Antichrist. 2009. Directed & Written by Lars von Trier.
Starring Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg, & Storm Acheche Sahlstrøm. Zentropa International Köln/Zentropa Entertainments.
Rated R. 108 minutes.
Lars von Trier is one of my favourite auteur writer-directors in the industry. I don’t care how foolish he may sound at times. Because one thing I’ve always felt interested me in his writing particularly is that there’s often a huge amount of his anxiety, his depression, which bursts onto the page. You’re never going to find a happy von Trier flick. Just does not happen. Yet that’s not to say each of his films are an exercise in endurance. Many of them deal with difficult subject matter, both figuratively and quite literally in many cases, and they’re tough to watch in their respective ways. However, as a filmmaker von Trier challenges himself and his audience at once to engage in a creative discussion about things that we don’t often talk about openly as a society.
On top of that list is the discussion surrounding religion, in particular here Christianity, in terms of its negative effects. In an increasingly secular world we still aren’t allowed to criticise religion as freely as we ought to, not always. Due to extremist terrorism involving people who take Islam much too serious in a fundamental sense, most people want to turn the critical eye that way. Fair enough. But never forget about all the other hideous effects of other religions, too. If we’re pointing a finger we must point it in all the right directions.
The Catholics, under whom I grew up, have an awful, secretive organisation that has destroyed and killed enough people in its antiquity to be considered a terrorist group. To this day they’re still ruining lives, across the world, as the reluctance to actually take care of paedophilia within its ranks has made the Roman Catholic Church a frightful institution. And remember: the Bible also advocates stoning and other ridiculous violence, it is not different than the Quran in that sense it’s just that Islam grew out of a much different breeding ground than Christianity. So, for some reason, our modern society that believes it’s so incredibly progressive and critical of all things often fails to turn its eye to areas it still holds dear.
That’s why we have artists, creators, those who wish to examine aspects of society and our lives which others aren’t so keen to shine their lights on. Lars von Trier’s Antichrist dives deep and horrifically into the territory of theology, aiming his criticisms at the creation myth of Adam and Eve, their existence in the Garden of Eden, and how all that misogyny born of the supposed first man and woman created by God lingers to this day; in our actions, in our history, in our institutions. It is everywhere. And then we act surprised when that misogyny breeds various forms of violence. A tough lesson, as well as one that can extend beyond misogyny, to our views on the suppression of human beings in general.
From the moment of the funeral onward, both Dafoe and Gainsbourg give shattering performances in their roles. Those shots as they march with the casket before she falls over are so emotional, very fragile represented not only with a bit of handheld camerawork. The actors, though so brief in these shots, bring all that grief to the front with little effort: Dafoe stumbles on, tired and a walloped by that grief, as Gainsbourg looks frail, falling to the ground in a heap. This is the start. We’re then plunged into an abyss of emotion, fear, paranoia. Such a thematically powerful film here becomes weighted in the central performances. After all, they’re the only people featured outside of a couple extras right at the beginning, the baby. Dafoe and Gainsbourg are challenged with incredibly unsettling character development and plot points. In fact, portions of the screenplay are so ideologically dangerous that many actors would likely have read it then promptly told von Trier “no thanks” and moved on. Nevertheless, both these wonderful specimens of the craft bring their acting talents to Antichrist, allowing accessibility and relatable qualities through them.
While Dafoe offers his best, Gainsbourg, to me, is the ultimate star. She is the vessel through which von Trier asks questions about the roots of our societal misogyny. Within the construct of the horror genre, von Trier uses these characters as avatars. They represent ideas, rather than solely one person or another. For instance, Dafoe presents us with a symbolic view into how women are treated by psychiatry in general, how our society puts women in a category where they are the mother, they are supposed to be the nurturer, these are the things which they’re told; how to act, how to feel. Nature dictates, is how they put it. Nature is what supposedly makes her the mother, the giver, et cetera. Man uses nature to say a woman has the reproductive system, so she must care for the child, and she must HAVE the child, she can’t abort it. These are only a few of the conservative-minded favourite things to use nature for, to legislate and oppress and repress.
Because of all this, She (Gainsbourg) must take the brunt of the psychological torture. She receives all the guilt while He (Dafoe) is the supposed healer. But more than that He is representative of the unhelpful man, the one who acts like the white knight in satin armour yet is inefficient at successfully helping the woman to whom he runs so protectively. He is a psychiatrist who is also her husband. He serves as the archetypal male who places himself in the position of saviour, the only man to whom She can go: here, She is riding on the whim of both his sexual desire and his professional curiosity. Therefore, Gainsbourg’s role requires much more depth simply because of her predicament, the character’s situation and eventual development. Certainly Dafoe goes through a wild ride; no doubt. But there’s an obvious weight to the performance of She that Gainsbourg shoulders impressively. She is so bound up a system of misogyny that it’s expressed through internalised misogyny through her – first it’s her thesis, then it gets deeper to a physical level where she wants to be used, to be hurt, and this goes on exponentially until She commits the most unthinkable act. However, it is an unthinkable yet symbolic act of smashing the patriarchal system used to oppress her: nature.
