Chaos Reigns, Order Wins
By Chris Wisniewski
Dir. Lars von Trier, Denmark, IFC Center
Yes, she smashes his testicles and makes him cum blood and cuts off her clitoris with a pair of scissors (in close-up, no less!). It's all true. That’s where the discussion of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist stalled after its debut at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. It’s not that critics and audiences at Cannes failed to get past the genital mutilation—I'm not convinced genital mutilation is something one should “get past”—but they did let it determine and essentially consume the discourse on the film. Antichrist was treated either as a grotesque provocation or a punchline. Either way, it was dismissable, something to be condemned or laughed at and certainly not something to be taken seriously. This is an understandable but insufficient reaction to a film as off-putting, disturbing, and frankly bizarre as Antichrist. Improbably, since that infamous Cannes premiere, the tide has turned with a Film Comment cover story, positive-to-ecstatic notices out of Toronto, and a New York Film Festival invitation. For a movie that's already gone through a complete critical cycle of backlash and anti-backlash months before its U.S. release, however, Antichrist still feels under-scrutizined. Neither a disposable abomination nor a misunderstood masterpiece, it's the sort of challenging mess of a movie that demands examination, contextualization, and analysis. Von Trier may be a nut, but he's also, as Antichrist makes clear, talented, frustrating, and intermittently brilliant.
At 53, with one Palme d'or under his belt, von Trier is too old and established to be called an enfant terrible. Nevertheless, he's built a career on controversy. His artistic relevance has always depended more or less on his capacity to get a rise out of his audience—frequently by punishing or humiliating his female protagonists. The exquisite suffering of von Trier's women is often perpetrated, directly or indirectly, by misguided, controlling men. In his more recent films, his women have repaid their victimizers in kind, less a corrective to the latent misogyny in his early work than a clearer expression of von Trier's exhaustingly cynical view of human nature. Judging by the mixed response to Manderlay, the second film in his still-unfinished "USA trilogy" (personally, I got off that train at Dogville), von Trier's assaults may be in danger of yielding diminishing returns. So Antichrist, which he claims to have written while grappling with severe depression, ups the ante while obscuring its maker's intentions. Like Dogville and Manderlay, it blurs the line between victimizer and victimized—its female protagonist is grief-stricken and, perhaps, emotionally terrorized by her emotionally distant husband, but she is also, quite literally, a (possessed) genital-mutilating witch. By taking the violence and the unresolved gender conflicts of his previous films to a so-earnest-it's-silly extreme, Antichrist has thrust its maker back into the spotlight, for better and worse. It would seem to be the clearest evidence yet of his lurid, despicable misogyny and his grotesque fetishization of misery; it is also a deconstruction of those very things. Its self-consciousness borders on self-parody but plays as exorcism.
Antichrist strikes a tone at once arch and dead serious with an opening black-and-white, slow-motion, Handel-scored prologue during which a toddler, Nic (Storm Acheche Sahlstrom), climbs out of his crib, observes his parents (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, whose characters have no names) having sex, and then plunges to his death from a second floor window. Nic's accident sets the narrative in motion, and von Trier exploits it for maximum symbolic import: the prologue enacts the Primal Scene as primal trauma, but Nic's fall is also the Fall, the discovery of shame, the price of which is suffering and death—lest there be any doubt about this, the couple's grief will eventually lead them to a cabin in a wooded place called "Eden."
Eschewing anything resembling naturalism, Antichrist sets up parallel symbolic systems, one psychological and the other grounded in religion and superstition. The conflict between them runs through the film and dovetails with the other, similar antinomies with which the movie is preoccupied—reason and emotion, order and chaos, modernity and nature, male and female. In the prologue, Von Trier places too great a philosophical burden on his filmmaking: the (graphic) sex between his protagonists begins in the shower, confounding the pornographic image with the iconography of baptism and rebirth; as Nic climbs to the window, he knocks over three figurines, "beggars" labeled "grief," "pain," and "despair" (these are also the titles for the movie's first three chapters); Nic falls to eternal rest angelically, with the falling white snow; and then, of course, there's the Handel, the only non-diegetic music in the film. If this opening is aestheticized to the point of absurdity, it also immerses its audience in the allegorical vernacular of Antichrist, in which iconography trumps emotional realism.
Laughable, lovely, and tragic, this first movement encapsulates everything that is great and maddening about Antichrist, foregrounding von Trier's skill and his hubris. Even his detractors—and I admit to occasionally counting myself among them—cannot deny his technical virtuosity. Here, he and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (making a welcome departure from the pomo tourist chic that won him an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire) achieve a singular and beautiful romantic austerity. From the initial images of Dafoe and Gainsbourg in the shower, Antichrist looks, moves, and feels like no other film in recent memory, and von Trier has fully committed himself to his undeniably strange project. Taken together, the craft and conviction of his filmmaking accumulate overwhelming force, but there's also an unpalatable rawness to his work. Von Trier is first and foremost an artist, not a thinker, and in the past, the nakedness of his moviemaking has sometimes betrayed the bluntness of his ideas. However powerful Dancer in the Dark or Dogville might be, they're also obvious and calculated. By contrast, Antichrist immediately reveals itself to be a muddle. As gorgeous and searing as the image of the falling Nic may be, it signifies so many things at once that it risks becoming meaningless. Before the prologue ends, it's clear that Antichrist is, to mix metaphors, overstuffed and half-baked, and yet there's something enthrallingly enigmatic about it.
