Notorious across the world of arthouse filmmaking, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is a sinister poem to the brutal horrors of nature, spiked with gory, shocking imagery. Starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the story’s grieving mother and father following the loss of their child, this would mark the first time the co-stars collaborated, appearing again in von Trier’s Nymphomaniac in 2013. Capturing the couple’s harrowing descent into a feral rage with terrifying realism, the collaboration of Dafoe and Gainsbourg is intense, powerfully composed and worthy of more significant recognition.
A striking horror dealing in the grit of the earth and the myth of nature itself, Antichrist is known as a film with a preoccupation with humanity’s relationship with nature and religion, and particularly the dark struggles of individual psychology. Based in a forest named ‘Eden’, it is clear that Lars von Trier wishes to tell an origin story of sorts, of the birth of humanity, of moral choice and of sin.
Considered the first of the director’s ‘Depression Trilogy’, von Trier contemplated the making of the film as being a “fun” way of working through his own depression, with his unflinching approach to the brutality of human relationships providing a fascinating contrast to the beauty of nature’s surroundings. “At the same time that we hang it on our walls over the fireplace or whatever, it represents pure Hell,” von Trier comments about the spectacle of the natural world.
Who better to depict the flawed, wandering beings of von Trier’s hell than Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, a pair of veteran film actors who, in Antichrist, seem welded together exhibiting the torment of grief whilst working as one ethereal entity. The broken couple, suffering from perpetual anguish following the tragic and brutal death of their son, retreat to a cabin in the woods to repair their troubled marriage, only for the power of nature.
Entering into a demonically sacred pact with the natural world, for Dafoe and Gainsbourg, “chaos reigns” as they engage in acts of erotic aggression against each other, manifestations of their own passionate cascade of human emotion. Utterly compelling in the film’s co-lead role, Gainsbourg would win Best Actress at Cannes Film Festival 2009 for her harrowing portrayal of mortal insanity, noting to The Guardian: “It was like doing my first film again…It was like a first experience. I don’t know why: perhaps the way it was shot, and because I revealed myself so much”.
Together, Gainsbourg and Dafoe produce a magnificent performance that facilitates the true horrors of Lars von Trier’s film to come to life, acting as mediums for the director to communicate with the subconscious themes of humanity’s relationship with religion and nature. Speaking to Boston in an interview at the time of the film’s release, Dafoe reveals a fascinating insight into the relationship shared between the co-stars, commenting: “In a funny way I feel very close to Charlotte”. Continuing the actor adds, “We made this film together and we made it in a spirit that we did trust each other. We found an unspoken trust, probably through our fear and confusion and respect for Lars”.
Their relationship is a painful though totally believable one to endure, with their depiction of cavernous grief perhaps the very best ensemble portrayal of the mortal emotion ever put to screen. Though they would later collaborate once more in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, their relationship was not the story’s focal point, and, as a result, cinema could really do with another partnership between Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, two of films’ finest contemporary actors.