• All Those Things That
    Are to Die: Antichrist

    By Ian Christie

    To say that Lars von Trier deals in provocation and controversy is like saying John Ford made westerns: obviously true, but far from giving a measure of the director’s importance. Ever since The Element of Crime polarized critics at Cannes in 1984, throughout his switchback career as the enfant terrible of European art cinema, von Trier has been routinely making waves, and disconcerting both admirers and detractors alike.

    Many found that weirdly tinted, dystopian detective story overblown and pretentious, while others saw it as evidence of a distinctly contemporary new talent. Clearly, it had deep roots in the noir tradition, but it was self-consciously stylized in a way that would soon be called postmodern, and made in English to assert that von Trier had no intention of being marginalized as Danish. The films that followed have become legendary in recent art cinema. Breaking the Waves (1996) was condemned for exploiting its heroine’s sexual degradation, while becoming a massive success. The Idiots (1998) courted controversy as well, blurring the line between feigned mental illness and outrageous misbehavior. And with Dancer in the Dark (2000), starring Björk as a suffering immigrant in the United States, von Trier produced a Cannes Palme d’Or winner that puzzled many and hinted at a deep-seated perversity in his work. Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005), with their eccentric, Brechtian critique of American society, lost him a great number of his early supporters. And although von Trier had led the influential Dogme movement in 1995, calling for a return to basics in filmmaking, he seemed to have little interest in keeping his own vow of chastity.

    So we always expect to be provoked by a new von Trier, and Antichrist (2009) does not disappoint. Once again, Cannes audiences were split between the contemptuous and the impressed, with little common ground. And this time, it was visceral. Probably not since the gruesome climax of Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976) have so many confessed to being unable to watch on-screen images of mutilation, such as those that end this parable of nature red in tooth, claw, and genitalia.

    What happens? A prologue shows the tragic death of a young child while his parents are making love. What follows is the story of the mother’s profound depression and the efforts of her husband, a professional therapist, to treat her, as they take refuge in their remote mountain cabin. Eventually, therapy gives way to an atavistic struggle, as this tormented couple reenact the Edenic allegory. But why should we be compelled by von Trier’s perverse challenge to so many comfortable shibboleths—here ranging over therapy, feminism, child care, and nature’s healing power? We are put in a position not unlike that of Willem Dafoe’s bewildered protagonist when faced with Charlotte Gainsbourg’s self-laceration: we may wonder why von Trier seems to vindicate the history of medieval misogyny and witch persecution, as if seeking to overthrow centuries of enlightened progress. (The characters in Antichrist are unnamed, so I use the actors’ names here.)

    The child’s death, realized in a sequence of eerie beauty, compounded of slow-motion black-and-white cinematography and accompanied by Handel’s sublime aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” (“Let Me Weep,” from his opera Rinaldo), seems somehow ordained, perhaps— retrospectively—even willed by his disturbed mother. The conjunction of the couple’s ecstatic lovemaking and the child’s fatal fall is even more disturbing than Emily Watson’s devout prostitution of herself on behalf of her stricken husband in Breaking the Waves. Here, copulation appears to spell death rather than life, as it will throughout the narrative. But the father-husband’s program of counseling and role-play therapy seems to work, bringing the mother-wife to a point at which she declares herself “cured.” The tragedy has also returned her to an abandoned project, however, an academic thesis on the history of “gynocide,” violence against women justified by their supposed link to original sin and evil.

    Dafoe discovers Gainsbourg’s disturbing research materials in the loft space of their wilderness cabin, located in Eden (a name so literal that it brings to mind the title of von Trier’s remarkable Danish television series The King­dom). This former place of retreat has now become a place of confinement, encircled by a threatening forest in which such animals as a deer, a fox, and a crow become disturb­ingly human, or rather, demonic. The dramatic use of the loft recalls the notorious “madwoman in the attic” scenario of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre—now widely interpreted from a feminist perspective as an indictment of nineteenth-century patriarchy’s casting of women as either angels or demons. If the psychotic Bertha is Rochester’s guilty secret in Jane Eyre, imprisoned in his attic, she may also be the product of his domineering attitude toward women, and in some readings, a repressed double of Jane herself as well, embodying her fear and anger before impending marriage. Dafoe’s attempt to treat his wife’s depression does indeed grate increasingly on us, suggesting a “therapeutic tyranny” no less domineering than the nineteenth century’s more overt patriarchy. What he finds in the attic—a graphic record, in scrapbook form, of the history of men torturing women—also records his wife’s growing acceptance of the belief that women are intrinsically evil, as proclaimed in the 1485 treatise The Hammer of Witches, written by Catholic church inquisitor Heinrich Kramer: “Women are by nature instruments of Satan—by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation.”

