It says something about the extraordinary Antichrist that the first time Squally saw it, the film felt like a comedy. The second time, it felt like a tragedy. The movie was greeted with jeers at Cannes, which writer/director Lars von Trier brushed off with the proclamation, “I am the world’s greatest filmmaker.”
The critics were trying to take Antichrist too seriously. In dealing with the disintegration of a woman, after all, Von Trier was walking on hallowed ground. The cracked woman is a favorite trope of (male) directors, whether it’s Marnie or Rebecca, Catherine Deneuve in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Monica Vitti in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, any number of women in Bergman’s films, Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’s Safe, or especially Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher, by von Trier’s bete noire, Michael Haneke. Squally could go on, but let’s just say that it’s one of the greatest clichés of the art house cinema: a beautiful woman goes to pieces, the beautiful actress who plays her is acclaimed for the performance.
As is his wont, von Trier pushes everything in his film to the extreme. Antichrist’s prologue includes a close-up of full penetration. The body parts belong to stand-ins Mandy Starship and Horst Baron. While our unnamed protagonists are enjoying coitus, their young child falls out of the window. The couple are devastated, but He (Willem Dafoe) is a therapist and takes his wife’s healing in hand. He takes She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to a mountain retreat named Eden to confront the fear of nature that might be at the heart of her anxiety. She’s mania manifests itself in things like bashing her head against the toilet. She also has an insatiable sex drive. (“Never fuck your therapist,” groans He, although He gives in anyway.)
At Eden, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, She continues to freak out over a series of omens. A fox pauses from eating its own entrails to tell He, “Chaos Reigns.” This would be the point where Squally would hike back down the mountain, but Dafoe only changes his mind about the course of treatment when She, terrified he is abandoning her, gives him a shot to the junk that could be felt in the rear of the cinema. After wanking He to a bloody climax, She seals the deal by bolting his leg to a millstone and giving herself a clitorectomy. The ever-impish Von Trier films this in extreme close up as if to mock anyone who might think that just because Antichrist is beautifully shot, edited, and performed, that he is a mature filmmaker. The final insult for many, though, is a closing title card dedicating the whole unholy mess to Andrei Tarkovsky, the recognized gold standard of divine pantheistic filmmaking.
Since that calamitous Cannes premiere, Von Trier has in interviews played the chastened auteur. Antichrist, he said, was a product of his own spell in therapy. He has suggested that the film and his legendary directorial control was compromised by his drinking. In other words, the director is hinting that he abdicated from the chair, a move in keeping with the antichrist theme. For Squally, it’s most useful to think of von Trier as a P.T. Barnum figure for whom every aspect of the film–from gestation to promotion via a Dogme manifesto or two–is part of the work.
With this in mind, it’s useful to ask who exactly the antichrist of the film might be. The most obvious answer is She. That’s led many to accuse von Trier of misogyny. She encourages this view within the film when She comes to the conclusion that because women can reproduce, they’re part of a Nature which she has come to despise. What happens next plays out like every man’s worst nightmare. To privilege this is to forget that She has just lost her child and is terrified that her husband is next.
Another candidate might be He. His obsessive pursuit of therapy may do more harm than good. To treat his wife, He “overthrows” her therapist, dismissing their abilities. Von Trier also dangles an awareness of victimized women into the mix. She is working on a thesis called “Gynocide.” Eden is eventually overrun by the spirits of women massacred by patriarchal societies.
The third suspect is the dead boy himself. Like Satan, he is named “Nic.” Nic is seen in the prologue observing his fucking mom and dad before going to the window. During this shot, he turns to the audience and gives a conspiratorial grin. Does Nic throw himself out the window on purpose? Does he kill himself in order to fuck up his parents? Von Trier may genuflect to Tarkovsky, but he’s equally aware of The Omen, a film which had its share of people falling out of windows.
