“In the middle of the journey of our life/ I came to my senses in a dark woods,/ for I had lost the straight path./ Oh, how hard it is to tell/ what a dense, wild, and tangled wood this was,/ the thought of which renews my fear.”
—Dante, The Divine Comedy
The woods are never a place to be trifled with. As Dante warns at the beginning of Inferno, the revelatory insights bestowed by the forest comes at a price, causing identity to fracture and the mundane to transmogrify into the grotesque. The woods liberate while warping expectations. The victims of the woods litter Western culture—from Beowulf to Hester Prynne to more recent incarnations like Heather in The Blair Witch Project who, with typical American bravado states, “Who gets lost in America, anymore?” Famous last words for many fallen travelers.
So it is not entirely surprising that Lars von Trier employs this trope in his most recent film which veers toward the horror genre. Unnamed psychologist (William Dafoe) believes that the woods will provide an ideal environment to self-treat his unnamed wife (Charlotte Gainsborough). The film quickly reveals this to be a bad idea even before departure. In their claustrophobic apartment his wife accuses him of being arrogant and controlling as she undergoes round-the-clock immersion therapy by an insecure psychologist who constantly feels the absence of M.D. firmly weighing down his identity. Although he claims that therapy is solely for her own bereavement over the death of their child, it clearly also gives him a sense of purpose and professionalism in his otherwise monochromatic existence. As she accusingly states, “You have never been as interested in me as when I am your patient.” But even this interest comes at a disturbingly clinical distance, allowing for no intimacy to develop between them.
Anti-Christ becomes most interesting when it investigates the historical linkages between men’s monomaniacal desire for disciplinary control over and subsequent punishment of women’s bodies and minds. The wife had been conducting research for her incomplete M.A. thesis on gynocide. Within it, she intended to chronicle centuries of systemic misogyny punctuated most sharply by the 18th century witch hunts. As she feels the historical weight of persecution converge upon her, she begins to introject the accusations, causing her to finally accept that the core of all women is evil including herself, which she readily lives up to by film’s end. When she hesitantly begins to explain this to her husband, he once again dismissively, though accurately, tells her that she is learning the wrong lesson. Yet one can quickly begin to understand her desire to prove his smug certainty wrong.
The film then predictably descends into the violence and torture that most viewers expect from a von Trier film. Rather than seeming shocking, though, the blood and gore seem a sophomoric and insecure trick—as if the film’s message wouldn’t carry through without it or it is just simply there because of audience expectations. A case can be made that the violence needs to be extreme since centuries of persecutions are weighing upon the wife so its repressed return must be dramatically and vigorously condensed upon the man’s body. The aestheticized way upon which it is visited upon him makes the violence feel incomplete—with not enough blood, not enough pain, not enough ugliness. This is art school violence. In the wake of directors like Takashi Miike who have mastered the psychological torture film, von Trier’s antics seem modest and largely insignificant.
Most disturbingly, a strange Victorian and Catholic vibe haunts the film. Its opening sequence stitches together sex, death, and guilt as the couple copulate in super slow-motion while their baby miraculously climbs out of its crib, catches a glimpse of the primal scene, and finally decides to take a header out of the window of the three-story apartment. Handel’s baroque “Let Me Weep” plays as we watch stunningly crisp black-and-white digital footage slowly chronicle the trauma. Needless to say, fucking becomes a constant motif throughout the rest of the film as it marks the site of the trauma.
Once again, though, the idea seems dated—ill-suited to a post-modern world where sexuality has permeated everyday life in much more complex and unpredictable fashions. The film’s Freudian outlook becomes too quaint of an idea that offers us trauma-lite rather than really digging into the psycho-sexual crises of the present age. (Interestingly, a similar Victorian tone undergirds Michael Haneke’s, The White Ribbon (2009), which is also shot in black-and-white and seems outdated in terms of subject matter. What, one might ask, is going on with European art cinema?)
Part of the answer for Anti-Christ‘s dated tone and sophomoric violence might lie in the fact that it should have never been made in the first place. Von Trier claimed after Manderlay (2005) that he never wanted to film again, at least according to the making-of extras accompanying Criterion’s DVD. When he began the project, it served as a vehicle to work out his own anger towards his own therapy and other traumas that plagued his life.
This leads us to Cannes in 2009 where a reporter asks von Trier to justify why he would make such a film. Although much has been made of this question by film critics and Criterion dedicates three extras chronicling what it dubs, “Chaos Reigns at the Cannes Film Festival”, the event seems much more pedestrian: a critic asking why anyone would want to make and see such an esoteric and hackneyed film. Predictably, von Trier answers somewhat jokingly that he needs to offer no explanation because he is the world’s greatest filmmaker. Yet his answer curiously manifests the insecure arrogance of the film’s lead male character before the Cannes audience through von Trier himself. Much like the film’s violence, von Trier’s arrogance remains largely ineffectual by refusing to justify the limitations of Anti-Christ.
Similar to the female lead character, von Trier might also feel the weight of history upon himself, although in his case, of course, it’s his own cinematic history. Just as she strikes out against the identifiable point of oppression in her own life, von Trier similarly strikes out against the very audiences and critics who continue to endure his films in order to both convince them otherwise and annihilate them in the process. Ultimately, von Trier claims that he made Anti-Christ for himself, and the film bears testimony to it. The fact that some of us might still want to be in this relationship with von Trier might give us pause to reflect a bit more intently regarding the disastrous consequences that we just watched before our eyes regarding another codependent couple.