if you go down to the woods today you’re in for a big surprise

Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)

A grieving, traumatised couple go off to stay in a log cabin in deep, dark woods, miles away from any amenities or civilisation. They’re just asking for it, aren’t they?

I should say that I’m not very familiar with Trier’s work. I saw Dancer in the Dark when it came out, but I wasn’t really into cinema then and I think I dismissed it as propaganda and suffering-porn. However, Charlotte Gainsbourg has had a pretty good track record recently (Lemming, Golden Door) and I was made curious by all the fuss. I may draw the line at Bruno, but this blog isn’t going to be terribly interesting if I just watch the same 60s films by the same directors all the time…

Anyway, I digress. I felt that Antichrist might be drawing on certain texts that you need to know to get the full picture, and which I didn’t. People have mentioned Nietzsche and the dedicatee, Tarkovsky, neither of whom I’ll be tackling on Mastermind any time soon. I don’t know my Bible terribly well either, which is unlikely to help. I definitely thought of Brueghel a few times.

People have also muttered darkly about misogyny. But my stab in the dark, which according to the director is a valid as anyone’s, is that he doesn’t much like the therapist or his new religion of analysis. The therapist digs merrily away like a boy given a sandpit in Fred West’s garden; he excavates deeper and deeper, getting in way over his head, determined to get to the core of the matter. Warning signs are shrugged off, he ain’t afraid of no ghost. Doing so unleashes demons he hasn’t bargained for and cannot control. 

At a critical moment towards the end, he’s trying to hide in a fox hole. He lights a match to look around him, and sees a fluttering shape. It’s a sleeping crow. He prods and disturbs it, it wakes, starts screeching, and gives away his hiding place. Seemed significant.

The film is split into a prologue, four chapters and an epilogue. Like Pasolini’s Salo, each new chapter is announced by a title screen which makes your stomach lurch a little; if the last bit was that bad, what are we in for next? It’s like the dread you experience on a tranquil stretch of a rollercoaster ride.


The prologue and epilogue are the only parts with music; a nice soothing Handel, with tinkling harpsichords and a fat lady singing. The images shot in a lush, bluish black & white and everything moves in the slowest slow-mo. It’s terribly stylised. Late one night, He (Dafoe) and She (Gainsbourg) are having sex. The slow-motion makes Gainsbourg’s gaping mouth look all the more ecstatic. As they fuck their toddler climbs out of his cot, passes the open door of their room, climbs onto a desk and, teddy bear in hand, jumps out and glides, slo-mo, to his death. Close-up of snowflakes landing on the teddy bear. Don’t Look Now, Secret Ceremony, so far we’re on a well-trodden path.

One month later, She is in hospital and the doctors are keeping her zonked out with a cocktail of various pills. He is a therapist who disapproves of these doctors, thinks he could do better, and wants his wife back. She comes home, flushes her pills down the lav and submits to his treatment.

Dafoe’s character is trying to do right by his wife and is probably a decent bloke, but we sense that his unshakeable certainty sets him up for a bit of a fall. He is Dawkins-ish and rather annoying. His insistence on the primacy of “rational thought” leaves no room for any sense of mystery in the workings of the world. Also, we wonder about the wisdom of being your own wife’s therapist; won’t it blur a few boundaries? Something slightly incestuous about it? “You were never interested in me before. But now I’m your patient”, she complains.

As she works through the enormous grief and guilt, Gainsbourg wants quite a lot of sex to calm her down. But, she’s told, you can’t sleep with your therapist- unless he can’t find any other way to stop you smashing your forehead against the toilet bowl, that is. Dafoe sees the sex as a sticking plaster, but is determined to pull out the tumor and repeatedly asks his wife what her greatest fear is. The only things that comes to her are the woods where their log cabin, tellingly called Eden, is located. She and the child spent the summer there without hubby, as she wrote her thesis.

