PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Film

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

Stephen Rylance

Despite the efforts of some to dismiss it as a prank, Antichrist is a serious film and its disturbing extremes speak of broad and deeply felt moral, social, and ultimately, political anxieties.

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.

Prev Page

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.