I screened Lars Von Trier’s new film Antichrist a few nights ago in bed, on my iPod touch (insert slightly guilty shrug), while my wife slept beside me. Throughout most of the running time, but particularly during the first 20 minutes or so, I felt her angrily kicking me in the hip to halt my distracting giggles. For all that has been written about this film so far, and Von Trier’s characteristically self-destructing demeanor at Cannes, I feel compelled to point out one thing: Antichrist is undoubtedly a comedy, and one of the funniest I’ve seen in a long, long while. Much, much funnier than Von Trier’s misfire The Boss of it All. If this film was indeed intended as a solution to crippling depression, I can’t imagine a better project.
But labels can be problematic. What attributes qualify a film as a “comedy”? I suppose I’m using the term at its loosest, to simply identify a work of narrative art that is intended to provoke laughter. There’s the need, however, to also state that this isn’t an overt satire — aside from the masterly opening sequence, an illuminated pointillist gag on jewelery commercials (complete with operatic score) where the two main characters graphically fuck while the product of prior fucking plummets to his icy grave. The film isn’t precisely a parody, either (though some have pointed to the mystic gore of Dario Argento as a target), nor is it that most oxymoronic of subgenres, self-aware camp. Antichrist is an experiment in gnostic extremism, both a ravenous comment on and a grimacing departure from earlier Von Trier works (most notably Breaking the Waves, a similarly grim tale of disheveled distaff sacrifice), as well as something of a portrait of endurance. Dreamy, brutal scenarios float by, softly bumping into one another without much thematic connection — there’s a story about a couple coping with the freakish death of their son, but the methods of “making peace” depicted herein are like a snarling “fuck off” to KÃ¼bler-Ross. The man, played by Willem Dafoe, attempts to force his vaguely scholar wife, Charlotte Gainsbourg, to confront her self-implicating psychosis, but she slowly begins to embody her fears rather than dismissing, or even succumbing, to them. Dafoe also gets his testicles crushed, his leg drilled, and member stroked to a thick, frothy, crimson orgasm. Get the joke? Maybe you have to have been there…
What makes the film *powerfully* funny, however, is the way that Von Trier cultivates a nebulously creepy tone between the laughter. There’s a reverential fear of the natural world pulsing from the film’s core (an appropriate topic for a decidedly technological artform) that seems a daring continuation of Von Trier’s ob-gyn nightmares from the brilliant miniseries The Kingdom — stillborn foals, talking foxes and impossibly resilient ravens worm subcutaneous anxieties into us without ever seeming bombastically evil (as with most of the film’s milieu there’s something a few ticks from normal about them that’s off-putting). Von Trier even fashions these dainty natural curiosities as Grimm-like entities. Under Gainsbourg’s fever they assume the tripartite “Satanic” avatar of “The Three Beggars”: which sounds a bit like unnervingly grotesque characters from a Medieval woodcut print. The guffaws here are more like nervous subterfuge, but rather than using such faint elements of damnation as mere foreshadowing, Von Trier has no qualms about revealing our greatest fears for harmless wildlife; it’s our loved ones, under the influence of confusion, that pose the most intense threat, and the impartial horror of ecology moves at its own pace, on a parallel timeline.
Antichrist isn’t too likely to win Von Trier new fans — those who already find him needlessly sadistic and misogynist will find much for their antipathetic dissertations here. But for those of us who have often wondered how a Danish film director could inexplicably have access to our most curiously severe imaginative content, Antichrist is, as with the best of Von Trier’s oeuvre, the therapeutic movie of the year. But don’t get too excited about playing analysand to Von Trier’s bespectacled doctor; he challenges perversions with merciless barbs, and — in Antichrist especially — they aren’t all for the patient’s benefit.