Correspondingly, she becomes instinctively aware of herself being subordinated to a reality, which is beyond individual comprehension and logical articulation, because she perceives her body as a material existence that escapes her subjectivity. Her grief compels her to see the schism between her corporeality alongside with her dimension as a social being. Subsequently, her anguish is reinforced by her gradual understanding of the very falsity of the concept of a unified identity and the apprehension of herself as a synthesis of antithetical elements. Minutes before her self-mutilation, the moment of her son’s death comes as a flashback, implying that she saw him coming out of his crib, but she carried on her passionate sex with her husband. At this point, the film raises questions regarding the individual as a rational and a corporeal being.
He, on the other hand, embodies the tradition of Western logocentrism, which sees the individual as unified and logically explained. His therapeutic methods consist of a self-introversion that aims at the diagnosis of the very reasons that provoke feelings of fear and anguish. His view of identity is univocal and one-dimensional, something that prevents him from understanding individuality in its contradictions. This becomes particularly evident when these contradictions oppose the unquestionable criteria that his scientific reason conceives as sine qua non for the understanding of personality.
For instance, he is unequivocal regarding his wife’s love for their child, and gets confused when he realises that she might have been abusing it. Yet, his perception of identity as self-determined is contradicted by his own attitude. In chapter three, he tells her off for identifying with her research on misogynism, explaining that many women during the Middle Ages suffered torture, simply for being different. In the end, he turns out to adopt the very attitude he condemns, and thus burn her on a pyre.
Von Trier, thus, utilises “performative contradictions”, in order to void hermeneutical reductions based upon the notion of concrete subjectivity. The term “performative contradictions” describes the “discrepancy between social practices and the ideas that accompany them resulting in “a contradiction between a meaning conveyed explicitly and a meaning conveyed by the act itself of conveying.” [Turner quoted in Ideology: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton, p. 24 (London, New York: Verso, 1991)]
Seen this way, the film proceeds to offer a critique of rationality, by virtue of a theoretical anti-humanist approach, something that can be initially observed in the director’s refusal to attribute names to the characters. Von Trier’s anti-humanism combines elements of a Marxist mistrust in the phenomenology of human relations and the notion of autonomous subjectivity with a Nietzschean conception of the individual as an illusion. The fundamental tenet of Marxist anti-humanism lies in its rejection of any notion of “human essence” and free subjectivity, so as to reveal the political and ideological interests that lie in the dominant conceptions of European humanism and the ethics that complement it. [‘Marxism and Humanism’ by Louis Althusser in For Marx, p. 237 (London: Allen Lane, 1979)]
Nietzsche, on the other hand, proceeds to negate the tradition of European and Christian humanism—God is Dead—arguing that the values of European humanist tradition and rationality serve utilitarian results and increase human constructs of domination. [Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, p. 50 (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1956)]
In this view, the distinction between true and false, reality and fiction becomes problematic. Nietzsche’s argument has gained currency in post-modern thought since in the course of history, one can identify different understandings of humanism that have justified the most horrible narratives of European history. One of them is the witch-hunting and is referenced in the film.
Anti-humanism, therefore, urges us to abandon the primacy of the free subject and consider the very notion of the individual and the human as product of power relationships and the symbolic order. The notion of the individual as a product of a symbolic order is made clear in the film, when she is shown being influenced by the European narrative of patriarchy, which considered women to be naturally evil. This narrative was justified through rational explanations, and here Von Trier brings to our attention the fact that rationality had always been connected with patriarchy.
Logocentrism and phallologocentrism have become synonymous in the course of European history, and it is not accidental that He, who embodies the representative of rational thought, employs his methodology with the view to mastering and controlling She. At one point, she tells him that her fear is overthrown. His reaction gives us the impression that he is enfeebled. “You do not care about me,” she responds, implying that he sees her solely as a means of justifying his theories.
The constant changes in the characters’ attitudes prevent the audience from any identification with them and what we are given is a ‘clinical’ and detached elaboration of the subject matter. Formally, the subversion of the notion of identity is achieved by dint of merging scenes shot in a pseudo-documentary style, with ones that have an oneiric aspect and foreground the film’s fictionality.
The pseudo-documentary scenes are part of von Trier’s shooting-method that was inaugurated after Dogma 95. This method blends theatrical and aleatory material, combining fictional and extra-fictional responses on the part of the actors. The second practice features the actors’ bodies in stylised images, with the view to underlining the characters’ inability to integrate themselves into a stable representational reality.
The extras that come with the DVD are essential for anyone interested in getting an insight into the film’s thematic interests and its production process. They contain an interview with Lars von Trier, a historical retrospective on misogynism, interviews with the animal trainers, commentary by Lars von Trier and Murray Smith and scenes from the film’s adventures in the Cannes Film Festival. The only reservation lies in the DVD’s cover artwork, which has replaced the original poster with a giant pair of scissors-presumably for commercial reasons. The official release date for the USA is still not available. Let’s hope that the DVD will not be censored, as it was initially planned.