The fourth suspect is von Trier himself. The film begins with a stark identification. There are two title cards which look like they have been scrawled by a child. The first reads “Lars von Trier.” The second reads “Antichrist.” The closing title card, with Tarkovsky’s name and dates printed as if on a headstone, could represent the impudent Dane’s challenge to the “Great Directors” pantheon with a sleazy exploitation flick done up in the dressing of high art. Von Trier’s subsequent modesty may play out the antichrist myth to its end—the great dissembler has been defeated in his rebellion. Finally, the antichrist might be the part inside von Trier which prevented him, he claims, from makingt he movie that he should have.
If the auteur is god in his cinematic universe, von Trier has made a film in which the onscreen conflict mirrors his struggle with himself. The lengthy final credits, with their lists of researchers and special effects team, suggest a film of unsurpassed anality. But this is a work that, liker the nature it professes to despise, keeps growing wild. Von Trier may have indeed intended a tribute to Tarkovsky, but instead ran afoul of the tyranny of nature. Alternatively, his hatred of nature may have been compromised by the beauty of the German forest where Antichrist was shot. Similarly, while Dafoe’s character is unsympathetic in the first viewing, the second time he becomes easier to empathize with. Before She snips off her clitoris, She asks He to hold her. Despite his symbolic castration, He does. His final gesture, too, can be interpreted as an act of either extreme malevolence or mercy.
After the crazy excesses of Avatar, though, Squally had a sneaking regard for Von Trier’s anti-Nature polemic. She proclaims at one point that “Nature is Satan’s church,” and one is unlikely to find any glow-in-the-dark pistils or Saturday Night Fever-style forest moss in Eden. The couple are haunted by a trio of animals who represent nature at its worst. The deer carries around a stillborn faun. The fox eats its own guts. A crow eats one of its young who has fallen out of the nest. Blech. Giving the retreat the name “Eden” is part of von Trier’s bludgeoning method, but the “paradise” around the cabin verges on anarchy and is rife with sexual symbols. Right across from a fox hole is a dead tree, for instance. As well as showing off the forest world as bird-eat-chick, von Trier also comes up with the fiendish device of acorns falling on the roof of He and She’s love shack. The cabin sounds like it is perennially under siege.
It may be that any connection between Antichrist and Avatar is wholly fanciful, but von Trier even dresses He and She in blue outfits. Unlike the Na’vi, they are unwelcome presences. Her feet burn when the walk on the forest floor. When He hides from She in the foxhole, He is betrayed by a cawing raven. Nature is, by its nature, as busy being dying as it is being born. Small wonder that She is distracted from her thesis by the forest’s very audible weeping. It’s a scene ten times more chilling than watching the Na’vi city go timber.
Von Trier complements his anti-environmental theme by shooting much of the Eden sequences in the style of a nature documentary. He forsakes the handheld ballets of Dancer in the Dark and Manderlay for a mounted camera that pans and zooms to isolate moving forms. The film is as fascinated with its protagonists’ bodies as David Attenborough might be with any lion or cheetah. The casting is a stroke of genius. Dafoe and Gainsbourg both possess two of the rangiest, most fascinating bodies in contemporary cinema. Dafoe is muscled and trim, pulled so bow-tight that his face resembles a shroud wrapped around the skull.
Gainsbourg has a marvelously elongated body. One of the film stills depicts her arms draped over crouched legs, making apparent how the French star is a knot of long limbs. No actress resembles so closely Schiele sketch or Giacometti sculpture. She is an accidental machine of skin and bone. Her face, with its large nose and haunting eyes, is equally watchable. Von Trier can’t seem to stop filming her and one of the film’s undoubted pleasures is watching him do so through a variety of film stocks and lighting techniques. (The actors have also been cast for their voices. Another pleasure is hearing Dafoe’s knife-sharp accent cut against Gainsbourg soft, English-inflected croon.)
Maybe Von Trier’s cinematographical interest goes a little too far. DP Anthony Dod Mantle’s camera is a third character in the film, one which puts the audience in the position of a voyeur. In one scene, it rushes up on She, who is masturbating furiously before a nest of tree roots. The violence of the camera movement is enough to make us think it is He’s point of view, but the faceless figure that mounts She in the next shot could very well be a demon lover … or anybody.