    So Gainsbourg has embraced the victimology of her research, taken on the historic burden of guilt. And in a trope we recognize only too well from our long experience with horror movies, although her therapist now believes he knows what to do, the true horror is about to begin, as she starts to wreak vengeance on Dafoe, the unfortunate representative of “our” values. Worse still, he too will eventually abandon those civilized values and act out the same violence against her that women have suffered for so long, as if justified by believing her mad or bad.

    What are we to make of this bloody and seemingly per­verse, yet highly sophisticated, tale? On my first viewing, I was in such a state of shock that I barely registered the final dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky, let alone a curious group of credits meticulously recording research carried out on misogyny, mythology and evil, anxiety, horror films, theology, and therapy. No doubt this list owes something to von Trier’s dark sense of humor, as if providing a convenient checklist of “issues,” but it also points to the film’s vast mythic hinterland, and perhaps especially to the Nordic aspects of this. Benjamin Christensen’s bizarre dramatized documentary Häxan (1922, later subtitled Witchcraft Through the Ages when it became a hippie classic with a commentary by William Burroughs) marked an early cinematic stage in linking the grisly fascination of medieval witch hunts with “modern” psychological interpretation of the inherent tensions between men and women. And ever since film absorbed the legacy of gothic fiction, especially its preoccupation with vampirism and satanic cults, horror movies have reveled promiscuously in such material. According to the lore, female vampires, however thrillingly seductive, have to be dispatched with a stake through the heart. Bloody violence by, and especially against, women is cheerfully sanctioned.

    But what if we take the lore more seriously, as another great Danish director, Carl Theodor Dreyer, did, first in Vampyr (1932) and later in Day of Wrath (1943)? Dreyer has been an important influence on von Trier, who in 1988 adapted his unfilmed script Medea for Danish television. The story follows Euripides’ account of how Medea becomes an abandoned wife and exacts her revenge, not only on her faithless husband and his new wife but also on their children, and von Trier portrays her as a wise woman, consulted by many on medical and other matters. Finding her magical herbs, witchlike, deep within the swamps, Kirsten Oleson’s Medea is regarded with fear as well as respect, until her husband, Jason, is manipulated into abandoning her and she embarks with terrifying calm on her ferocious vengeance. Unlike most of von Trier’s films, Medea does not rely on stylized cinematography but uses a variety of coastal landscapes to reinforce its elemental tragedy, culminating in the almost unbearably extended sequence of Medea tenderly leading her sons to their death on a remote hilltop.

    Even more than the desperate, ill-used protagonists of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, Medea seems to prepare the way for Gainsbourg in Antichrist. While all are afflicted by misfortune and tortured, encouraging the view that von Trier is fundamentally misogynistic, Medea and Gainsbourg are both possessed by a vengeful fury and supernatural powers. The legendary Medea was part goddess and part witch, although von Trier casts her as a wronged woman moved to murderous revenge, while Gainsbourg seems to be enmeshed in dark powers arising from her studies, like Faust conjuring up Mephistopheles. Has she in some way willed or colluded in her child’s death, as some kind of sacrifice? When Dafoe discovers from the autopsy report that his son had misshapen feet, and from family photographs that Gainsbourg systematically put the child’s shoes on the wrong feet, we are of course reminded of the devil’s traditional cloven hooves. Was she grooming him as an “antichrist,” like the sinister coven that ensnares the heroine of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby? Or—although this need not be an alternative—is it an elaborate form of grief fantasy?

    The lyrical construction of the film’s prologue suggests something of what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls a “crystal image”—fusing the pastness of the recorded event with the presentness of its viewing. Like the crystal globe that fills with snow as Charles Foster Kane dies at the beginning of Citizen Kane, it occupies a pivotal position in the film, and it is not an image that “belongs” to any of the characters. The connection of lovemaking and a child’s death seems hardly tragic as presented here: rather like some kind of perverse sacrament, attended by toy figurines of the allegorical “three beggars,” Pain, Despair, and Grief. For all the scene’s seeming precision, we cannot interpret it; we can only accept its shockingly contradictory message of beauty and death. By comparison, all the color images that follow seem drab.

