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 Olesen’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.