A cloud of sensationalism and hyperbole has followed Antichrist around ever since it screened at Cannes in 2009. This is unfortunate as Antichrist is a complicated work that can't be reduced to a goofy catchphrase or a list of shocking scenes. In this regard, The Criterion Collection is the perfect company for the film's home video release. The splendid and respectful presentation emphasizes the film's artistic and technical complexity while pushing aside the sensationalism.
In the film, a couple -- He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) -- are devastated by the accidental death of their son. The experience causes a rift in the marriage and causes She to suffer a mental breakdown. He, who is a psychiatrist, thinks his wife's doctor isn't really helping the situation. He thinks that She's problems are psychosomatic. Like a fool, He decides that the best path to recovery isn't medicine, but an extensive course of therapy in which She confronts her anxieties and fears. The couple travel to a secluded forest cabin -- apocryphally known as Eden -- where She previously worked on an abandoned thesis on misogyny. He's therapeutic plan seems to work . . . until it doesn't.
Antichrist initially points in the direction of a dark psychological thriller or perhaps even a mystery. The opening scene establishes a life-changing event. He and She are then forced to deal with the aftermath. The characterizations are, at first, kind of loose. There is no lengthy back story about their relationship. Over time, details emerge that flesh out the characters' personalities and backgrounds. As the bigger picture slowly evolves, it becomes apparent that Antichrist is actually a horror movie, albeit an extraordinarily artful and crazy one.
Lars von Trier has embraced genre before (e.g., The Kingdom, Element of Crime) but he always uses the format as a platform to express some unorthodox ideas. Antichrist is no different. The film takes a warmed-over genre trope -- a couple in a spooky forest cabin beset by supernatural/inexplicable forces -- and gives it a demented tweak. She becomes fixated with a poisonous idea: what if nature is evil and women, as part of the natural world, are evil as well? If women are inherently evil, what is the depth of their depravity? Is She possessed or is she just projecting her illness onto the world around her? Who knows? von Trier isn't so much concerned with providing answers as he is with following the concept to its most extreme possible conclusion. At times, the imagery is so abstract, grotesque, and over-the-top -- self-immolating fox who speaks, gynecological distress -- as to make one wonder about von Trier's mental health. Indeed, Antichrist was made, at least in part, as an effort to get the director out of a serious psychological hole. It's like watching someone's mind unraveling right before your eyes. Charlotte Gainsbourg has deservedly gained accolades for her performance. However, Willem Dafoe deserves an equal amount of credit. His portrayal of the cool-headed rationalist serves as an anchor that the whole film from becoming completely unhinged.
The film's style should be familiar to those who have followed von Trier's filmography. A few specific influences have been revealed -- Andrei Tarkovsky, who gets a dedication in the end credits, and Roman Polanski -- but direct references to this filmmakers are veiled and not so obvious. Here, von Trier uses digital effects, high-def cameras, high-speed photography, and other techniques to give life to his strange visions. The prologue and epilogue that book end the film are shot in sumptuous black-and-white using high-speed cameras. The film's four chapters are executed in range of shooting styles. Different looks are used within the same scene: rough handheld Dogme 95-style shots appear side-by-side with smooth motion-control camera work. The only constants are the jarring time-cuts and a pathological use of rack focus.
As for the Criterion Blu-Ray, it meets the company's usual high standards. Antichrist was created entirely in the digital domain. It was shot in 4K with two RED cameras in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio; the slow-motion material was shot in 2K using a Phantom high-speed camera. The transfer looks gorgeous on Blu-Ray. The MPEG-4 AVC encoded feature streams at a higher than average 24.96 mbps. The image is filmic and captures the deep shadowy cinemaphotography with precise clarity. There are no artifacts, pixelation or DNR. There are two audio tracks: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0. Those outside of the United States and Canada should note that the disc is Region A encoded.
Ian Christie provides the essay. Extras on the disc include a mix of interviews, commentary, and behind the scenes featurettes. The Charlotte Gainsbourg interview is too long at 44 minutes. The inquiries are generic -- how did you get this role? -- and the answers could have been judicially edited. The interviews with Willem Dafoe and Lars von Trier are comparatively short and equally as informative.
The Zentropa produced featurettes are fascinating. Each of these short pieces cover a major aspect of production, including pre-production, music/sound, and effects. The short film used to test out some of the effects -- Jens Albinus plays He while Marina Bouras plays She -- is also present.
The best extra is the audio commentary with film scholar Murray Smith and von Trier. Smith is given the task of driving the conversation and unintentionally highlights the long-standing divide between critical interpretation and director's intent. He often paints himself into a corner with academically inclined questions that don't leave much room for anything other than "yes" or "no" responses. When von Trier does elaborate, he provides very specific and personal explanations. He isn't afraid to point how faults or things that didn't work as well as he expected. The awkwardness of the interaction and the minimal editing -- every "uh" and awkward pause seems have to be left in -- don't make for easy listening. However, the unexpurgated nature of the commentary is rather refreshing.