A speculative consideration of Lars von Trier and Antichrist

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Baiting and repelling audiences in equal measure, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is the most misunderstood film of the year.

Few films are easier to scoff at than Antichrist, the contentious new film by the self-proclaimed bad boy of Danish cinema, Lars von Trier. It’s so easy in fact, that film commentators (confident in the safety of numbers) are tripping over themselves in the rush to pour scorn on what might be a better film than hasty critics think. Mind you, who can blame them? Antichrist is full of moments that could be (and generally have been) described as sophomoric and pretentious, but as anyone familiar with von Trier knows, that’s par-for-the-course when it comes to the work of the willful Danish provocateur.

I wouldn’t call myself a fan, but I have tended to give Lars the benefit of the doubt, even though some of his films haven’t always appealed. The Kingdom (1997) is too farcical for me, and I didn’t get to the end of Epidemic (1987), although some critics rate them, especially the latter, which is thought to be a key-work to understanding the methodology and philosophic intent of von Trier’s simultaneously self-aggrandising and self-deprecating cinema. The Element of Crime (1984) was the first von Trier film I saw. I liked it, but my interest waned before the end. Medea (1988) was more to my taste, and while it may not be his best film (an arbitrary judgment at best), it showed that he has an eye for poetic images and formal restraint. There is a parallel between Medea and Antichrist in that they share the theme of children sacrificed to the selfish appetites of adults, which, if what he says about his childhood is true, must resonate deeply with von Trier. Zentropa (a Kafkaesque attack on imperialism and complicity) has thematic meat on its bones, but it’s too showy and populist to satisfactorily serve its underlying ideas. It’s technically impressive, but ultimately irritating.

‘The Golden Heart Trilogy’, Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dark (2000), revealed von Trier to be an auteur with a very clear set of thematic concerns (and an infamous taste for provocation). While the influence of Tarkovsky, Dreyer and Bergman is evident, von Trier’s own voice is also developing in these films, characterised by a desire to confront presuppositions of all hues (his included). This was very apparent in Dogville (2003), an allegorical consideration of hypocrisy, power, justice and mercy that was less didactic than it could have been due to its potentially far-reaching complexity and ambiguity. The trilogy (and some of the films that followed) grappled what could be called the affliction of belief, and in this respect, his films are reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman. Also like Bergman, von Trier’s protagonists are often women with whom he obviously identifies (or not so obviously considering the flack he gets for his supposed misogyny), but where Bergman’s beef with The Big Guy could be described as the angst of an atheist, von Trier’s films seem to be the work of a theist with an aversion to religion.

Not one to shy away from contentious attention, von Trier has said that everything written about him is a lie. He might be more defensive than he lets on, just as his provocations could mask a self-doubting moral conservatism. His parents apparently opposed the idea of ‘stunting’ a child’s natural development with boundaries and discipline, leaving von Trier with identity and relationship issues; a propensity for self-doubt and depression; and an abiding need for the sort of parental influence he never had. All of this personal angst feeds into his work, again much like Bergman, while his cinematic heroes (including von Stroheim, from whom he borrowed the ‘von’, Welles, Kubrick and others) have become, in a sense, de-facto parents and elders.

Antichrist is an allegory apparently drawn from von Trier’s depression and therapy, so the central characters are not literal in a conventional narrative sense, but represent two conflicting sides of a single entity: namely, von Trier. Actually, it’s a three-sided entity with the crucial inclusion of their 6-year-old son, Nick, who falls from a window to his death while his parents ‘indulge’ in sex in the opening flashback sequence. Nick is von Trier’s inner child (or Id), allowed to perish (metaphor) while the two adult sides of his psyche (Ego and Superego) pursue their worldly self-centredness. The characters in von Trier’s films are often avatars for his themes. Men broadly represent the severity of the world: reason, intransigence, condemnation, authority, patriarchal domination (something von Trier is at war with in his films, and no doubt within himself), while women are the locus of sacrifice, redemption, suffering, transcendence, and the battle with patriarchy. When ‘He’ (the rational, unemotional male side of the entity—played by Willem Defoe) gets too close for psychological comfort, ‘She’ (the self-protective, emotional female side—played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) acts to destroy that threat.

