Agonies of an ‘Antichrist’: Lars von Trier in the Forest of Unreason

2009-10-23 (Limited)

Even for a Lars Von Trier film, the critical reaction to Antichrist has been unusually hostile. Met with derisive laughter, booing, and walkouts at Cannes, the film was dismissed by some as little more than arthouse ‘torture porn’. Others questioned the film’s sincerity, branding it a kind of hoax, the work of an attention-seeking provocateur having a joke at his audience’s expense. The Guardian called it “a smirking contraption of a film”, while for the Times it was “calculated to outrage in the most cynical and manipulative way imaginable”. Even in France, the art film’s spiritual home, Antichrist has been ostracised. The judges on the national panel of Le Film Francais awarded the movie its lowest possible score — ‘zero stars’.

With its release in New York and Los Angeles on October 23, the controversy and censure will no doubt continue. Antichrist is certainly provocative and disturbing, even hysterical, in its extremes. But have critics, in refusing to engage with the film on its own terms and fixating on its more lurid elements, failed to recognize the real horror at its heart? Despite the efforts of some to dismiss it as a prank, Antichirst is a serious film and its disturbing extremes speak of broad and deeply felt moral, social, and ultimately, political anxieties.

A clue into the nature of these anxieties, and their impact on von Trier’s entire directorial output, can be found in a 2005 interview with, where von Trier said: “All my life I’ve been interested in the discrepancy between philosophy and reality, between conviction and its implementation. The general assumption is that all people are able to differentiate more or less equally between good and evil. But if this is the case, why does the world look like it does? Why have all the good intentions of my parents come to nothing? And why do my own good intentions lead to nothing?”

Time and again in von Trier’s films, liberal pieties are tested and found wanting, and attempts to implement humanist-progressive ideals are found as likely to harm as to heal. Von Trier’s work transgresses liberal comfort zones, exposing the irreconcilable tensions that threaten to undermine the good society. But where his earlier work — films like Breaking The Waves and Dogville — pivots on the tension between society and the individual, Antichrist has merely man and woman, the original social unit.

Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play an unnamed couple struggling to come to terms with the accidental death of their infant son. She, an academic, is experiencing anxiety attacks as part of what her doctor calls “atypical grief”. Her husband, a therapist, insists on taking charge of her treatment himself. He demands that she face her fears, and asks her to name the place she feels most vulnerable.

Her answer: Eden, an isolated cabin in the woods where she spent the previous summer alone with her little boy, attempting to finish her thesis on ‘Gynocide’ — a study of the witch-hunts used for centuries as a means of exerting patriarchal control over women’s bodies. Through therapy sessions guided by her husband, we learn that Gainsbourg has begun to internalize the very narrative she set out to critique — namely that women, as vessels of nature, are themselves evil. As the therapy sessions continue, Defoe discovers evidence of low-level child abuse that is corroborated by the toddler’s autopsy report. From his clinical perspective, it seems that his wife suffered some kind of mental breakdown while she was shut away in the woods that summer with only her child and her research for company.

It is Defoe’s clinical training, however, that blinds him to the unpredictable currents pulsing under the surface of reality. Gainsbourg, on the other hand, begins to perceive what is really going on. “Nature is Satan’s church,” she states, as a relentless rain of acorns ominously pounds the roof of the cabin. Here, Antichrist recalls Nick Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), not least its central theme — the terrifying intrusion of the supernatural into a rationalistic worldview. Like Donald Sutherland’s character John Baxter in Roeg’s film, Defoe desperately attempts to protect his wife from what he insists is a mental imbalance, while shoring up his own belief system against mounting evidence to the contrary.

When, in an attempt to bring Gainsbourg back around to his rational perspective, Dafoe reminds her about her own research into the tens of thousands of innocent woman sent to their deaths in witch-hunts engineered by men, her strange answer is: “Sometimes I forget.” It’s as if the liberal consensus view of history that Defoe clings to is, for her, simply a convenient, comforting narrative with which to fend off more disturbing possibilities. This is the real nightmare of Antichrist — that the rational assumptions on which we rely for a secure view of the world are flimsy constructs that, once relinquished, leave us face to face with ancient fears and our own destructive impulses.