He tells her to visualise herself in Eden, walk in the woods and lie down on the plants and foliage. We see her do this in her mind’s eye, her body slowly turning green as she merges withe the grass. It’s very dreamlike and it looks good. When they go to Eden itself, however, it’s all jerky handheld shots and stock horror film stuff. There’s mist everywhere, the bare trees look malevolent, their branches like daggers, they’re walking to their isolated cabin with huge backpacks, etc.

The therapy sessions are making Dafoe more of a dad than a partner. But at night, it’s Gainsbourg who is the cool head and Dafoe who panics. There’s a constant rattle from the oak trees shedding acorn onto the roof of the cabin. One morning, Dafoe wakes with a hand dangling out the window and is horrified to see it covered in white lichen. The sessions continue and he scribbles countless pyramids, trying to work out what sits at the top of her hierarchy of fears. Satan? Nature? Herself?

Dafoe keeps digging and finds some difficult home truths about what happened in the woods last summer. A series of Polaroids show that Gainsbourg had been putting her son’s shoes on the wrong feet every day. A rummage through the attic reveals her unfinished thesis, about the torture and murder of innocent women in the middle ages. The handwriting gets progressively messier and more infantile. Period prints and sketches of torture line the walls. She’s obsessed with a fictitious constellation called The Three Beggars, represented by a fox, crow and deer.


These three animals confront Dafoe in turn. On arrival in the woods, he spots a deer and silently approaches it. There’s a dead baby deer dangling from its womb/pouch. Later, he’s telling Gainsbourg how well she’s responding when a small dead animal, covered in ants, falls from the trees. A crow swoops down to carry it away and eat it. The same crow gets him into trouble later. Then, when CG runs off in a sulk, he encounters a fox pulling out its own innards. The fox gazes up and tells him, “Chaos reigns”. The three animals enter the cabin at the end too. Their significance remains oblique and we wonder if Trier’s having a laugh.

The therapy is steered into discussion of Gainsbourg’s thesis, and it seems that something snaps in her- here comes the misogynist bit. She confesses that the more research she did, the more she agreed with the religious zealots who punished women for being wicked by nature. She gets cross when Dafoe refuses to hit her in bed (“You don’t love me”), and runs outside to lie by the trees and finger herself. In this Savonarola mode, she comes out with some good lines; “A crying woman is a scheming woman”.

Then we lurch into all the gore, and the scenes that everyone is talking about. Ok, the film makes no bones about operating within the horror genre. You could argue a convincing enough case that what happens is a logical conclusion to all the sexual hang-ups and punishment fixation. But something about the gore felt cheap and cynical. We all felt a bit sick and had to look through our fingers; and yes, that sensation is probably enough to send most of an audience home happy. It bypassed the brain to hit us in the gut, and it was a bit like Gainsbourg wanting her fix of how’s-yer-father to get her over the next funny turn.

Gainsbourg doesn’t come out of psychotic mode again. Dafoe enquires, gingerly, “Did you want to kill me?” and is told “No, not yet. The three beggars aren’t here yet.” Whether through self-defence, or as admission that his cure has failed, he kills her by strangulation. It takes an age, Gainsbourg lays on the full death rattle with the tongue sticking out, giving an echo of her face in the opening sex scene. The epilogue has Dafoe limping towards civilisation; Handel and the glossy photography again. Thousands of faceless women emerge in the forest, and walk past him. Don’t ask me.

Most likely the ambiguity is deliberate. Trier may be stamping over consecrated ground, but I got the feeling that he’s a good Catholic boy at heart. If you really want to see a film that’ll make you think a bit about evil and nature and religion and men and women, you could do far worse. If you really want to see Charlotte Gainsbourg cut her clit off with a pair of rusty scissors, you probably need to get out a bit more.


3 Responses to “if you go down to the woods today you’re in for a big surprise”

  1. 1 pete um
    July 30, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    Great stuff man. Hope someone pays for those words one day (not meant to sound sinister).

  2. 2 Jamie
    July 30, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    Cheers Pete, your enjoyment is payment enough!

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