Where to begin with this one? It’s harsh. Real harsh, but not to say unwatchable, in fact somewhat the opposite. It’s harsh as it needs to be to express the full emotion of the characters who are troubled with grief, pain and despair. The film centres around the loss of a toddler and the emotions dealt with by his parents who spend the rest of the film in a cabin in the woods for therapeutic reasons. He (Willem Dafoe) is a psychiatrist who controls his grief with rationale and intellect. His wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is chosen as his project, to fix and mend through this traumatic time. The two characters become symbols of extreme emotion. Her’s emphasising all things natural, earth like, dangerous and un-expecting, with her own grief central. Dafoe’s character detached from the actual loss of a son, focusing on the pain which his wife is feeling, soaking up anguish without expressing any kind of grief. This leads to violent random attacks from Gainsbourg which are vicious, sexual and extremely disturbing in places, as we find that her character is not a victim of circumstance and in fact has been a bit crazy all along. At one point, early on, she draws blood from Dafoe’s chest, who reacts calmly and expectantly.
But what makes this film stand out from the rest is Von Trier’s dedication of taking a situation and placing it in a realm very few would dare to go. Generating and capturing raw energy from two fine actors, each highly encased in their own focused emotional trait. On top of this is the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle whose work is breathtaking and beautiful.
Throughout the film we are offered subtle symbols which help carry the piece through visuals and connotations. The Three beggars in the form of a fox, deer and bird are embodiments of Grief, Pain, and Despair, also represented earlier as three toy soldiers and also as the mother, father and child. The fox at one point, appears to be dead and rotting, turns to Defoe and speaks, ‘Chaos Reigns!’ It’s also interesting that all three beggars are struggling in a state of death or dieing yet after the climax of the film, they are seen as living and well, maybe a symbol of Dafoe over coming evil and resisting further temptation with a field of faceless women forming nature, or are they complete after taking their 3rd victim. Gainsbourg mentions the three beggars ‘when the three beggars arrive someone must die’. On three occasions throughout the film, we find the arrival of the beggars and the departure of a character.
It’s all good stuff and the meanings and connotations can be looked at from various angles and offer many hours of good debate over a few drinks. Very Lynchian, Cronenberg and even touches of Kubrick (Hints from the Shining), but no-one else makes films like Lars Von Trier.