Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist is an English language drama about a couple whose young child dies. It was described by its director as a horror film and contained several strong images which required consideration when it arrived at the BBFC in 2009.
Antichrist had already acquired a reputation before its submission for classification in the UK. The film had caused a stir in Cannes where it was vilified by some critics and feted by others (there were several press reports of walk outs during screenings).
The distributors made no category request for the work, but it is clearly adult in theme and tone from the outset, including strong images of real sex, bloody violence, strong gory images, and a scene of self-mutilation.
The strong real sex includes images of genital contact and unsimulated penetration shown in close up. At the 18 category, the BBFC's Guidelines state that the more explicit images of sexual activity are unlikely to be permitted unless they can be exceptionally justified by context and the work is not a 'sex work'. A 'sex work' is defined as a work whose 'primary purpose is sexual arousal or stimulation'.
Though the images are strong it was clear throughout that Antichrist was not a 'sex work' but rather a serious drama exploring issues such as grief, loss, guilt and fear. The brief images of explicit real sex (sight of a penis penetrating a vagina during a consensual sex scene and sight of the man's penis being masturbated to climax) were felt to be exceptionally justified. They were read by examiners as illustrations of the central character’s relationships and the images were designed to explore the film's themes of closeness, loss, sex and betrayal. The main characters’ relationship is depicted throughout in a graphic and unflinching fashion, both psychologically and physically.
It was also noted that the BBFC had permitted comparable explicit images in a number of previous features at the 18 level. Examples include L’Empire Des Sens, 9 Songs, Shortbus and Lars von Trier's earlier film, The Idiots where it is clear that the purpose of the work and the individual images in question are not there simply to arouse viewers but to illustrate characters, relationships and themes.
Antichrist features several strong and gory horror images. These include a sequence in which a character’s ankle is drilled and where his genitals are beaten and ejaculate blood. Most notably, perhaps, the film also includes sight of a character mutilating her own genitals with a pair of scissors. This image provoked much comment and debate within the British media.
This act of self-mutilation is shown in close up, although the image is only on screen for a few seconds. Though it clearly exceeded the BBFC's Guidelines at 15, where 'the strongest gory images are unlikely to be acceptable' and where 'violence may be strong but may not dwell on the infliction of pain or injury' the Board also had to consider whether it would be appropriately placed uncut at 18.
Even at 18 the BBFC recognised that the scene might be shocking and offensive to some viewers, but this had to be considered alongside the BBFC’s published commitment to allowing adults to make a free choice about what they watch as long as it is within the law and not considered harmful. The Guidelines note that, in line with the consistent findings of the BBFC's public consultations, the BBFC's Guideline concerns will not normally override the wish that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment, within the law - or unless the material or treatment appears to the BBFC to risk harm to either individuls or to society.
The Board was aware of no evidence to suggest that the viewing of a scene such as this is likely to be harmful to adults. It is not presented in an eroticised or attractive manner and is not likely to encourage emulation or arousal. Accordingly, the scene was considered acceptable at 18.
The film was seen by the Director, David Cooke, the President, Sir Quentin Thomas and Vice President, Gerard Lemos. David Cooke said:
“Antichrist deals with what happens to a couple after the death of their child, focussing on the psychological impact on them both. The film does not contain material which breaches the law or poses a significant harm risk to adults. The sexual imagery, while strong, is relatively brief, and the Board has since 1990 passed a number of works containing such images. This reflects the principle, strongly endorsed in a number of public consultations, that adults should be free to decide for themselves what to watch or what not to watch, provided it is neither illegal nor harmful.”
Given the strength of the images in the film, and the press and public interest generated by its reception in Cannes the BBFC was well aware that there was a likelihood of possible offence to some viewers of the work. David Cooke added:
“There is no doubt that some viewers will find the images disturbing and offensive, but the BBFCinsight provides a clear warning to enable individuals to make an informed viewing choice.”
Antichrist was released in cinemas in the UK in June 2009. Some media commentators called for it to be banned and/or accused the BBFC of failing in its duty in allowing such strong images to be passed uncut. Others defended the decision to pass a niche horror work at the high end of the adult category and criticised those commentators who called for the work to be banned without having seen it.
A similar spread of opinions was found in the feedback emails received by the BBFC from the public. Some quoted newspaper articles and the film’s publicity calling for it to be banned (without having viewed it) whilst others praised the decision and the robust BBFCinsight which warned the public of the film’s content: 'Contains strong real sex, bloody violence and self-mutilation'.