Defoe’s character is just the latest in a series of male von Trier protagonists whose blind determination to act according to a rational code or methodology ultimately proves to be their undoing. Take for instance von Trier’s ‘Europe Trilogy’ (1984-1991), where the central characters of each film are naïve and inflexible idealists whose good intentions backfire, transforming them into their antitheses. In von Trier’s feature film debut The Element of Crime (1984), a policeman named Fischer follows his mentor’s theoretical method to the letter in an attempt to track down a man called Harry Grey who he believes to be murdering children. Yet in doing so, Fischer becomes so ingrained in the logic of his quarry’s crimes that he becomes his unconscious double, inadvertently committing a murder himself. Similarly, in the film-within-the-film of Epidemic (1987) von Trier himself plays a maverick doctor determined to halt the progress of an outbreak of virulent disease, only to find that he himself has unwittingly been spreading the virus.

Europa (1991), the film that brought von Trier to international attention, concerns a young American, Leo Kessler, who having refused to fight in the war on pacifist grounds, arrives in Germany in 1945 to contribute to the country’s reconstruction. He gets a job as a railroad sleeping-car conductor, but falls under the spell of a femme fatale and soon becomes a dupe. By the end of the film, he finds himself, against his will, doing the bidding of a Nazi terrorist cell called the Werewolves, who are bent on sending the country sliding back into barbarism.

Of von Trier’s mature works, The Idiots (1998) most directly addresses this theme of failed or stillborn idealism. A mock-documentary, it follows the exploits of a group of middle-class misfits who find their ‘inner idiot’ by publicly aping the behavior of people with learning difficulties. The act of ‘spassing’ is an unsettling attack on the values and norms of contemporary Danish society. Yet it also symbolizes the group’s political inarticulacy. Stoffer, their mercurial leader, spouts neo-Marxist rhetoric, but his posturing is more a means of indulging his own ego than of offering a coherent critique or programme. Part performance artists, part therapy group, part commune, and part political sect, the ‘Spassers’ are a pastiche, a hollow echo of the legacy of the radical European left and the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Their ‘spassing’ is an act of protest, but it is also a self-indictment, an acknowledgement of the group’s inability to confront reality.

The Idiots taps into both the thwarted idealism of the European radical left, and the burden of its legacy on succeeding generations, who have failed to fill the vacuum left in its wake. Von Trier, whose own parents had imposing political credentials, keenly feels this vacuum. Refugees from the Nazi occupation of Denmark, they were political radicals in the 1960s, apparently taking young Lars on demonstrations and looking on approvingly as he broke US embassy windows. The family adopted counter-cultural lifestyles, including spells in nudist communes, while von Trier’s feminist mother was chairwoman of the Danish Women’s Union. In an interview with Marit Kapla in 2002, von Trier jokingly acknowledged the impact of such an upbringing: “My mother was a communist and my father was a social democrat, so it’s quite clear where I will end up. I do have the ‘Internationale’ on my cell phone. [He laughs]”.

This background has left von Trier with an acute awareness of the responsibility to take an ideological position. In Europa, the neutral pacifist-humanitarian Kessler is told by a priest that, whatever side they are on, God forgives those who fight for a cause with all their heart. When asked who God does not forgive, the priest replies: “Those who don’t believe…who do not take sides. They are condemned to eternal wandering.” The priest then quotes the Book of Revelation: “Because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot I will spew thee out of my mouth.”

This anxiety is central to von Trier’s films. Like his real-life hero, the great Danish director Carl Theodore Dreyer, and other key filmmakers in the Scandinavian tradition such as Ingmar Berman, Lars von Trier’s films turn on deeply felt questions of doubt and belief. Thomas Beltzer quotes producer Peter Jensen as saying that the director’s principles are “of a Middle Ages’ order. He’s a knight. A little knight.” Beltzer adds: “he is an idealist and a believer who suffers the pangs of true belief.”

