I took notes during the first Cannes press screening of Lars von Trier’s new film Antichrist but I don’t have them in front of me right now. I don’t need them. This movie is many things: shocking, troubling, angry, maybe even a little funny (though I’m still not sure whether the laughs are intentional or not). But it is not forgettable. Is it a success? Is it a train wreck? Who knows. Maybe it’s a successful train wreck, caused by a conductor who saw a car stalled on the tracks in front of him and willfully chose not to hit the brakes.
To some degree, to read about this movie before you see it is to ruin it. Make no mistake: the imagery and content of this film would be shocking in any context. It is a movie about insanity that is itself batshit insane. But part of its reception here sprung from the way in which the movie completely blindsided people. Already Antichrist is becoming a part of Cannes legend — I heard two different stories today about people fainting at screenings — which means no one will ever get to see this movie the way that first audience got to see it. And once you know a film is quote-unquote shocking, and watch it with that expectation, you’ve changed the viewing experience. It’s the difference between walking into an ambush and walking to the gallows.
But you want to know more anyway, I take it. The story involves an unnamed married couple, first met having sex in a scene that feels like a cross between a porn film and a cologne ad: hardcore money shots mingle in a sea of black-and-white slo-motion, snow falling, water droplets flying, bodies humping. With their baby monitor on mute, the pair — played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg — don’t hear their infant sneaking out of his crib, or climbing onto the windowsill where he slips and plummets to his death. Sometime later, Dafoe, a therapist by trade, decides to ween Gainsbourg off the medication her doctor has prescribed for her grief. Despite Dafoe’s constant, slightly prickish counseling, her condition worsens and she begins to experience wild panic attacks that he eventually attributes to a fear of “nature.” That leads the couple to their remote cabin in the woods, where Dafoe plans to make Gainsbourg confront her anxieties. Though they call their secluded second home “Eden,” the place is ludicrously ominous even before Dafoe encounters a wounded fox snacking on its own innards and growling “Chaos reigns!” From there, as the press notes put it, “things go from bad to worse.” And worse would involve a variety of graphic sex and violence, and eventually a gruesome fusion of the two to mirror the tragic opening.
Though the film’s first hour contained some of the most disturbingly powerful images of anything I’d seen this year at the festival, everything is prologue for the brutally gory ending, one that I heard fellow critics liken after the screening to everything from I Spit on Your Grave to Un Chien Andalou. Both comparisons seem apt; if you like your experimental art films with just a wee bit of sexual horror, look no further. Maybe von Trier thought the only way to approximate the pain suffered by the characters on screen was to assault the audience with some of the most graphically unsettling images imaginable. Or maybe he just thought making 2300 stuffy rich people in tuxedos all gasp at the same time would be a great laugh.
And I’ll be honest here: I really don’t know. Based on my conversations with others here in Cannes, it seems nobody really does. Maybe von Trier doesn’t either: in the press notes, he basically says as much, confessing scenes “were added for no reason. Images were composed free of logic or dramatic thinking,” (though he does add “I am very happy about this film and the images in it. They come out of an inspiration that’s real to me. I’ve shown honesty in this project.”). As for his expectations about the festival? The director says, “The audience in Cannes is usually pretty open. What isn’t done? Fucking?” I don’t think it’s the fucking people objected to; so much as being fucked with. The audience won’t forget that anytime soon, either.