Following its rather portentous introduction, Antichrist's narrative begins to unfold rather conventionally, despite its jump cuts and shallow-focus handhelds. She collapses at the funeral and is hospitalized. He, a therapist, complains that her doctors prescribe too much medication. He wants to treat her himself, to force her past her grief by confronting her with her fears. She resists. Overcome with anxiety, She tries to seduce him (He holds back; She bites his nipple), and She begins to hurt herself, in one scene pounding her head against a toilet until it begins to bleed. Gainsbourg throws herself into the mourning mother role with unrestrained intensity, and her portrait of grief is heartbreaking. Dafoe counterpoints with cool reserve. She accuses him of indifference, charging that She felt abandoned by him the previous year when She and Nic spent several months alone at Eden. He insists that She had asked for solitude so She could finish her thesis—which apparently tackles the subject of witchcraft and the historic persecution of women (her notebook is titled "Gynocide"). Since we come to Antichrist knowing that She's eventually going to go crazy, the deck is stacked against her, but in these extreme emotional conditions, it's not entirely clear who is in the right. She frets about losing her husband, a concern that seems perfectly understandable given her son's death, but her fears slowly become obsessive. Dafoe, meanwhile, plays his therapist husband ambiguously—he suggests academic detachment with a hint of carnal desire, but his character displays little genuine affection towards his wife.
He brings her to Eden to cure her panic attacks, hypnotizing her so She can cross a bridge, training her to walk from stone to stone. At first, She responds positively, though reluctantly, to his attempts to contain and modulate her emotions. In fact, She actually assures him that She's been "cured," just as Antichrist begins to dissolve the illusion of order and reason He places his faith in. "Nature is Satan's church," She tells him, and it is in the forest, in Eden, that von Trier sets the oppositional symbols of the film against each other dialectically.
This is the point at which Antichrist goes off the deep end. Though the movie is exquisitely crafted from first frame to last, its relative success or failure hinges less on production values than on the philosophical, ideological, and emotional implications of its increasingly troubling and terrifying narrative. Slow-motion hallucinations of a deer with a stillborn doe hanging out of its vagina and a talking fox eating itself take the film into the realm of horror, and as in many films in the genre, "woman" is the locus of that horror. Gainsbourg's character is the Other, guided by excessive emotion rather than reason. Her sexual desire costs her their son, and her psychological state is dominated by her identity as mother. "Women do not control their own bodies," She explains, "they are ruled by nature." In Antichrist, it is nature—a mother's grief, a grief that exceeds all reason—that rules the character's behavior and causes the shortness of breath and the quickening pulse associated with her panic attacks. Antichrist can be seen as following in the tradition of Rosemary's Baby, the quintessential motherhood-as-horror film, which makes an explicit critique of patriarchy through the metaphor of pregnancy—motherhood is possession; it is woman controlled by an inscrutable, irrational, and irresistible presence within but outside of herself, something completely alien and yet powerfully natural. Antichrist is not content to rest on this point, however. Towards the end of the film, we get additional information about her behavior during her time with Nic in Eden that leads us to question when, exactly, She lost her self-control. In general, the film appears to switch sides midway through: if at first She behaves in a manner we might consider normal and He seems comparatively inhuman, She eventually reveals herself to be a monster driven to his (or her?) annihilation. As a result of this narrative about-face, our sympathies remain divided, and von Trier avoids taking a stand on who deserves sympathy or blame.
Whatever causes Gainsbourg's character to become unhinged, whether it's the loss of her son, the megalomania and indifference of her husband, or a supernatural force, She finally comes to embody the grossest caricature of the possessed woman. She smashes his testicles with a wooden block and then has her way with him sexually. She drills through his leg with an auger and bolts him to a milling stone. These are assertions of power and control that play on psychoanalytic anxieties regarding castration and penetration, but in many ways, they turn gendered power dynamics upside down: She is the sexual predator; She does the penetrating; She, finally, is the one who is "castrated." He eventually escapes and inadvertently ends up buried alive, but She, a woman possessed by nature ("Satan's church") digs him (a character portrayed by an actor who famously played a sexually active Jesus for Scorsese) out of his self-made grave. He's come here to save her, but He must finally save himself. The possessed victimizer becomes victim once more while He is resurrected, born again through the destruction of the Other, the definitive assertion of masculine authority. Order is restored.
The conflict between the film's husband and wife ends conclusively, but the meaning of this resolution is obtuse. Antichrist's befuddling epilogue only offers more ambiguity. Is Antichrist exploitation or critique? Revolting, ridiculous, or revelatory? A disaster or a masterwork? Maybe it's all of the above: offensive, stupid, sick, brutal, deeply sad, and strangely, hauntingly magnificent.