PRINT October 2009


Lars von Trier’s Antichrist

Lars von Trier, Antichrist, 2009, still from a black-and-white and color film in 35 mm, 109 minutes. She (Charlotte Gainsbourg).

LARS VON TRIER’S ANTICHRIST had provoked audiences at Cannes to boos, laughter, condemnation, and the occasional declaration of genius two months before making its way into a small theater in Greenwich Village on a gorgeous summer morning this past July. Waiting for the screening to begin, a small group of critics paged absently through the press kit while serenaded by a cleverly selected sound track: Serge Gainsbourg (the father of Antichrist’s female lead, Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Brigitte Bardot performing their 1967 pop hit “Bonnie and Clyde,” and Johnny Cash and June Carter singing their duet “Jackson,” a song about failed passion, sexual bravado, and the ever-present threat of intimate humiliation. Whoever set up the theater for the screening clearly had a sense of humor, something one cannot fail to appreciate as a salutary antidote to the toxic glibness of von Trier, who proclaimed himself the “best film director in the world” this year at Cannes.

Indeed, what are we to make of a film that announces itself with a simple title shot featuring the words “Lars von Trier” and “Antichrist,” the second t in the title written to form the symbol for “female” (♀)? Are the name and the epithet set intentionally in apposition? Does von Trier mean to claim the title Antichrist as his own? Does he want to suggest that the Antichrist is female? Or rather, in the state of depression in which he claims to have written the film, did von Trier simply spend too much time dabbling in Nietzsche, whose Anti-Christ he says he has kept on his bedside table ever since he was twelve? In a world so steeped in apocalyptic sensibilities, what labor do this film and its provocative title perform? And, in the end, can we really be expected to care what the answers to these questions are?

Antichrist is divided into four chapters, bookended by a prologue and an epilogue, both shot in black and white. The prologue sets up the narrative premise for the entire film: While He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Gainsbourg) engage in passionate, slow-motion, nothing-left-to-the-imagination sex, their toddler, Nic, manages to descend from his crib, open the baby gate, climb up on a desk (in the process knocking three metal figurines—a bit like toy soldiers—labeled “Pain,” “Grief,” and “Despair” to the floor), and plunge poetically out an open window to his death at precisely the same moment that his parents arrive at orgasm. La petite mort, indeed. All of this action is shot lavishly and set to Almirena’s poignant aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” (“Leave that I might weep”) from Handel’s opera Rinaldo. The child’s death is disturbingly aestheticized, a thing of beauty rather than the stuff of tragedy. This is our first clue that we are in for it.

Trailer for Lars von Trier, Antichrist, 2009.

The chapters—“Grief,” “Pain (Chaos Reigns),” “Despair (Gynocide),” and “The Three Beggars”—track the two characters’ journey to a cabin in the woods called Eden, where He, a therapist, plans to treat Her for the grief and fear that have paralyzed her in the wake of their child’s accidental death. He is the embodiment of rationality, while She is a paragon of passion, grief, hysteria, and fury. His therapy is controlling and manipulative, and eventually it produces in her a chaotic rage that culminates in grotesque acts of violence reminiscent, perhaps, of the films of David Cronenberg, or of Eli Roth. Meanwhile, we learn of Her abandoned academic thesis—a project on “gynocide,” a vague and almost archetypal exposition of man’s murderous hostility toward woman, wherein the Northern European witch hunts of the early modern period stand in for “woman murder” tout court. The intellectual project also becomes a key to her pathology. She has internalized the witch hunters’ condemnation of female sexuality and women’s “nature,” an intellectual error diagnosed helpfully by her rationalist husband, who then suffers the consequences of his truth telling: She attacks him savagely, crushing his genitals with a piece of firewood, and hobbles him by drilling a hole through one of his legs and bolting a grindstone to it. She is simultaneously the embodiment of the revenge-seeking witch and a most creative and proficient bricoleuse, resourcefully making full use of the contents of the handyman’s toolbox stored away in the cabin. Her violence culminates in the shocking sight of her cutting off her own clitoris with a pair of rusty shears. By the time He strangles Her and burns her body on a pyre outside the cabin, the shock value has all but completely drained away. What, after all, is a scene of garden-variety strangulation after the brutality that has preceded it? And how else could the story end but in the cathartic dispatching and immolation of the hysterical woman?