    Has Gainsbourg sacrificed her child so that “chaos reigns” in nature, as the speaking fox will announce to Dafoe? The imagery of the film’s final chapter strongly evokes Hieronymus Bosch’s apocalyptic vision of The Last Judgment, with its vulnerable copulating bodies. Gainsbourg’s increasingly violent sexual advances on Dafoe lead to the crescendo of her impaling him, in a grotesque parody of rape. The symbolism of this is hard to put into words, yet it suggests less a conventional horror “chain saw massacre” than something that might have come from the dreamworld of Dreyer’s Vampyr, with its shadowy ghosts going about their business in a flour mill.

    For all the visceral horror of the final part, with its mutilation and self-mutilation, this seems to be an evocation of what Gainsbourg calls “nature as Satan’s church.” We are more accustomed today to the idea of nature as benevolent and healing, as in “nature cures,” but for many centuries, the natural world was viewed with fear and suspicion, as the source of both living and supernatural dangers. The forest, in particular, is the home of spirits and demons in most Nordic and Slavic mythologies. Unlike the gleeful witches’ Sabbath of Christensen’s film (in which the director himself plays a rampant Satan), this is a world going to a different kind of hell—which perhaps explains the Tarkovsky dedication. It may be the harsh medieval world of Andrei Rublev, or the impending nuclear apocalypse that hovers over The Sacrifice, or something more elemental that von Trier is channeling from Tarkovsky: the vivid, almost incestuous dreams of Ivan’s Childhood, and the engulfing forest of The Mirror, at once nurturing and threatening.

    “Geniuses are like thunderstorms,” wrote an earlier polemical and egotistical Dane, the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who deliberately stoked the fires of controversy in his attacks on hypocrisy and bourgeois convention. Antichrist certainly provokes and disturbs. But does this make it a work of genius or merely sensational, cynically putting censors and audiences to the test? Like Kierkegaard, von Trier has always thrived on assaulting “good taste” and conventional pieties, and here he has mobilized the resources of horror cinema to delve into the long history of “monstrous femininity” and misogyny—not to reassure us that it’s all in the past, or easily curable by therapeutic platitudes, but to make us feel the true horror of facing our buried fears and conflicts. And that is surely the aim of art that matters.

    Ian Christie is a professor of film and media history at Birk­beck College, University of London, and a fellow of the British Academy. He has written and edited many books on Russian, British, and American cinema, including
    Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Press­burger, The Film Factory (coedited with Richard Taylor), and Scorsese on Scorsese (coedited with David Thompson).

15 comments

  • By Brooke Leurer
    November 09, 2010
    04:36 PM

    Ian, This is such a superb piece of writing on an extraordinarily profound film. I am writing my honours thesis on Antichrist and your essay has touched on many issues that I am tackling, but it has also opened up greater avenues to understanding the film. Thank you, Brooke
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  • By red_locker
    November 09, 2010
    09:30 PM

    I hated this film when I first watched it, but I would be a liar if I said that it didn't stick with me. And while I still believe that the film does little but revel in ugliness with little insight and a lot of mindf**king, I now feel that I have to watch it again. This time without skipping the part where She mutilates herself. Hoo boy, this will be a rough ride...
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  • By Jarred Kamin
    November 09, 2010
    11:57 PM