Acknowledging an affinity with pornography is part of Von Trier’s dismantling of the woman in psychic peril genre. It begins with that initial insert of an, er, insertion and extends to Gainsbourg’s prolonged nudity. As with the masturbation scene, any eroticism is eliminated by the blunt violence on display. On another level, however, Von Trier continues to play with the boundary between dramatic performance and documentary inherent in a neorealist approach. In refusing to give his characters names, he doesn’t let the audience forget that what they’re watching is Dafoe and the singer of “Lemon Incest” going at it with each other.
Antichrist is both too much and possibly a colossal joke. The ponderous prologue is a brilliantly executed parody of art cinema’s manipulations. Not only is it in black and white (the guarantor of authenticity) and slow-motion (the guarantor of Pavlovian emotional response), but the intellectual pretensions of its classical soundtrack is leavened by the pornographic thrill of the actors’ lovemaking. (Another example of playing with the audience’s voyeurism. It’s important that Nic jumps out of a window, as if the film yearns to spill out off the screen and into our laps.) This is accompanied by symbolism wielded with all the subtlety of a fart in an elevator. Among the décor are statues with names like “grief and despair,” falling snow to make a parallel with Nic’s plunge, and both a washing machine and a draining bottle to accompany the merry banging—all that’s missing is a train going into a tunnel.
The dialogue is equally unsubtle. “You’re indifferent to whether your child is alive or dead,” says He, erecting a signpost for the crowd as obvious as She’s reference to “Satan’s church.” The plot moves with abrupt shifts. “I’m well again!” smiles She after one of He’s trials. With lines like these, it’s no surprise that She spends most of the second half shrieking in a manner that would even have Barbara Steele running for cover.
Von Trier is clearly having fun. When the fox says “Chaos Reigns,” for instance, he turns the prophecy into a pun by opening the heavens. The rain in turn is another part of the overworked falling motif—Nic, those acorns, a bird tumbling from its nest, the falling snow, dolls, bottles, water from a showerhead. Even the forest trees keel over in sympathy. Hokey horror devices are employed with equal measures of appreciation and contempt, including that old saw of a mad person’s handwriting getting more and more indecipherable. Then there is the gag of casting Dafoe, who played Christ for Scorsese, in the film. Dafoe is even buried and then resurrected like Jesus. The bolt in his leg may be as close as von Trier wants to get to a crucifixion, though. (The shot to his balls is considerably more emphatic.)
Von Trier may not have been joking when he proclaimed himself the world’s greatest filmmaker. As well as upping the ante on The Piano Teacher in the same year that Michael Haneke decided to make his Dogville, von Trier also nods to the cinema of David Lynch. Also among Dafoe’s roles are the memorable antichrist figure of Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart. Von Trier also uses the unsettling lighting and abrupt sound effects David Lynch employed in his own investigations of a woman’s psyche, Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, while setting the action firmly in Twin Peaks country. Even the animals have that eerie otherworldly quality shared by the birds at the end of Blue Velvet. What’s not resolved is whether the homages are a legitimate schoolyard challenge or a sign of flagging inspiration.
Towards the end of von Trier’s exercise in red herrings and punishment, a mist descends on Eden. It suggests that God (or the director) can no longer bear to watch the goings on. Or maybe it’s that, after so many deceptions and misdirections, the auteur can’t see where he’s going anymore. Antichrist is indeed a trickster’s movie, a game in the form of a tragedy. The ultimate joke is on von Trier. His big pffft is really some kind of masterpiece.
Tags: A Woman Under the Influence, Andrei Tarkovsky, Anthony Dod Mantle, Antichrist, Avatar, Blue Velvet, Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Dancer in the Dark, David Lynch, Dogville, Gena Rowlands, Horst Baron, Ingmar Bergman, Inland Empire, Isabelle Huppert, John Cassavetes, Julianne Moore, Manderlay, Mandy Starship, Marnie, Michael Haneke, Michelangelo Antonioni, Monica Vitti, Mulholland Dr., Rebecca, Red Desert, Repulsion, Roman Polanski, Safe, The Omen, The Piano Teacher, Todd Haynes, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Willem Dafoe