Lars von Trier’s last film instigated a variety of responses that divided the audiences and the critics. Many considered it to be an exercise in bad taste and a misogynistic narrative, while others defended it as a masterpiece. The simplistic dichotomies of the discussions have paralysed any serious investigation of the interrelation of aesthetics, politics and anti-humanism.
If we turn our attention to his filmography, we realise that von Trier’s films present narratives that incorporate concerns about the medium’s ability to represent history, certain genres’ tendency to flatten out the inherent social contradictions, the manipulation of new technologies and a general aspiration to combine elements of classical cinema with an avant-gardist refusal of commodification. Equally important is to acknowledge that in spite of having been classified as a director who is part of the European Art Cinema Tradition, von Trier does not hesitate to engage into a dialogue and thus experiment with mainstream cinema, in order to reshape the relationship between film production and reception.
Lars Von Trier
Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
(UK DVD: 11 Jan 2010)
In light of these considerations, we can see Antichrist as a film that thematises the medium itself and in particular the horror-film genre. The film consists of four chapters, a prologue and an epilogue. It tells the story of a grieving couple—He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), since the characters are nameless—whose little child dies after climbing out of his crib, while its parents are making love. After the death of their child, the couple retreats to a cabin in the woods as a means of overcoming the wife’s grief.
Contrary to their expectations, they are entangled into a situation, which is beyond their control. Instead of healing themselves from their grief, they come face to face with inexplicable events that blur the boundaries between illusion and reality. The husband attempts to cure his grief-stricken wife using psychotherapy methods based upon a rational explanation of fear.
Throughout their therapy sessions, one senses that he tries to control and master her feelings rather than cure her. Moreover, it turns out that she, who has been writing a thesis on misogynism, has identified herself with her subject, to the extent that she considers female nature to be essentially evil. Meanwhile, he finds pictures of their son in which his shoes are always on the wrong feet, something that makes him suspicious of his wife’s caring for their child. Consequently, their relationships turns out to be acrimonious—something that leads to a series of violent events, which involve some of the most problematic and challenging scenes.
At one point, she attacks him and hits his testicles. While he is unconscious, she drills a hole through his leg and bolts a grind-stone through the wound. After a long chase scene, she regrets the pain she caused him and brings him back to the cabin. In a moment of recollection of her son’s death, we are given the impression that she saw what happened but did not act. At this point, she cuts her clitoris; later on he strangles her and burns her into a pyre.
As the reader can understand, the film raises plenty of questions, but provides no answers, expecting the audience to assume a more active role and participate in the hermeneutical process. Taking as a starting point the manipulation of the horror-film genre, we can observe that Antichrist, draws on one of its main motifs, that is, misogynism.
Mainstream horror films have repeatedly incorporated misogynist elements. Women are normally shown as passive beings, whose very passivity becomes a sight of fascination. Part of the spectatorial pleasure, therefore, lies in the viewing of the very moments that produce horror, such as the scenes of excessive physical and sexual violence, which lead to the production of screaming points.
Michel Chion has offered a very stimulating analysis of the screaming point, arguing that certain films employ all the means available, in order to reach that point and create fascination. “The screaming point is where speech is suddenly extinct, a black hole, the exit of being.” [The Voice in Cinema, by Michel Chioin, p. 24, trans. by Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999)] Von Trier’s film on the other hand, does not proceed to manipulate the female body as a spectacle of fascination, and the screaming points are not the culmination of a causal chain of events, but the very exploration of the limits of comprehensibility.
From this perspective, Antichrist employs horror film tropes, but the difference lies in the fact that horror is not produced by dint of an outsider, who enters the lives of the main characters, who are oblivious to the disaster that will follow. This is the most classic pattern of thriller-narration, which resorts to juxtapositions between normal and aberrant behaviours and thus, to molar polarisations between good and evil.
By contrast, von Trier suggests that the terrible and the horrific are not to be found in the abnormal behaviour of an outsider, but within our human relationships, and the play of domination and submission in everyday life. The film’s narrative accomplishes that by constantly frustrating the audience’s expectations. At one point, the two characters are shown lying in bed listening to noises that seem to prepare the ground for a horrible event, while later on we realise that it is the sound of the acorns falling into the roof. When He encounters a talking fox and a wounded deer, we expect something shocking to occur, but action is deferred once again.
All the horrible things taking place are not instigated by an outsider but by the relentless confrontation between him and her. The clash between the sexes becomes an allegorical illustration of the opposition between rational reason and emotions. He attempts to cure her grief by means of a logical explanation of her fears, while she seems to defy his methodology. Her conception of herself, her fears, her pain and grief cannot be separated by her somatic material reality. Throughout her grief her body responds in unpredictable ways. Physical pain and insomnia are rapidly followed by impulsive sexual desires.
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.