    Too many have gotten hung up on the genital mutilation scenes in this film, which really constitute an incredibly small part of the overall narrative and artistic structure of the film. Additionally, too many more also seem to take von Trier literally when he called himself "The greatest director in the world" at the Cannes premiere, and naturally get infuriated with him, call him a "poser" and bash his overall style. I think he's too important of a director, as Christie says, "too sophisticated" in his work to be dismissed because of his intentional provocative and grotesque images or because of his amusingly arrogant (intentionally comedic) remarks about himself. Antichrist is quite plausibly the most aesthetically and intellectually rewarding horror film of all time, regardless of whether you agree or disagree, appreciate or dismiss, the overall subject matter. Not to mention, a key ingredient in von Trier's construction of the film is missing, both in Christie's essay as well as in other interpretations I've read: The film is meant to be the inverse of the Biblical Creation story. Opening with the destruction of man's greatest creation (a child), the story works backwards, with He and She returning to Eden, rather than leaving it by God's divine judgment, and then experiencing a number of symbolic and supernatural horrors in the Garden instead of delighting in the joys of the paradise God once created for mankind. The film naturally ends in the opposite of the beginning of creation, with the realizations about Satan rather than God, and the final destruction of woman rather than her creation. And man is alone at the end. Love it or hate it, Christian or Atheist, it's all there. And I think it's brilliant. Not to downplay the misogynist themes or anything, those are definitely prominent too. It's just that the overall structure seems somewhat forgotten for some reason, and I think that's the best part. Aside from the incredible cinematography and art direction, which are also some of the most aesthetically stimulating I've seen in a long while, even from Cannes. P. S. By the way, some people ask how the title of the film fits in with my interpretation, so I'll briefly share my thoughts on that: Biblical extremists like the verse "In the beginning the word was with God and the word was God." A lot of protestants who believe in the trinity consider the word to be Jesus Christ manifested, so therefore, Christ was in the beginning with God when he created the world. Since this film is the inverse of the Creation Mythology...the title "Antichrist" works pretty well...
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  • By Brooke
    November 10, 2010
    09:24 PM

    Jarred, Very good point, especially about it being the "inverse" of the creation story. The return to Eden, to the beginning, is a very important part of the content and the structure. Except, of course, it becomes the beginning of the end, and man emerges alone. It's also important to the larger issue of misogyny within the film because it suggests that Eden is the root of misogyny and attitudes about women that would grow and spread over the centuries. It is also the place where She begins internalizing these ideas and coming undone as she's writing her thesis on "gynocide". Also good idea about the title, and since the female sign is stuck on the "t" in Antichrist, this again shows the connection between misogyny and Christianity and how these two things are eternally entangled and inseparable. VERY complex, rich, and layered film! Brooke
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  • By Jarred Kamin
    November 11, 2010
    12:20 AM

    Brooke, I just wanted to quickly say thank you for that insight. The way you connected those two concepts just illuminated the film even more for me. Indeed, it is a far more complex film than most would like to admit. Thanks again! :) Jarred
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  • By Brooke
    November 11, 2010
    04:52 PM

    Jarred, You're welcome! I was rereading your first comment, specifically the bit where you describe the "inverse" creation story, and I have to say it's quite perfect. Would you mind if I quoted you in my thesis, or at least when I do my presentation on my paper? I think if I tried to write my own version it would just be a lesser version of yours, which is so nicely minimal and to the point. Let me know if this would be okay... Brooke
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  • By Jarred Kamin
    November 12, 2010
    12:54 AM

    Brooke, Of course that would be fine with me! I would be honored! Where are you studying film at? I'm currently working on getting my phd in film studies (hopefully to teach and research myself someday) and am also doing some writing on Antichrist, or rather, more of Mr. von Trier in general, as I find him an exceptional postmodern auteur of sorts. It's refreshing to finally find someone who appreciates this film, as lately all I hear are rather ignorant remarks concerning the subject matter. Thanks again for talking. Jarred
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  • By red_locker
    November 12, 2010
    05:47 PM

    See, all of what Jarred and Brooke stated is why I have to see the movie again, and I was actually quite aware of the connection the film made between misogyny and Christianity, but something about how it went about it struck me as something of a sick joke, like it was made to expose one's sensibilities and then laugh at them. Blue Velvet did almost the same thing, placing misogyny in full force against some of it's characters in an endearing way...and then, next moment, it turns all of that against you like it was a sick joke. So...yeah. I need to watch it again. Better yet...I should do a double-screening of Antichrist and Blue Velvet, because it's been a while since I seen both.
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  • By Brooke
    November 16, 2010
    01:35 AM

