doubt, a film whose reputation strongly preceded it and I had basically made up my mind that I wouldn’t ever watch it. But then I did… And a funny thing happened: I loved it. For the next couple of days, I found myself constantly asking people whether they’d seen it and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority of people reacted with a resounding “ewwwww” followed by a “no, I haven’t seen it”. I found myself thinking that these people had a false perception of the film…
My first experience watching this film happened at around 3am at a friend’s house while we were both in a slightly dazed mindset, this being a result of the night’s alcoholic beverages and the fact that it was 3 in the fucking morning. In some respects though, it felt like the perfect way to watch it because, despite the frequent breaks to go out for a smoke or to make another drink, I found myself, in my dazed state, feeling entranced by the visuals of the film… And the funniest and most unexpected thing was that what really got to me during the first experience was not the graphic content, but the undeniably beautiful shots sprinkled throughout the film. There are shots within this film that resemble paintings in their breathtaking, stylized imagery and very minimal usage of motion; they feature a lone character slowly drifting through the scenery like a beautiful spirit. These shots, in their breathtaking beauty, were so unexpected and so captivating that they were what stuck with me most during that first viewing. I soon found myself thinking that the truth about the disturbing content of the film had been exaggerated to the extent that, in the eyes of most, the film was unwatchable. Yet I had watched it. I had survived. And I had been entranced.
In writing this article, my initial idea was to tell people “don’t let the reputation of this film scare you off from watching it because the disturbing content is really not that bad”. However, upon my second viewing of the film, I feel it’s not quite that simple anymore…
My Second Experience
I re-watched this film last night, only two weeks after I had first seen it and this was an altogether different experience. This time, I watched it by myself, I watched it sober, and I watched it at around 10pm. I shut myself into my own room, turned off the lights, and let myself sink into the film without having any breaks or distractions. Once again, I found myself being captivated by the film, though it was a rather different kind of captivation. The beautiful images still entranced me, yet the eeriness of them was much more pronounced this time around. The violent imagery was far more disturbing and the subtle horrors of the situation far more visible. By the end of the film, I found myself feeling exhausted and drained yet I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t sleep for quite a while afterwards. As I lay in bed unable to sleep, I realized that my opinion of the film had, in some respects, changed.
Should You Watch It?
To an extent, what you’ve heard about this film holds true: it is a film with some highly disturbing and violent imagery. Some people have deemed many of these scenes to be unnecessary and exploitive; Lars von Trier doesn’t hold back and, in the eyes of some, he probably even goes further than he needs to. On the other hand, I find myself wondering whether the film would work as well without these scenes. And this is what brings me to my main point about this film: yes, there are disturbing shots throughout this film yet the reputation of this film has led many to focus simply on that aspect of the film. In the eyes of many who haven’t actually seen the film, they think only of the grotesque imagery and I feel that is a disservice to the film itself. Grotesque visuals alone would not have been enough to get me to feel the way I did after watching Antichrist for the second time. The repulsive visuals certainly are present and effective, but the film on the whole works because of the things around the grotesque visuals which are handled expertly by von Trier and the cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantel. Yes, there are some truly horrific scenes in this film that are difficult to watch; there were actually two scenes in this film that I pretty much refused to re-watch. However, in addition to the visually horrific scenes, he also uses a lot of more subtle techniques such as breaking several rules of cinema to create the sense of unease. It is really through their expert mixing of the beautiful and the horrific, the explicit and the subtle, and the fantastic with the mundane, that makes his film get under your skin.
In the end, my original thesis stands to a certain extent: don’t let the reputation of this film scare you off from watching it but do be aware that there actually is some truth to its reputation. The falsehood comes from the belief that this is all that there is to Antichrist when it clearly isn’t. If you can stomach some disturbingly graphic and sexual scenes, you’ll find a film that, while punishing you with sickening content, it also rewards you with beautiful imagery and a haunting atmosphere. At this point, I think it’s safe to say that I’m still digesting this film and I’m not even sure I fully understand it yet. In some respects, I’m still grappling with the idea whether a certain scene or two were really necessary or not… In saying this, I’m not even sure whether the film will work as well for you as it did for me… However, at the very least, it is a film that will demand you talk about it with others and, for me, that is one of the best things I can ever say about a film. You won’t forget it anytime soon.