In fact, while his films explore personal doubt and provoke liberal sensibilities, in real life von Trier is a model liberal. He has expressed anxiety at the erosion of the left-liberal consensus in his home country of Denmark, symbolized by the rise and assassination of the right-wing libertarian Pim Fortiuyn, whose legacy still haunts Danish politics. Von Trier has ploughed money into campaigns to defend asylum seeker’s rights, and in 2000 he shot a film to persuade his countrymen to vote for the Euro.

This profile of von Trier may be in stark contrast to his image as a postmodernist provocateur, but it is key to understanding the searching nature of his films and the emotional extremes to which he subjects his protagonists and his audience. His upbringing was a peculiar combination of anti-authoritarian permissiveness and ideological correctness. Unsurprisingly, his films speak of an irreconcilable tension between the desire to resist ideology and the need to believe.

von Trier’s Interest in Counter-dogmatic and Anti-rational Forms of Belief.

Grief opens the door on a frightening new reality in which the critical apparatuses of two high functioning intellectuals prove hopelessly inadequate to prevent their lives being ripped apart by forces they struggle to understand or control.

This tension has led to von Trier’s interest in counter-dogmatic and anti-rational forms of belief. In Breaking the Waves (1996), von Trier explored religious mysticism in the figure of Bess, the first in a series of saintly female martyrs who live in selfless devotion to a cause worth dying for. In stark contrast to the values of the theocratic island community in which she lives, Bess’s faith centres on her intense devotion to her husband and a personal communion with God.

In Dancer in the Dark (2000), Thelma ultimately sacrifices her life in her determination to provide a sight-saving operation for her young son. She also cultivates her own personal state of grace, creating a private world out of the transformative magic of Hollywood musicals. In Dogville (2003), Grace’s selfless goodness is such that she is all things to all people — as the narrator tells us, she becomes “eyes for McCay, a mother for Ben, a friend for Vera, brains for Bill”. But these saintly women are also mirrors in which society finds its own ugly reflection. Innocence tempts the wicked, and their virtue brings out the worst in others, inviting abuse and exploitation. Often in von Trier’s universe, beneath an appearance of decency and decorum, society tends toward destruction and chaos, and individual good intentions are the most dangerous thing of all.

In Antichrist von Trier takes his career-long exploration of these social fracture points to new extremes, this time played out in microcosm within the fragile confines of the family unit — society’s building block. Grief opens the door on a frightening new reality in which the critical apparatuses of two high functioning intellectuals prove hopelessly inadequate to prevent their lives being ripped apart by forces they struggle to understand or control.

In this bleak view of the capacity of human beings to shape their own destinies, von Trier is to some extent projecting a central anxiety of his time and place. European intellectual life has lately exhibited a powerful strain of philosophical misanthropy, perhaps best exemplified in the work of the British political philosopher John Gray. In Straw Dogs (2002) , a book written with the intention of “removing the masks from our animal faces”, Gray describes humanism as a “masquerade”, in which religion resurfaces in the guise of the Enlightenment concept of progress. Those who believe in it, he argues, have replaced an irrational belief in God with an irrational faith in humankind.

In Straw Dogs Gray says: “Other animals are born, seek mates, forage for food and die. That is all. But…our ingrained belief that consciousness, selfhood and free will are what define us as human beings… is flawed… We control very little of what we most care about.”

Gray’s thesis owes something to the Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, whose Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) offers a scathing and by now familiar critique of modernity. But Gray is also tapping an older vein of counter-Enlightenment thought to which von Trier himself is no stranger; one that stretches back to Marquis de Sade, whose novel Justine (1791) inspired Breaking the Waves, and Nietzsche, whose The Antichrist (1895) lends von Trier’s latest film its title.

This pessimistic mindset is currently undergoing a resurgence, buoyed by a number of factors including the perceived exhaustion of the left-liberal consensus, a sense of disempowerment in the face of globalization, and the fracturing, disorientating effect of 9/11, a cataclysm that has encouraged some to see modernity as a world in which advanced technology and barbarism will increasingly exist cheek by jowl. Grey shares this outlook with a number of influential intellectuals, including the late JG Ballard and French novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose upbringing by radical hippies strongly resembles von Trier’s own and has had an equally formative impact on his work.