    Jarred, thank you. I am studying at the University of Regina in Canada. Good luck with your PhD. Von Trier is an excellent choice of study because he is very challenging and controversial, and cannot simply be dismissed as a "hoax". He is relentless in his portrayal of the brutality of being human. Love him or hate him, he goes all the way, and his fearlessness is something to marvel at. RED_LOCKER: Yes, there is something similar between Antichrist and Blue Velvet in terms of misogyny, and the feeling of it being a "sick joke" is not so far off. I don't have the space or energy to really get into it but.... although in much of Antichrist Von Trier is being quite obvious in what he wants to say (even with the symbolic, which is loaded with meanings), the ending, particularly She's death (He's murder of her, and subsequent burning of her body) and the epilogue are more ambiguous and hold more possibilities than the rest of the film. What is so problematic here, and what makes von Trier such a problem for a lot of people in general, is that he is being simultaneously deadly serious AND mockingly ironic. It is deeply painful what happens to She, and the weight of the history of misogyny that she carries is not to be taken lightly. But the fact that She is obviously "doomed" and "must" die (for many reasons), and that She is killed by a man and burned in a heap of branches (much like the so-called "witches" she wrote about) is a "sick joke". It is utterly stupid, ironic, AND unbearably tragic and infuriating that She ultimately becomes her own scapegoat. This hovering between two sides, in the uncomfortable space between black and white is, I think, really why von Trier causes such a storm: he invokes the terror of the unknown. People want to pick one side and have an easy answer and he refuses their desire by choosing the pain, difficulty, and even beauty of simultaneity. He is always serious and always joking. That, perhaps, is his gift.
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  • By Brooke
    November 16, 2010
    02:03 AM

    AND he forces us to look "grief, pain, despair" in the face, which is so often glossed over and even avoided in many other films. He purposely paints us in a corner where spectatorship (particularly female) itself becomes a problem, and we have to navigate his rocky and "chaotic" terrain alone in the dark of the cinema. He really is quite annoying (!) in some brilliant and sad way. He knows how to piss people off, that's for sure.
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  • By Luke
    November 17, 2010
    02:52 PM

    OK, but what about the chaos reigns fox part? :) Any explanations? I agreed with what Jarred said. I don't see the film as being misogynous or anti-religious. Von Trier tackles these subjects in a very peculiar and unique way. He's rooted deep in what his predecessors such as Dreyer and Bergman did before him, exploring faith, sin, death and religion. One can have a problem with Von Triers style and the aesthetics he utilizes in ANTICHRIST, it's so dark, misanthropic, but let's not forget that this film is also a horror movie. :D
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  • By Brooke
    November 17, 2010
    04:39 PM

    Oh yes, the fox growling "chaos reigns", haha. Gotta love that. Well, von Trier actually said that the animals came out of these shamanistic journeys he did in his early twenties, so I think part of it is just the creative unconscious at work. Also dipping into the horror genre, the idea of nature as this chaotic and hellish place as opposed to a space of beauty and healing (certainly NOT the paradise of "Eden"). The fox, like the deer in the previous chapter, comes at the end of the chapter when He encounters it eating it's own flesh (disembowling itself?), which also foreshadows She's self-mutilation (and again shows the terror in nature). Perhaps all the animals are symbolic markers that lead up to the end, when they all come together and "someone must die". Maybe von Trier is just having a bit of fun and trying to fuck with us! I find it funny that people think von Trier is misogynistic or anti-religious, especially since he is clearly more interested in women (which he has said) and he actually did convert to Catholicism (although, as he has said, it may have been out of spite). But I think people often misinterpret the way these subjects are presented, especially since von Trier really dives head-first into death, gender, religion, and the human psyche, and so on. Antichrist is very horrific, but also very beautiful, and I think the mixture of the sublime and the horrific make it difficult for a lot of people to navigate. Not to mention the plethora of other ideas, subjects, visuals, etc., etc., that are present in the film (and there are many!). But that is what makes the film so good, in my humble opinion :) Luke, you might like to read this article at Senses of Cinema. It looks at the different genres and tropes Antichrist dips into, particularly the horror genre. It's another point of view, at least. http://www.sensesofcinema.com/2009/feature-articles/antichrist-chronicles-of-a-psychosis-foretold/
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  • By chris petit
    December 18, 2013
    10:22 PM

    Put your mind on things that are lovely and profitable. The title is against Christ so I won't see it. Period. December 18 today. Don't let the enemy any room. I prefer to hear Christmas songs. Enjoy your movie ! I'm gonna snuggle my lovely children and read my bible. God bless you All
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    • By Craig J. Clark
      December 19, 2013
      04:14 PM

      Chris, this essay was posted three years ago and Lars von Trier's Antichrist has not been highlighted on this site in any way recently. This means you had to go out of your way to be offended by the film. I can't help but feel sad for you.
    • By Jonathan
      December 19, 2013
      05:43 PM

      I too feel sad for Chris, not making room for enemies and snuggling all the terrors from the Old Testament.

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