The Illusion of Identity in Lars Von Trier's Antichrist

Lars von Trier suggests that the terrible and the horrific are not to be found in the abnormal behaviour of an outsider, but within our relationships, and the play of domination and submission in everyday life.

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.

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.

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