Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.
We’ve finally reached the ‘modern’ period of Danish director Lars von Trier, and while we still have one movie to go in this project, this is coming full circle for me. Today’s movie, the infamous Antichrist, was the first von Trier movie I ever saw. It’s the kind of movie that built up a reputation for being challenging and divisive and maybe even ‘bad art’ even before it had hit wide release. People were running around accusing Lars von Trier of misogyny (hilarious if anyone had seen his mid-period films, but there you have it) and deriding the movie as provocative for nothing more than the sake of provocative.
So basically a Lars von Trier movie, but even more so. Regardless, once this movie hit Netflix Instant (where you can still watch it, by the way), it immediately went into the queue. I have a bad habit of seeking out movies that offend people and subjecting myself to them. It’s an endurance test: can I watch the movie that people deride, even if I might find it hard to take? Sometimes this leads to great things (The Woman is a good example of that) and sometimes I end up wanting to just stop watching movies for a while (A Serbian Film was one of these). Where does this fall?
Well, I’m doing this project, aren’t I?
From the opening moments Antichrist is a stylistic leap forward in Lars von Trier’s film making talents. Opening in slow motion black and white, the movie begins with an unnamed man (Willem Dafoe) and woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) having sex. In the shower, atop a counter, on the couch: they are going at it hot and heavy, to the neglect of everything around them. So much neglect, in fact, that they don’t notice when their young son climbs out of his crib and wanders past them to an open window. Nor do they notice when he falls out of said window, tumbling to his death. And it all unspools with the calculated grace of a perfume ad, carefully posing falling snow and an angelic child the same as it frames Dafoe’s (well, his body double’s) thrusting balls.
Minutes in, and you’re already lost in the mad deep country of von Trier’s mind. And what unfolds seems inevitable—the sudden crushing grief, the depression that the woman suffers as she collapses at the funeral and ends up hospitalized. Her husband, burying his own grief and putting on his therapist’s face, decides that it would probably be better for her if he took over her treatment. In order to get her to face the terror and horror that she feels, he decides to take her on a trip to a cabin where she and her son went the previous summer while she was working on her thesis. The woman is terrified of the cabin and the woods, and the man decides that exposing her to that setting will reveal whatever is buried deep at the root of her troubles, which are beginning to manifest more and more strongly.
And so the two of them head out into the Woods, capitalized because it is just as much a character as they are (in fact maybe more of one), and takes up as much a place in the story. This forest, filmed in Germany, is a mist-covered place of so much green that it chokes the frame with life and death, the kind of Woods that earn the same life-gagging term that Werner Herzog famously used for the Jungle:
It’s the only land where creation is unfinished yet. Taking a close look at what’s around us there is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. And we in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle [...] we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel.
The woman, confronting these Woods, panics like a child. The man, pedantic and rational, carries her like a disapproving father when she says she can’t bear to walk on the grass. And everywhere around them is life and death, in the growing trees and the rotting mosses. In the animals that lurk in the forest: early on the man sees a deer in the forest, beautiful until it turns and there is the head of its dead child limply hanging out of it, a moment of stillbirth forever frozen into a state of mutant horror, an image that might as well represent the entire fundamental fear and disgust of birth and death sitting so neatly in the same sentence that settles over the entire film.
Antichrist then begins to unfold like a horror film, with the looming threat of something lurking out in the Woods, implanted in our minds by the woman and only half-heartedly discounted by the man. Where she is emotional, he is calm, but it bears the smugness of overrun intellectualism. There is a sense that what he does he does in a way to ignore his own feelings of grief, turning a human condition into a puzzle to solve in order to cope. His clinical nature, rather than being comforting, rings hollow. He might be the therapist, but he seems woefully lost in this primordial world of the most basic emotions tied to birth and suffering. Especially when he begins to start seeing his own horrors lurking in the Woods, a sense of dread that encapsulates in a vision (or maybe not) where he comes across a fox biting out its own guts, which leers up at him and snarls “Chaos reigns.”
And ultimately, as this setting begins to peel away the psychological layers both people have built up, what’s revealed isn’t some wild twist, but the reality that the horror was there all along: the woman, in working on her thesis (called Gynocide) about historical horrors visited upon women, had started to believe the things that were being stated. Too many words about witches and wickedness had revealed to her, in whatever depressed state she was in, that the bulk of patriarchal human history had to be right. Women were the problem, the thing to be feared and hated, because to be a woman was to give life and to give life was to bring death, and the two things would always co-exist in a state of deep existential horror. And her self-loathing manifested in child abuse even before the death of their child—the coroner’s report found deformities from her deliberately putting the wrong shoe on each of his foot, and in the depths of her despair she has a vision (whether fed by guilt or true we never know) of her having seen her child climbing up to the window but being too involved in her own passion to care.
