Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Reading film: Lars von Trier's "The Antichrist"

To be clear, I am not recommending this film to anybody. Its climax takes sexualized violence to an excruciating level. Were I able to wash my eyes of some of it, I would. A few people walked out during the screening I attended.

Nonetheless, there is something incredible about this film. First, the acting is excellent; second, the images are arresting; third, and most importantly, the film opens onto thoughts and subject matters that one guesses transcend anything von Trier, who reportedly made the film to battle a long bout of depression, could have intended. Von Trier, who has admitted to compulsively making the same movie over and over, offers up yet another tale where a vulnerable woman is abused, slowly goes mad, and/or ends up dead. The difference here is crucial, however; whereas his previous heroines are undeniably martyrs of some kind, here the lines are uncomfortably blurrier, the lessons more closely integrated with the form and style of delivery.

"He" (Willem Dafoe) and "She" (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a married couple, make love in a highly stylized and visually stunning prologue. They don't notice their toddler son getting out of his crib and making his way towards an open window. They climax as he plummets to his death. The rest of the film involves He, a cognitive-behavioural therapist, trying to cure his wife of her grief. He throws out her meds and decides on immersion therapy, taking her to the place she fears most: "Eden", their cabin in the woods, where a year previously she had taken their son while she worked on a thesis on gynocide (studying in the woods with a one-year-old in tow is really conducive to grad school work, am I right?). In Eden he puts her through a series of arguably silly and hopeless exercises to confront her fear (which for most of the film is a formless dread). The woods around the cabin, however, seem to justify her fear: lichen grows on her husband's hand, a chick plummets from a nest and is devoured by a hawk, acorns pelt the cabin roof like hail, a doe with a dead fawn hanging out of it stands eerily still in a clearing, a fox devouring its own entrails seems to speak. After some progress with her fear, all goes terribly wrong when He starts to suspect her of misogyny, and of having abused their son; perhaps it is him all along, or men, that she really fears (and perhaps hates). Cue the orgy of sexual violence (if you can sit through it, you will be rewarded by a highly important and beautiful epilogue).

People have been sharply divided on this film. Some consider it misogynist, others point up its seeming gratuity and lack of overall meaning. Arguably there is some truth to these assessments, as the film comes precariously close to embodying the formless fear of its characters. I think however that it lends itself to fruitful analysis in some respects. Obviously the man, wife and child are an inversion of the Holy Family. Additionally, some reviewers have pointed out the arrogant humanist rationalism of He and how it conflicts with the deeper, arguably irrationalist wisdom of She. To the extent that death is a constant theme in the film, one might also read it as a meditation on death. I would suggest, however, that whatever else it might be, the film is a deep meditation on the deployment of reason against the horrors of life as such.

Georges Bataille, in the second volume of The Accursed Share, points out that life, in its silent, relentless, teeming chaos, is the truth of our fear of death. After all, when we die, our bodies crawl with insects and worms, fungus and bacteria. It is precisely by life that we die, and by life that our dead bodies are immolated. At one point in the film, She declares nature "Satan's church". Recall that Satan is Lucifer, the angel of light. If one had to characterize angels, one would have to admit that properly speaking, they do not live; their existence is a kind of cold light, an eternal death free of the sticky horrors of life (one is reminded here of Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire). But Satan shows the earth with this very light; nature, life, are sanctified by it. The horror of life is a revelation; nature, the house of life, is the church of the evil that thus reveals.

Spinning things out in this way, The Antichrist becomes a generalized provocation. It takes aim at the falseness of our human goodness, a thin membrane which barely covers the real. Willem Dafoe's character is at first insensitive to the horrors of nature and of life, approaching his wife's grief with an arrogant, operational, and arguably contrived warmth and steadiness (at one point in the film she declares herself cured, and he merely stares back at her incredulously; arguably he wants to remain in control). As evil gradually reveals itself to him through the natural surroundings of the cabin, his own "goodness" becomes radically compromised; only once he gives himself over to evil entirely does nature begin to hold forth and nourish him (the eating of wild blackberries at the end of the film being, I think, highly meaningful). In a gross distortion of the Holy Family, the mother gives birth to her husband - who is, arguably, the antichrist.

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