Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist and Shocking Body Horror Films

_Antichrist_'s harrowing scenes of genital mutilation have the power to shock even today's desensitised viewers. Jeremy Allen wonders if the controversy is overshadowing this sophisticated drama. Plus The Quietus collect 10 similarly shocking scenes of body horror.

Click here for our guide to body horror scenes.

For all the hullabaloo it has stoked up, and Lars Von Trier is no stranger to hullabaloos, Antichrist is a movie about grief. It has been well-documented that the filmmaker had been suffering from deep depression when writing the script for this picture, and has threatened that it would be his last. If that were the case, which one suspects isn’t so, then it would stand as a great final testament to an auteur who has teased, provoked and shocked his audiences throughout a distinguished and incomparable career. But unlike a lot of his previous work — like, say, The Idiots, which was obtuse and aimless — Antichrist is a coherent, beautifully honed, beautifully shot and brilliantly crafted exhibition of his talents. Indeed, the opening sequence is uncharacteristically ostentatious for Von Trier: black-and-white, gorgeously stylised and expensive-looking, it sets things up impressively. That the viewer sees penetrative sex in this vignette is mere detail, and the so-called shocking later scenes that have been talked up so much already are just further details in a movie with more profundity than some have given it credit for.

Antichrist examines the relationship between a loving couple who lose their son in a tragic accident, with Willem Defoe as a therapist taking the unusual step of counselling his devastated partner, played intuitively and with great sorrowful depth by Charlotte Gainsbourg. And then of course, there is the nasty stuff. What you are likely to have read concerning female mutilation or sexual violence should surely be taken allegorically; Defoe and Gainsbourg’s relationship should ultimately be the focus of the movie. It should also be noted that, other than the spectre of the little boy, the actors are the only two people seen throughout, making the experience all the more intense. The actors themselves create an unusual intimacy, moving and unsettling.

In many ways the anatomical close-up in which Gainsbourg takes a pair of scissors and removes her own clitoris is gratuitous, and you can’t help feeling Von Trier the prankster and attention seeker just can’t help himself. It could also be argued that when he attempts to play a straight hand with an overt message, like with Dogville, the effects can err towards the soporific. It is a pity though that he has to create a visual spectacle in order to attract rubberneckers along to an arthouse movie that such people would normally cross the street to avoid.

Antichrist raises that familiar question about whether or not audiences can be shocked anymore, and the answer is, of course they can. True, we’ve become somewhat desensitised to predictable sex and violence over the decades, but it just means directors now have to be more creative; there are plenty of moments in movies, mainstream ones, that surprise and in some cases appal. Watching Sacha Baron Cohen’s new comedy Brüno, I was delighted by how courageous (and indeed outrageous) he’s been with sexuality. Though a very British comic in many ways, especially where characterisation is concerned, Baron Cohen has shown flagrant disregard for the great British comedy tradition of innuendo. Certainly you’d not have seen a phallus gyrating like a windmill and the tip of the urethra mouthing words in On The Buses. Watching it in a cosmopolitan bubble like London is one thing, but I’d be interested to gauge the reaction of a cinema full of bumblefucks. Would they behave in a similar way to the wrestling crowd in the film who react so savagely when confronted with two grown men kissing? The ultra-violence in Antichrist may startle (in another scene Willem Defoe gets smashed in the genitals with a sledge hammer, and in another his erect penis ejaculates blood), but it could be argued that a movie like Bruno is far more subversive, in that it challenges the ideas of huge mainstream audiences, and confronts prejudice head on.

If Bruno, in unashamedly confronting homophobia, is working for the forces of good, then Antichrist‘s message appears to be malevolent, and deliberately muddled. It’s not the first time Von Trier, who has a habit of tormenting his female characters, has been accused of misogyny. While many, including the actors themselves, have argued that the movie is not misogynist, I would have to disagree. It’s no coincidence that the place in which the man and woman attempt to free themselves from the bondage of grief is called Eden, and Von Trier the catholic does seem to endorse the Judeo-Christian supposition that women are innately evil. At this point one must ask does it matter? Does it make it a less valid piece of cinema? And because one is more meritorious than the other does it make one automatically a better movie? The answer to each of these questions is a big resounding no.

There is one more important point to be made about shock. People are just as susceptible to thrills as they always were, it’s just that in modern times with vast, ubiquitous 24-hour news and entertainment, cinema goers rarely get the chance to be upended, as media nearly always gets there first. Take a provocative classic like The Crying Game, where everybody now surely knows the character we’re to assume is female will disrobe and reveal a penis. Once the cat is out of the proverbial bag, audiences will be unable to watch with the same openness, the same malleability, forever sabotaging the director’s initial intentions. Where test audiences were beguiled by the unfolding romance, latterday DVD watchers will be looking for the Adam’s apple and big hands.

Antichrist, despite some misgivings, is a beautiful, strange, frightening, heart-juddering and sometimes violent movie, and one which I was lucky enough to see before reading any column inches about it, thus rendering me more open-mouthed than anybody who goes after perusing a bunch of reviews.

Despite his mutterings about retirement, hopefully Von Trier will continue to vex, startle and upset. The biggest shock would be for him to retreat now, after making arguably his finest movie. But then, he always was a contrarian.

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