An important underlying theme is the notion of transcending ‘reason’ (an allegorical male trait) and ‘self-protective fear and denial’ (allegorically female). Problems occur when viewers confuse these allegorical traits with what they assume to be von Trier’s personal gender politics. The notion of the ‘punishment of women’ in his work is not only the outworking of themes dealing with patriarchal oppression, but it juxtaposes the brutality of the world (power, money, hatred, etc) with the spiritual (forgiveness, love, transcendence, etc). While there’s nothing original about this, it seems (judging by reviews) that many people simply don’t get it. Those who do tend to dismiss it as (to quote their oft-used words) banal or sophomoric, as if it’s all somehow beneath them, or as if someone just farted in church (which, when you think about it, should perhaps happen more often). Films like Antichrist are deliberately unsubtle, forcing the viewer to confront things about the world (and themselves) that they must either commit to seeing through, walk away from, or (as is often the case) attempt to discredit.

If viewers become engaged with von Trier’s stories at the expense of his themes, things can get messy. A telling example is American critic Roger Ebert’s reaction to Dogville, where he said that American citizens would never chain a helpless woman to a post so that the town could rape her. Thank God he cleared that up! Allegorically speaking Ebert’s statement is debatable (joke), but it illustrates how easily von Trier’s films have been taken literally by critics and audiences alike, as if they have forgotten (or perhaps aren’t aware) that cinema is a figurative art form. von Trier fashions his stories around his themes (guilt, mercy, truth, deception, enmity, compassion, redemption; etc), so accusations of ‘sophomoric banality’ and ‘misogyny’ could stem from literal rather than allegorical readings. It suggests that less of us know how to read a movie these days. In certain quarters, subtext is a dirty word. In others, it appears to have no meaning at all.

“If you can get past the histrionics of Antichrist (a film about madness that literally goes berserk) and your conflicted feelings about it, you might notice how beautifully made it is. It’s also funny, and some of the laughs are intentional. In the end, it comes down to how much slack one is prepared to cut this petulant show off who just happens to have a disagreeable way of pointing at disagreeable truths.”

An obvious fact that emerges in criticism of von Trier’s work is how rarely the religious component is mentioned. Tarkovsky and von Trier have more in common than camera placement. Their themes are similar, but where the contemplative Tarkovsky generally emphasises Divine Omnipotence, von Trier grapples with theological contradictions. While Antichrist may seem to have little in common with the great cinematic canon, it is nevertheless an attempt to examine personal and universal truths with spiritual and artistic sincerity. It goes without saying that it has little (some might say none) of the high-art subtlety or grace of Dreyer or Tarkovsky, but nor should it. This is von Trier’s vision. It’s his angst, his self-loathing, and his spiritual plea. The film’s excess reflects the disgust of the howling child within, and his longing for spiritual and psychological ‘health’. Some call the film meretricious and dishonest, or an audience-baiting prank, and while there might be an element of truth to that, Antichrist might be von Trier’s most revealing and honest film. While that doesn’t make it a great film, it behoves film commentators to take it more seriously than most have, or to at least do so with a little less self-congratulatory condescension.

If it’s true that von Trier forced himself to write a number of pages a day as part of his therapy, then Antichrist parallels Bergman’s Persona (1966) as a work of art that (as Bergman put it) ‘saved its author’. Both films are a response to the brutality of life and personal implosion. Both are two-actor films in which each character is one half of a single entity: the emotionally reactive patient half, and the more logical healer half; and both resolve with a merging of the characters and an equally ambiguous sense of transcendence. Another influence may be Benjamin Christensen’s Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), a Danish masterwork that caused outrage in its day for its graphic criticism of the historical Religion-endorsed oppression of women. The thesis that She (Gainsbourg) is writing is called ‘Gynicide’, a word used in feminist writing to describe the self-destruction of women oppressed by patriarchy. In terms of how to read the subtextual meaning of Antichrist, von Trier couldn’t give the viewer a bigger clue.

