I know, I know…I am late to the party on this film. Still, a reminder that spoilers abound…
Lars von Trier has a complicated relationship with women. I think it is safe to say that, amid the cries of sexism and misogyny that have accompanied many of his films, von Trier has done himself no favors with his hilarious, deeply self-deprecating approach to his own work. Here is an artist who claims that each and every one of his characters is an empathetic part of himself, only to immediately remind the world of his own self-hatred in the next breath. On camera, von Trier has hung women by the neck (Dancer In The Dark), bound them to a millstone so that they may not escape sexual slavery (Dogville), had them suffer horrific sexual assaults and murder in the name of love (Breaking The Waves), turned their racial naivete into a brutally failed social experiment (Manderlay), turned them into child-murdering angels of death (Medea, although maybe a little slack on that one), represented them as sexually available lackeys (The Boss Of It All and The Idiots) and has made them give birth to monster children who wreak havoc on their society (The Kingdom, which, ok, again, a little slack). Over time, von Trier’s fascination with the social position of women, with the indignities they suffer and the pain they endure in a sexist society, has taken the shape of a near-obsession, the director constantly finding new and more sadistic ways to showcase their suffering. Finally, with Antichrist, he’s delivered his coup de grace, a film that further complicates von Trier’s position while throwing everything that has come before into stark relief.
The story that makes up the first two-thirds of Antichrist seems at first look a fairly standard set-up for von Trier’s typical groin kick of a finale; a married couple lose their child in a terrible accident that occurs while they are making love; He (Willem Dafoe) is a psychotherapist (naturally) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg, in a brave and brilliant performance) is a scholar studying the history and origins of Western misogyny (naturally). As She suffers terribly during the stages of grief that accompany the loss of a child (“It’s completely normal,” He constantly reminds her), He denies his own grief a voice, instead focusing on trying to offer therapeutic help to his suffering wife. Pompous and detached from his own feelings, He is the perfect foil in von Trier’s premise; the depth and primacy of emotion She feels transcends his rational abilities, putting her more deeply in touch with the primeval, violent cycles of the natural world and sending him into the heart of the magic underbelly of rational experience where, in fact, chaos reigns.
Under the therapeutic guidance of her husband, She discovers her own suppressed terror at what the state of nature might hold for her; asked to name her greatest fear, She says “the woods.” Of course, the couple share a second home, a rustic cabin deep in the heart of a seemingly haunted forest and it isn’t long before He drags the pair of them for an extended stay in order that they might confront her “irrational” fear and overcome the cause of her grief. Once there, as her suffering carries forward and his therapeutic ideas grow further out of touch with her worsening emotional state, He discovers the subject of her research and condition; She has grown to hate the powerlessness she finds in women and seemingly has begun to embrace the misogyny she once abhorred. No longer able to internalize her pain (and with an assist from a forrest full of haunted cries, talking foxes, deer carrying stillborn fawns and a crow that won’t die), She, fearing that He will abandon her to her suffering, decides to make sure that He finally knows how her suffering feels. She undertakes a brutal assault that focuses on the pain and guilt of that most primal of human functions, the sexual pleasure of human reproduction (which is eternally linked to the moment of her child’s death). From here on in, bad things happen. I won’t spoil any more of the fun and you probably know it all anyway.
Despite von Trier’s intimations that Antichrist is intended as a horror movie and despite the overpowering images of genital mutilation which have been the focus of hot debate since the film debuted at Cannes, Antichrist is, for me, the director’s saddest (and that is saying something*), most moving film. I have to confess once again that the concept of a child dying in the family home is probably my absolute worst nightmare, and von Trier draws an incredible performance from Charlotte Gainsbourg to make it all feel true; she absolutely nails the emotional depths of a mother’s pain. However, once the film shifts into its final act and von Trier begins ascribing causes for the nature of her suffering, I could not divest myself from the reality of her situation enough to believe in her ultimate insanity; every parent has heard the phantom cries of his child, everyone has had moments of anger and doubt that, in the retrospective wake of a tragedy, would be unforgivable in one’s self. Most of all, if I was married to a pontificating asshole who never dealt with his own grief but instead coped with the death of his child by trying to analyze and cure me, you can be sure there would be hell to pay.
All of which is to say that although von Trier’s attempts to situate Gainsbourg’s She on a dark, latent path to madness and violence, there wasn’t a frame of the film that did not honor her grief and grant the legitimacy of her actions, which is why, for all of the discussion of horror, fear and castration that will accompany the film, Antichrist is the movie that finally gets suffering right. It is not every “horror” film which allows for the violent images to actually serve the rational necessity of the film’s argument (and especially not images this powerful) From the film’s opening moments, von Trier equates sex and death, reproduction and pleasure, orgasm and loss; the writing is on the wall from the get go. But I’m certain that in this case, von Trier is indeed detailing an empathetic response to his character’s pain instead of exploiting it. Yes, there are lyrical, haunting images to contrast with the kinetic handheld violence (the forest coming alive with limbs and bodies, beautiful, misty slow motion, etc.), and yes, there is a bunch of biblical fluff and psychoanalytical nonsense** and ridiculous gender theory that cloud the film’s point of view, but it all ends up feeling reflexive in comparison with Gainsbourg’s aching soul. Of all of the director’s films, Antichrist feels the least like some sort of narrative straw man game and more, well, alive to the feeling and the legitimacy of the female protagonist’s experience.
One of the most upsetting developments in recent cinema is the rise of suffering as a form of titillation; a few espionage, comic book and war films aside, the horror genre has been the most guilty, forsaking the root of fear in the name of physical pain and torture. There is hope on the horizon, though; with films like Ti West’s genuinely creepy House Of The Devil serving to reassert the power of the viewer’s imagination as the locus of fright, perhaps it will be a movie like Antichrist that proves once and for all that internal pain, the very nature of human suffering, is far more frightening than the physicality of opening flesh and breaking bones; it is the knowledge of a broken heart that truly tears us apart.
*Dancer In The Dark and Breaking The Waves have the unfair advantage of genre on their side; it’s hard not to cry at a melodramatic musical or a melodramatic tragedy regardless, but those movie pushed every button in their genres. No fair; I have them in a tie for second place.
**The line that got the biggest laugh from me?
She: Freud is dead…
He: (pause…smile…nod…) Yeah!