She literally smashes the penis, then mutilates herself, all in a desperate act to not only symbolically crush the male dominance of her life, her gender, but also to rid She and He of their surface level gender identification. In a horrific genre climax, von Trier imagines a place and time without gender, and at the same time, through She and Gainsbourg’s fabulously delirious performance (and the actions He is goaded into), illustrates some of the terrible consequences of misogyny as deep rooted as that of the Catholic ideology.
In the end, Antichrist does not work from its title in the sense of some Book of Revelations-style story. Literally, von Trier explores how Catholic theology is, at its root, anti-Christ(ian). Through a discussion on misogyny, centring around the debilitating events of the lives of She and He following the death of their child, the film exposes how fundamentally certain teachings, such as that of Adam and Eve, rely on an anti-female perspective, or at the very least an unflattering vision of the female role in society.
The entire opening sequence serves as the basis of the couple’s tragedy. It further represents the eating of the apple by Even in the Garden of Eden. Simply because the first question many have in the even of a child’s death is where was the mother; sometimes it’s where were the parents, but the immediate thought on most minds is the mother. Because of the gendered way we perceive parenting. In this case, She was having sex instead of watching her child. After that the burden of guilt is most heavily placed upon She, rather than He; from outward influence such as society, as well as from internalised feelings as a result of that outside element.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the film, is von Trier’s visual aesthetic and its direct connection to the film’s overall discussion. Every inch is textured and vivid, even the most dark visuals pop out through the screen. That darkness is perfect because it parallels the disturbing nature of the plot. Lots of great digital cinematography. Plus, there’s a nice combination of computer effects and practical effects that works well together. It’s more than that, though. There isn’t only a gorgeous, dark aesthetic throughout. The imagery is more than baseless, moving pictures. For instance, a central theme to the film is a fundamental misogynistic element in the story of Adam and Eve, which has further extended into our societal view of women.
Another way to view the term fundamental is the word radical, which Marx (in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right) describes as to grab something by the root of the matter, but that “for man, the root is man himself.” Here, the root of misogyny is man, as von Trier shows us. This begins in the hospital after She collapses – the camera zooms in closely at the beautiful flowers near her bed, but, just like David Lynch’s initial zoom in on the Americana lawns of Blue Velvet, it zooms even closer to the ROOT of the flowers, the stems themselves, as well as the stagnant, dirtying water now at the bottom of the vase.
And that’s only one single shot saying so much. The imagery continues, and it continually comes through the images of nature. From deer giving bloody birth on the run, to a chaotic little fox, the creeping arms substituting as ROOTS of a tree. This is one of my favourite von Trier experiences because I feel like his symbolism has never been so strong and so brutally vivid as it is here.
I know there are people who will be entirely, thoroughly, with every ounce of their being, be revolted once the finale of the film is done. A director friend of mine actually threw their Blu ray of Antichrist in the trash because they’d never be able to watch it again. It is a damaging, tough to watch, disturbing film. I will never deny that.
Great art can, sometimes, be that way. We can’t discount something simply on the grounds of its being uncomfortable, or something that’s scary for whatever reason. If, like some reviews would have you believe, von Trier were making a movie with the sole intent of being misogynistic, then I’d be much more inclined to dismiss it. What many accuse him of perpetuating is exactly what he’s attempting to dissect. He wants to expose part of the Catholic theology, one with which many of us have lived, some still do. No secret in his past films that von Trier is a convert to Catholicism. Through this film, he contemplates a contemporary allegory of the Garden of Eden. His Adam and Eve – He and She – are the stand-ins for the various positions of men and women in how misogyny is perpetrated, as well as its effects.
While you might see things differently, I don’t discount that. Each person brings their own biases, their own interpretations, their own emotions to viewing a film. If you see something else in Antichrist, I’d love to know. For me, it’s a 5-star piece of cinema that is often overlooked, or underappreciated and unfairly maligned. Lars von Trier is a quality filmmaker whose usual label of provocateur is not really appropriate. Yes, he is provocative. Above all else he is an artist. He is willing to take a chance, to either fail or succeed in his eyes and those of the audience. I hope he keeps taking those chances. This is an important film that requires understanding, as it deals with a topic with which the world is gripped lately. Maybe if more people were willing to call religions – ALL religions – on their hypocritical, often dangerous attitudes and ideology, the world might be a better, safer place. For now, we have art to do what it can.