I went to see this now-notorious film on its first showing in the UK, as part of the Curzon Soho’s ‘Midnight Movie’ strand on 10 July. This would-be club of bright and brash semi-demi-mondaines seemed a slightly odd choice as the first spectators of what was already billed, since its divisive Cannes premiere, as strong meat: before the film started a couple of pleasant characters turned up to tell us that the club’s next cinematic extravaganza would be some sort of mash-up of the films Blue Velvet and Pretty in Pink (and we were all expected to come in our best eighties finery).
Antichrist began with a massive turn-off, as far as I was concerned: a section billed as the ‘Prologue’, in slow-motion, super-detailed, high-contrast black and white (or silver, even), with a counter-tenor singing a melancholy Handel aria on the soundtrack. Pure late-80s advert territory, in other words. A couple have a shower, then sex in the shower, then sex in a bed: there’s a momentary hardcore insert of a rod-like penis getting up close and personal between a pair of thighs. (Don’t remember that bit from the adverts.) In a room in the same flat a small boy ponderously gets out of bed and takes a tumble out of a bedroom window with his teddy bear. Not sure if the teddy survives; the little boy evidently does not, and seeps black blood all over the pavement. Then we’re into Part One (as the home-made-looking titles inform us), and colour, and the amorous gentleman from the Prologue, none other than Willem Dafoe, is looking in on the boy’s coffin as the hearse it is in moves slowly towards the cemetery. Dafoe seems tremendously upset, as why would he not be, while his wife, Charlotte Gainsbourg, is more impassive; but it is she who faints dead away, to awaken in a hospital bed, a month later, accused by her doctor of grieving inappropriately. Dafoe, a therapist of some kind, is impatient with the (unseen) doctor, thinks he can do better, and whisks Gainsbourg back home. Once there she bangs her head against the toilet bowl (eliciting the first of many groans from the audience) and rubs her bare arse against Dafoe until he is forced to have sex with her, after which he exclaims, with some annoyance, ‘This won’t do’ (which elicited the first guffaw of the evening). As the film’s rather striking poster image – the couple having sex (again) against a massive tree, with arms coming out of holes in the trunk – suggests that we will eventually find ourselves in the countryside, this enforced period in their flat goes on a bit. Finally Dafoe reckons that he has discovered the thing that most frightens Gainsbourg – their country cottage, unpretentiously named Eden – so off they go. Now we’re into Part Two, and the cinematography, which has never been less than impressive, becomes remarkable. (The film is technically very admirable throughout, even in the black and white bits I couldn’t stand.) Gainsbourg, though still suffering, seems more at home in the woods than Dafoe, who is troubled by images both of nature and unnature: these reach their climax with a fox, apparently gnawing at its own innards, who turns to Dafoe and out of the blue says ‘Chaos reigns’. (Fewer people laughed at this than might have been expected.) At this point von Trier and his director of photography have established the sort of atmosphere that makes it possible to believe exactly that (although by the most unchaotic of means, naturally enough). As Part Three arrives Gainsbourg, who has occasionally been very affecting in her grief, seems to have recovered, but her sorrow is replaced by something else: a guilt (the reason for which is revealed very late in the film, with a rerun of that black and white nonsense from the start) which feeds into work she was doing for a thesis on the punishment of women in the middle ages. She begins to feel that women, in fact, should be punished, and by her extreme actions makes it impossible for Dafoe to prevent himself punishing her. These actions involve the various assaults on genitals both male and female which have given the film its notoriety, and which were responsible for numerous groans and a few walk-outs at this showing. In the end there is a death, and a curious coda in which the earth seems literally alive with women.
Although the film has caught the imagination of our tremendously smug and lazy cultural commentators, to the extent that it has almost become a water-cooler subject amongst certain media types, it’s not so different from a number of grisly-but-arty horror films that the French, in particular, have recently taken delight in inflicting on us: Haute Tension, Calvaire, Inside, Martyres, all played with commendable poker faces by actors known (Béatrice Dalle, Cécile de France, Laurent Lucas) and unknown (the unfortunate young women of Martyres). To some extent the film also feels like that virtuosic joke in very bad taste, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (another hyped-up scandal of its time). von Trier gets his usual committed performances from his two actors – though, curiously, while part of what they do requires them (especially Gainsbourg) to be physically very exposed, he makes use of their shared capacity, seen in many of their other performances, for shutting themselves off emotionally. Or perhaps they just have rather unreadable faces. Whatever, we never get inside their heads, and that may well be von Trier’s point. After all, if this is a horror film (and I suspect it is), how much internalising do you want?