As I’ve already indicated, the misogyny von Trier has been accused of may stem from a misreading of the allegorical suffering of his female characters, but this is complicated by his comments about the dysfunctional relationship with his parents, especially his mother. In this light, one has to concede that he might suffer from misogyny, but more likely as part of a deeper misanthropic condition—narcissism. Self-hatred; an inability to give or receive love due to fear of abandonment and betrayal; a tendency to vent anger and contempt on those least able to defend themselves (or unlikely to pose any significant intellectual or emotional threat), are a few characteristics of narcissism. To the narcissist, the subject of their attack is a kind of de-facto self, deserving scorn for either being too much like them or inferior to them. The narcissist abuses others when what they really want is to be free of self-loathing. Given what von Trier has said about his childhood, this might shed light on the conflict at the heart of his films, particularly Antichrist.

The title could be self-referential in terms of describing someone unable to submit to the Authorial influence of God. It could also describe someone who self-heals (through therapy), and is therefore anti-Christ in the sense that they have no need for the Love and Healing that is (within a religious context) the reserve of God. So He (Dafoe) is anti-Christ in that he overcomes spiritual despair without God. All well and good, but the fact is, many of those seeing the film for the first (and probably only) time might not get this. If they do, von Trier’s heavy-handedness might encourage them to find it risible, and to dismiss a brave and bold attempt by one of cinema’s most searching auteurs to tackle the essential brokenness of human nature.

If you can get past the histrionics of Antichrist (a film about madness that literally goes berserk) and your conflicted feelings about it, you might notice how beautifully made it is. It’s also funny, and some of the laughs are intentional. In the end, it comes down to how much slack one is prepared to cut this petulant show off who just happens to have a disagreeable way of pointing at disagreeable truths. When a sneering prankster holds a mirror before our carefully concealed nature, it’s not surprising that our first reaction might be to send him packing. Frankly, any filmmaker who gets booed at Cannes must be doing something right. Dreyer’s Gertrud (also about narcissistic dysfunction?) had to endure jeering critical attacks when it screened at Cannes back in 1964. Who now would deny that it’s one of Dreyer’s (and cinema’s) greatest achievements?

Of course, the hysteria, hyperbole and downright unpleasantness of Antichrist is likely to ensure that it will never achieve the critical re-evaluation and canonical elevation of Gertrud, but once the hysteria, hyperbole and downright unpleasantness of the critical response subsides, considered appraisals ought to emerge. One need only look at the often unfairly maligned The Idiots to recognise the seeds that gave root to Antichrist. That too was heavy-handed and inflammatory, but with the exception of Medea, what von Trier film isn’t? At least he challenges the presuppositions, expectations and limits of cinema, even if (as some argue) his motivation is calculated or disingenuous. Like it or loathe it, Antichrist is packed with cinematic conviction, and is a forceful, insightful example of what auteurist cinema is about. One doesn’t have to like it to admit that it has every right to be what it is, and that its ideas (regardless of how tasteful they are or not) have the potential to say more to us (and about us) than most of the Euro-trifles that pass for cinematic art today.

And yet, to be completely honest, I find it difficult to equate von Trier with the best of world cinema. Despite this attempt to defend him and his new film, I don’t see him in the same light as his cinematic heroes, or with provocateurs such as Haneke, Dumont, Noé and the like. Like all narcissists (and don’t get me wrong, he may not be one), Lars could be (if he isn’t already) his own worst enemy. One need only look at 35 Shots of Rum, Paper Soldier, Birdsong, Jeanne Dielman, Still Walking, Wendy and Lucy, 24 City, Modern Life, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, and any one of a host of films from this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival to spot the difference. The missing ingredient (unsurprisingly perhaps) might simply be love.

Antichrist premiered at the 2009 New Zealand International Film Festival. Encore screenings are scheduled for the 2010 World Cinema Showcase in April.