Lars von Trier’s film Antichrist is a haunting experience that probes at the nature of human primarily through mise-en-scène. The story is a simple one that uses a lot of visual components to parallel the story of Adam and Eve, otherwise the two are nothing alike: a woman goes into a deep and frightening depression following the negligent death of her son. Antichrist is a very personal story to von Trier because it came out of his own incapacitating depression and anxiety. Von Trier explores the nature of human in three chapters: grief, pain, and anxiety, and comes down neither on the side of salvation nor damnation, but ultimately of chaos reining. The prologue and epilogue of the film are the most visually compelling and are the only two chapters of the film that aren’t bleak and miserable; non-diegetic opera orchestrates a beautiful sequence of slowed down black and white shots where Willem Defoe’s unnamed character has sex with Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character while their son climbs out of his crib and falls out the window. Von Trier’s beautiful depiction of lovemaking is match-cut with the child’s innocence and curiosity as he climbs up onto the windowsill. The most powerful shot of the sequence puts the child in the foreground peering at the open window while his parents have sex in the background. Even when the child falls to his death, the snow register’s so peacefully on film and the mood remains very serene. Immediately following is when the film spirals into a hellish landscape of the human psyche, reverting to a crude Dogme 95/French New Wave style of shooting for the chaotic feel, which becomes thematic.
Defoe’s character is a psychologist, and through him von Trier channels Freudian solutions to the imagery of the film. Defoe even sketches a pyramid symbolic of the psyche to get to the root of his wife’s depression, concluding that it’s nature (the woods). At this point, von Trier photographs nature in the woods in a terrifying way. When his wife first comes off the anti-depressants, von Trier zooms into the stems of flowers in a vase of water so far that the image becomes a frightening and contemptible omen of bad things to come. Later, von Trier uses a dizzying shot of the woods intercut periodically with a few frames of a demonic face superimposed into the woods to depict the further descent into this inward Freudian landscape. Gainsbourg’s character even witnesses a baby bird falling out of a nest and getting eaten by a hawk, an obvious visual parallel hearkening back to the beginning of the story. Just when it seems to Defoe (and the viewer) that nature is indifferent and can’t hurt us, acorns violently hail down on the roof--and in Defoe’s dream, he stands helplessly as they plunk him in the head. Animals are used symbolically as harbingers of the different stages of depression. Von Trier photographs a deer halfway through giving birth, a fox eating itself as another tells Defoe “Chaos reins,” and a dead crow that caws and caws no matter how hard Defoe beats it in the head. These are all terrifying images that lend to the theme of chaos in nature.
There’s a trick in the writing where nature (the woods) becomes synonymous with human nature, and that’s when the film gives way to graphic sexual violence as neither character is in control of their actions anymore. The woman confronts the solitude of human nature, screaming for her husband in a dense fog while he hides, terrified of her. When all three symptoms of her depression coalesce (the deer symbolizing grief, the fox symbolizing pain, and the crow symbolizing anxiety--converge), she loses all control and buries her husband alive. The very way von Trier photographs the cabin in the woods is symbolic of the lonely summer that she spent with her son while she worked on her thesis (where she came to the conclusion that men have a history of misogyny because women are inherently evil). Here we see the parallels between von Trier’s imagery and depictions in textbooks of medieval torture. The movie concludes with a provoking shot of Dafoe strangling his wife because she is imploding and believes in her core that she deserves pain and death for allowing her son to die, or perhaps for the more base reason of existing in the first place. Von Trier is a striking visual storyteller, and he accomplishes a masterpiece on the bleak chaos of human nature through mise-en-scène.