The realization that she is not only ‘crazy’ but dangerously so comes as a shock to the man, but can it really be considered much of a surprise? Her instability seemed there from the beginning, and not only did he not address it well but he immediately took her to a place where it would reach its peak and fostered an environment where it would flourish into actually lashing out. So when he begins to accuse her of these things, to suddenly berate her for being honest with him, she snaps and attacks him. This moment, probably the most memorably called out of the film, involves her maiming him and molesting him sexually, graphically subjecting him to all sorts of horrors. She smashes his testicles with a block of wood, masturbating him as he’s passed out until he ejaculates blood, and then drills a hole through his leg and bolts a stone around him, in order to keep him from running. And it’s here that the film receives most of its criticism, as it doesn’t blink from showing these things play out.
The thing is, this is not really the emotional climax of the film, but the catharsis of tension that existed for a full hour beforehand. It was the quiet moments, the creeping dread of the Woods and what they represented, and the slow burn of intense emotion that was always going to spill the banks of civilized human behavior that were the real tension. This, graphic as it is, is the release moment. It’s the time when finally what needed to be said was said, even if it’s done through horrific violence. And the violence is at least appropriate, a variation of the sexual mutilation and exploitation done to women through history, the ways in which they were systematically trapped in abusive relationships. Her lashing out brings the movie into full allegory, as she is woman striking out against all of man for the horrors of hundreds of years of gendered oppression.
What’s most interesting then is that this doesn’t suddenly translate into the man becoming the protagonist. He wakes up and flees, dragging his maimed leg behind him, trying to escape her wrath; but this doesn’t suddenly turn him into the hero that we’re rooting for. This seems like punishment that is understandable, if not deserved, and the horror of her madness is made worse by the nagging suspicion that it is somehow earned. This was done so many times that who can blame her, blame women, for lashing out against men. It’s here that the accusations of misogyny in this film really begin to overflow, I feel, from people who don’t understand what von Trier is trying to do. This isn’t a story about one woman becoming a monster, but about the inevitable systemic destruction that stems from oppression and violence along these long-standing gender lines. Many people will point to the ‘misogyny expert’ that von Trier had in the credits, but who wouldn’t want an expert in these historical things to help turn what could have been an isolated story into a metaphor for all of humanity?
And ultimately, von Trier’s final middle finger flipped to all of society: even her rage becomes impotent, as it manifests itself in self-loathing that can’t keep her from harming herself as much as she harms him, lashing out at everything in her guilt and madness. And that harming, mutilation where she takes scissors to herself, is enough of an opening for the always-rational man to free himself of his shackles and turn on her. For all of her violence, all it does is inspire more violent response, as he grabs her and literally chokes the life out of her. And it’s not seen as heroic, the victim killing the psycho like a normal horror movie, but instead the tragic reality of this wide gulf of understanding and violence that manifests again and again. The horror is too great, and reverts humanity to animal instincts to either rule over or destroy, and ultimately it is the man who walks away with his life, because that is the way of our cultural heritage.
The ending this leads to, though, is nebulous to the point of an open-ended question posed to the audience. As the man hobbles away into the Woods, the fog lifts and the Woods are revealed to be full of the bodies of thousands of anonymous women piled in mounds of bodies. The whole history of this Gynocide is revealed to him, and as he subsists on berries and makes his way further and further away from the cabin towards … something, he sees a vision of all of these women in ghost form, their faces blurred and anonymous, coming up the mountain to greet him. What does it mean? Has he finally achieved some understanding of what the woman already knew and saw? Is it simply guilt that tries to paint these Woods as the domain of generations of subjected women? Is it something more sinister, a false moment of grace that rings hollow when you realize that these are nothing more than images, idealized forms without names or identities, beings that exist in his mind but have no real weight compared to his survival as he hobbles away. He might have made it out alive, but what mindset is he bringing back? The movie asks us to make that determination, to make up our own minds, to project into the man what we would want to see or what we think of him.
And its that ambiguity that I feel is at the heart of the best of Antichrist’s nuance. It’s a film full of dread and terror and hatred, scary more for the frankness with which it addresses things that are almost always left unsaid (the only film I feel that comes close to this frankness is Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell, and it does it with a sledgehammer instead of a paint brush) than for its imagery, as tough as it might be to stomach. This is von Trier analyzing his obsessions with women in society on film, giving us the most primal metaphor for which to work with in analyzing our own preconceptions and emotional baggage. And I truly believe that distance, that deep legend quality, is what elevates this film among all of his others as the greatest accomplishment he has produced on film to date. It’s never easy, never safe, but it speaks multitudes and aims to try to uncover fundamental truths. What more can one ask of art?