The sexual politics of the film are just this flat-footed. In fact, Antichrist often has the feel of a badly prepared college student’s earnest first encounter with Big Ideas, the sort of tussle that produces unhappy short essays that begin, “From the dawn of time, man has tried to subordinate nature.” As She describes her thesis project, She observes: “Nature . . . causes people to do evil things to women.” Earlier on, talking about her fear of the outdoors at Eden, She offers the pious slogan “Nature is Satan’s church.” The associations of nature, Satan, and woman are unsubtle and ubiquitous in the film, from Her collection of woodcuts of early modern witches copulating with demons to the reappearing shots of a doe whose fawn is perpetually only half-expelled from its body, from the risible talking fox (“Chaos reigns!”) to the vicious screeching crow that simply must be a quotation of Hitchcock’s The Birds. These associations are so facile that one cannot help but feel that von Trier is simply having us on.

Lars von Trier, Antichrist, 2009, still from a black-and-white and color film in 35 mm, 109 minutes. He (Willem Dafoe).

This sense of being had emerges at other points in the film as well: Is there an intertextual joke involved in the casting of Dafoe, who played Jesus in another controversial film (Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ), as the male lead in a film called Antichrist? Or in the selection of the Handel aria, a song that figured so prominently in the 1994 film Farinelli il castrato, to accompany the opening scene’s celebration of sexual pleasure? Is von Trier winking and nodding forward in the plot to the scene when Her rage and grief produce appalling, hysterical acts of mutilation? One can’t know for sure whether these sorts of associations are intended by von Trier, though the entire film is always teasing, suggestive, and knowingly referential. Red herrings abound: What secret resides in the autopsy report that He has brought with them to Eden? Was there something wrong with the child after all? And what’s the deal with the photocopied X-ray of the child’s deformed feet? One can almost hear the voice of the Church Lady: “Could it be Satan?”

Von Trier has always been maddeningly coy about his portrayals of women characters and his treatment of women actors. From Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000) to Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005), the debasement of women has functioned to resolve narrative conflict and restore order. Antichrist follows this same program, both narratively and visually. Perhaps the most egregious image in the film appears at the end of the fourth chapter, after He has murdered Her and set her body on fire. He hikes away from Eden, presumably back to the city and to civilization, but as he does so, he climbs a knoll covered in thick bramble that soon morphs into a highly stylized image of the naked dead bodies of women, arranged in geometric swirls to follow the contours of the shrubbery. Inscribed in the same visual idiom is the last scene of sex between husband and wife—outside, at the base of a tree whose root system is interlaced with the limbs of dead women—so that Eden is revealed as the place where nature, femininity, death, and sexuality are all interwoven. At the same time, Antichrist is an instance of torture porn, but with the narrative twist that She is the captor, the author of grotesque acts of violence, and the perpetrator of sexual mutilations. The result is a blend of sophomoric gender politics, cinematic mastery, and a certain shrewd knowingness that generates reactions and dismisses them in the same gesture.

By naming his film Antichrist, von Trier calls up not only Nietzsche’s work of bad-boy philosophy but also ready associations with the Christian apocalyptic tradition, especially the biblical book of Revelation, which likewise traffics in figurations of monstrous and murdered women. Its author, like von Trier, possesses a distinctive vision and operates under a mantle of inflated self-regard that closely resembles that of the “best film director in the world.” The book of Revelation’s author at least has the excuse of believing that his vision is actually a divine revelation, sent to him by God. By contrast, what, one is left to wonder, is Lars von Trier’s excuse?

Antichrist opens in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 23, after making its US premiere at the New York Film Festival on Sept. 25.

Elizabeth A. Castelli is a professor of religion at Barnard College in New York.