It's incredibly easy to dislike Lars von Trier's 'Antichrist,' a film that was almost universally reviled from the word "go." Once it had its premiere at Cannes, with walkouts, catcalls, and an indignant British journalist (caught on video and appearing on this disc for all of prosperity) asking the director to justify making the film, it seemed to be blacklisted amongst "serious" film fans. It was the art house version of 'The Human Centipede,' basically – something you had to see, if only through a web of fingers, enriched, in this case, by a perception of deeply felt misogyny (which certainly isn't aided by von Trier's previous films and reputation for torturing his actresses).
But I think this is giving 'Antichrist' both too much credit and not enough.
The movie starts out strong: Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play a man and woman (identified only as He and She in press materials) who, in the opening sequence, are seen passionately making love. While in the heat of passion, their young child climbs out an open window and plummets to his death. The sequence is a stunning piece of virtuosic filmmaking (aided by 'Slumdog Millionaire' cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle): shot in black-and-white, using a Phantom camera that captures 1000-frames-per-second and slows things down to an infinitesimal crawl (including shots of actual penetration, thanks to some porn star stand-ins).
The couple decides to get away from it all: they retreat to a cabin in the woods called Eden (the symbolism is slathered on rather thick) and try to get through their grief and create a kind of reconciliation. Gainsbourg's character is some kind of vaguely defined academic, while Dafoe is a psychiatrist. She's working on a project about men's perception of women through the ages, while he is working on an even bigger project: trying to get her to cope in a genuine and cathartic way.
Of course, everything goes to hell. The movie devolves, particularly in the last act, into a kind of ragged, go-for-broke horror movie, complete with talking animals, malevolent forces, and Gainsbourg being turned (quite unfairly, in this reviewer's opinion) into a kind of demonic witch who takes her aggression out on her husband and herself, including some gag-worthy scenes of genital mutilation that oscillate between extreme realism and phony, rubber prosthetic fakeness.
Up until it jumps the shark (the infamous scissor moment), the movie stands as a genuinely emotional experience: a portrait of the kind of extreme grief that few movies make an attempt at portraying. With the subtler supernatural elements, the movie begins to resemble two absolutely wonderful films: Andrzjec Zulawski's 'Possession' and my very favorite movie of all time, Nicolas Roeg's 'Don't Look Now.' But then things devolve into messy horror movie clichés, which resolve with some kind of bafflingly misogynistic image of dead women, throughout the ages, coming out of the woods, in a ghostly march.
Those that write it off as exploitation trash are clearly giving the movie too little credit: they're fixating on the artifice and forgetting about the art (not to mention the fine performances by the two leads). And those that claim it's some masterwork of modern cinema are clearly turning a blind eye to the more troubling narrative and thematic elements of the movie.
'Antichrist' is a hard movie to watch, an even harder movie to love, but one that is a hell of a lot of fun to talk about. Because, honestly, how could you not appreciate a movie that was described by gonzo filmmaker John Waters with the following: "If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, this is the movie he would have made."
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Antichrist' is being brought to high definition by the good folks at Criterion, so with that we get the chunkier, see-through plastic case and a spine number - #542. (Just think about the fussy rankling when the high brow folks learn that Criterion, a company known for its vaulted good taste, is putting out a film that made people pass their cookies, if not literally than at very least metaphorically.) There is one 50GB Blu-ray disc, which is Region A locked.
'Antichrist' was shot using the digital RED camera (the same camera that captured 'District 9' and 'The Social Network') and it looks like this MPEG-4 AVC 1080p transfer (aspect ratio: 2.35:1) is a direct-from-digital transfer, so pure is its presentation.
From the accompanying booklet: "The film was shot in 4K resolution with the RED One Digital Camera; in addition, the Phantom HD Camera was used for the high-speed sequences. The entire production was completed in a fully digital workflow. Post-production and color timing were done using Assimilate's SCRATCH and Nucoda's Film Master systems. The final color-corrected DPX files were output to Rec. 709 high-definition color space for Blu-ray release."
What that means is: a whole lot of work went into this transfer. It looks really, really good.
One of the chief concerns of 'Antichrist' is nature, and so this type of immaculate transfer does a great job bringing out the tactile detail of everything involving the Eden sections of the movie – the gnarled trunk of a tree, the matted down hair of the talking fox, and the acorns that tumble out of the tree in slow motion.
Blacks are deep and dark, skin tones look solid and the transfer eloquently reproduces the various stylistic modes von Trier is putting forth – the dreamier sequences have a hazy, blurry look (that's not a deficiency of the transfer), while other things has a crisp, documentary-like realism. The transfer handles both modes quite well and is just a gorgeous, nearly jaw-dropping transfer that always looks "filmic" even if it was shot digitally.
There's really nothing bad to say about this transfer at all.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track (the only one available on the disc) is just as stunning as the visual presentation, for sure.
Again, according to the booklet: "The 5.1 surround soundtrack presented on this release is identical to the theatrical mix. It was remastered at 24-bit from the original digital audio master files using Pro Tools HD."
And boy oh boy, this thing sounds really, really great. While those looking for the crash-smash-bang hallmarks of a truly active surround sound mix will be disappointed, if you're looking for moody, atmospheric sound that is truly enveloping without ever really pushing the surround channels, you should be appropriately impressed.
The score and sound design of 'Antichrist' blurs the line between the two words, with eerie noises turning into atonal musical lines. On this mix, these ideas take on new life and dimension, and if you aren't totally in the 'Antichrist' world by the time you're done listening to this track, you aren't paying attention.
Since the sound design of 'Antichrist' is more impressionistic than anything, you can't really judge the mix on the regular list of sound mix pros and cons, although dialogue does always sound crisp, clear, and well prioritized, and when music does take over (like in the provocative opening sequence), it sounds truly great; overall, a wonderful mix.
There are also English SDH subtitles included.
All the extras presented on this disc are also present on the two-disc DVD set being released concurrently. The 30-page booklet includes photos from the film and an essay called "All Those Things That Are To Die" by Ian Christie, an English academic, critic and author who, among other things, has penned a book on the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
'Antichrist' is definitely a hard movie to watch, both for its extreme content and its occasionally icky thematic intent, but it's still a movie that demands and deserves attention, and with repeated viewings your understanding of the film (and the filmmakers' intent) will likely evolve. With superb audio and video and some truly great supplemental materials, this Blu-ray casts a new light on a film that was booed out of Cannes (but, it should be said, barely made a peep when it showed up stateside). As far as I'm concerned, and as hard as it may be to understand, I consider this disc a must own for any discerning film lover's library. Those that are squeamish or unwilling to look beyond the Grand Guignol flourishes need not apply. At the very least, I recommend you check it out.