Edinburgh International Film Festival

Antichrist (2009)

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg

Directed by: Lars von Trier

Rating: 1 2 3 4

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe in Lars von Trier's Antichrist

Contains strong real sex scenes, bloody violence and self-mutilation. So warned the Edinburgh International Film Festival website, and several notices placed at strategic intervals on the way into the cinema. If I wasn't severely traumatized by the end of this movie, I wanted my money back.

But in fact Antichrist is a far more complex, disturbing and sexually graphic film than I could ever have imagined.

When a nameless couple lose their young son, the therapist husband (Willem Dafoe) attempts to help his wife through the grieving process by forcing her to confront her deepest fear: the woods surrounding a ramshackle holiday cabin in an isolated spot called Eden. But it quickly becomes clear that her increasing paranoia and anxiety began long before their son's death.

Willem Dafoe in Antichrist

Like a cross between Don't Look Now and Evil Dead, with a dash of Misery and a large dose of Danish pretentiousness thrown in, Antichrist is a really quite extraordinary film, combining boldly explicit sex scenes, that express more about the characters' state of mind than any amount of dialogue, with a gnawingly uncomfortable sense of encroaching nature (very) red in tooth and claw, classic horror tropes like the attic full of satanic images and deranged manuscripts, unspeakably brutal (but never gratuitous) violence and some truly awesome cinematography, with gorgeous slow-mo, eerie distortions of the screen and creepy tracking shots entrancing and unnerving in equal measure.

If Antichrist had been released in the '80s, it would have been banned as a video nasty. But to write it off as sexed-up cruelty would be to do it a great disservice. The film pivots around the powerful theme of male versus female, logic and reason versus passion and emotion. Willem Dafoe is the cold voice of rationality, but he can barely be heard above the raving hysteria of his wife. Yet far from being misogynistic, this is a film that highlights, to terrifying effect, the dangers of a culture so deeply rooted in paternalistic beliefs in the dichotomy between evil, crazy woman and saintly, rational man that women themselves have internalized this way of thinking and come to hate themselves to the point of self-mutilation.

Mostly, then Antichrist is a cinematic tour de force, structurally and stylistically brilliant and featuring superb, brave performances from Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. However, it is marred by an occasional wearisome sense of its own importance and the odd howling absurdity (the manky 'fox of panic' that looks like Basil Brush being an obvious example). But, dark, intense, compelling and deeply unsettling, like A Clockwork Orange or The Exorcist, this is a film that will mark your soul. If all you want is a scare, I suggest you go see Drag Me To Hell instead, because you may not want that mark there.

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