But here the similarities end. Houellebecq is a political reactionary, as is Gray who, in contrast to von Trier, is untroubled by “the pangs of belief”. In an interview with Will Self in 2002, Gray said: “I don’t believe in belief. If one aims simply to see, then beliefs… are just an encumbrance. Best to have none, if you can manage it.”

Gray may be content to do without beliefs, but for a child of the liberal left like von Trier, a universe of moral chaos is a troubling prospect.

Fear of losing self-determination, and the dread of staring into the ‘animal face’ of our true nature, all inform the philosophical horror of Antichrist. In this Eden, man does not have mastery over the animals — he is one of them. The scales have fallen from the eyes of its Eve. Gainsbourg sees with terrifying lucidity the cruelty of nature, which von Trier’s film imbues with an almost demonic malevolence.

She tells Defoe: “I understood that everything that used to be beautiful about Eden, it was perhaps hideous. Now I could hear things I couldn’t hear before; the cry of all the things that are to die.”

Von Trier has described how he wrote and directed Antichirst in the grip of a depression so debilitating he could not hold a camera, and has described the film as a form of therapy. Just as Defoe takes Gainsbourg to Eden to confront the source of her anxiety, in Antichrist von Trier looks his own worst fears in the face. What if belief in the capacity of human beings to shape their own destiny is an illusory comfort? And once such constructs give way, what lies beneath?

One answer to this question might be found in von Trier’s TV mini-series The Kingdom (1994). The most technologically advanced hospital in Denmark, the Kingdom, rests on ancient marshland, the gateway to a primordial past. A voice-over at the start of the first episode tells us: “Now life was to be charted — and ignorance and superstition never to shake the bastions of science again. Perhaps their arrogance became too pronounced, and their persistent denial of the spiritual. For it is as if the cold and damp have returned. Tiny signs of fatigue are appearing in the solid, modern edifice”. The hospital thus becomes a metaphor for a fragile modern Europe afloat on a quagmire of mythology, savagery, and superstition.

In Antichrist von Trier plunges headfirst into this underworld. He takes us into the woods, into a pre-social, pre-Enlightenment universe where chaos reigns and for all we know, witchcraft could be just as valid a way of explaining the world as the precepts of modern psychotherapy.

Defoe, as a therapist, and Gainsbourg, as a cultural theorist, are the epitome of middle-class moderns. Once in Eden, their sophisticated worldview proves insufficient to resist the pull of chaos, the chthonic claims of an older natural order. Once the precepts of modernity give way, regression takes hold. The nameless couple break down into archetypes — he, an avenger of the patriarchal social order, harbinger of rationality and repression; she, the threat of untrammelled, sexual, female nature, and the chaos of the subconscious. The mysticism that provided an otherworldly paradigm of goodness in Breaking the Waves here presents in Gainsbourg its dark double — madness, occultism, possession. It becomes increasingly apparent that, in appointing himself her therapist, Defoe is attempting to perform an exorcism on his wife.

The film builds toward a collision of irreconcilable forces, which is also a showdown between the warring halves of von Trier’s own psyche — the masculine, detached, control-freak director and the anti-authoritarian, emotionally volatile free spirit who identifies so strongly with his female protagonists. In this elemental struggle, all that remains is for society to impose its will on nature in the only language nature understands — violence. Defoe strangles his wife and burns her body on a pyre, an act of immolation suggestive of a purifying ritual. The couple’s transformation is complete. Like the well-meaning protagonists of the ‘Europe Trilogy’, they have become their antitheses.

Antichrist warns us that once the delicate balance of our lives is disturbed and our core convictions tested, the values we hold most dear can be stripped away with terrifying speed and ferocity. For von Trier, a director vacillating between the agonies of doubt and the pangs of belief, in a world where the worst can and very likely will happen, the homilies of the humanist-progressive tradition offer cold comfort. A profoundly personal work taking cinema to places few directors dare to visit ,Antichrist might best be understood as a deep howl of anguish, a kind of celluloid primal scream.