This month Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is running a retrospective of Lars von Trier’s films. With that in mind, I dug out an older unpublished article I wrote after watching the film for the first time nearly five years ago.
Antichrist (dir. Lars von Trier)
What is the sound of one hand clapping? If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Why I am posing these Zen questions? Well I’ve recently see Lars von Trier’s latest film Antichrist and I have been left with a new question of my own: If a pretentious Danish director makes a film that claims to have a message, yet that message is so buried in an ambitious and confusing film that it cannot be succinctly extracted, does the message still exist? Granted, my question gets to the heart of many Structuralism debates and even semiotic discussions about where the meaning of a text lives (which are cans of worms that won’t be opened here) but it does make you wonder. If you don’t get the point of a film, is it any different than not having a point at all?
Antichrist is not casual about the fact that it carries a lot of weight. Rather than allowing yourself to be lost in the story, von Trier calls attention to his filmmaking throughout the film through intertitles, so it is impossible to ignore the fact that this is a story being told to you by a story teller. The film is broken into 5 parts: prologue, grief, pain despair and the epilogue. Both the prologue and epilogue are stylistically quite different from the middle 3 parts of the film. The film’s plot itself is easy to follow and is not the source of confusion; rather it was not for me. The uncertainty in the film lies in the message that it is trying to portray. Von Trier is not shy to say that he does have a point, but just what that point is cannot be nailed down very easily.
Antichrist begins with a terrible tragedy. A terrible, yet easily preventable tragedy. As our only two characters, known only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), have passionate sex their young toddler of a son explores their high rise apartment and falls out of a window to his death. Had he been secured tighter in his crib, or had the window had better latches, or had the couple been paying attention to him and not just their sexual pleasure, he would not have died. Without a doubt it is a horrifying scene to watch. The combination of death and eroticism is always disturbing, and unquestionably that is the sort of contrast that von Trier was going for, however the style in which he shot the scene is a bit peculiar. The entire sequence, named as the prologue in a title card, is shot in crisp black and white, in slow motion, with dark classical music and no diegetic sound. While it is beautifully shot, it also looks exactly like a commercial for diamonds that you would see on television. I do not think that this is the sort of effect that von Trier was trying to create, but the fact of the matter is that particular cultural reference was easily accessible to me, so that was unavoidably my experience with this sequence. This did not necessarily have a negative impact on my film experience, but it did make me wonder what von Trier was getting at by using such a stylized sequence in this film.
After their child’s death She is put into a hospital to deal her extreme depression. Considering the devastating nature of the incident, it would make sense for her to be in some sort of treatment facility. However, because He is apparently an egotistical psychologist, He checks She out of the hospital because he believes he can treat her depression better than the doctors at the hospital. Needless to say, treating your loved ones for psychological issues surrounding a trauma that you both experienced is generally a bad idea. Especially when you start mixing sex and psychological treatment, as She and He do. As they are working through her treatment together in the city they decide to go away to the cabin they own in the woods. Given von Trier’s attempt at saturating the film with references to human nature, the cabin is not surprisingly called Eden.
As soon as they arrive in Eden things start to fall apart. We find out that She had spend a lot of time with their son in Eden while she was finishing up her graduate work. We also find out that her graduate work was mostly based on the premise that women are inherently evil. Had He known that her research was so ideologically extreme, he would have figured out sooner that his wife was in fact insane and he might not have been tortured by her for the entire forth part of the film.
Many of the reviews of Antichristhave made sure to mention how ghastly this torture is. Not only is He subjected to one terrible make-shift shackle, but She also takes care of her own genital mutilation. While both of these things were gross, and both of the actors carried out their suffering beautifully, I am not as concerned with that as others might be. I’ve seen much worse gore and much worse self-mutilation on screen to even wince at that sort of thing. I even felt like yelling “Is that all you’ve got, von Trier?” after She took out the pair of rusted shears. Perhaps I am one of the people who have been jaded with the recent wave of torture-porn, but fact of the matter is that I am much more interested in what is happening in the subtext of the film. As someone who takes great joy in analyzing the text of films, von Trier certainly sprinkled enough ideology and symbolism throughout the entire film to make it like a Sudoku puzzle for film theorists.
The most satisfying puzzle that von Trier addresses throughout the film is the theme of nature. Not only does he establish a clear division between the city and the woods through the distinctive manners that each location is shot, but he also has each He and She discuss nature and its impact on people.
For me, the conversation about nature that had the most impact on my understanding (or lack of understanding, in this case) of the film was their conversation about the acorns that fall on the roof of the cabin in Eden. There is an oak tree directly above the metal roof of their cabin which constantly showers the cabin in acorns. The sound, which is reminiscent of a loud hail storm, is always present whenever they are in the cabin; it keeps them up all night. She describes the acorns as little deaths. The oak try is trying its best to procreate. Dropping as many acorns as possible in hope that some of them will germinate and become trees. But these acorns will not become trees, and the oak tree’s effort is just reminding her that each acorn is a failed attempt at a life. It only takes a very small leap for the viewer to then realize that their dead son is no different than these acorns. They tried their best to produce offspring, but they failed to make sure that he reached adulthood, so they have produced their own little death. There are some major issues with this interpretation, the biggest one of course being that their son’s fall is what caused the death, and the acorn’s fall is their attempt at life, but still the thought of death being all around us is what makes is realize the relationship between the acorns and their son. What is also disturbing about this conversation about acorns is the fact that von Trier chose the phrase “little death.” Little death has a strong sexual connotation because the French informally refer to an orgasm as “petite mort.” Are these tragic falling acorns carrying with them a degree of ecstasy? Did She get some sort of pleasure from her son’s fall as well? It is questions like these that make further exploration of the text of Antichristinteresting.
The film also forces the viewer (at least the ones who are paying attention to the film’s message and ignoring the blood) to question if nature is inherently evil. She only becomes violent and irrational after they come to the country. Though we do not know if she would have had a similar breakdown if they had stayed in the city, it does seem like it is the surrounding flora and fauna that lead her to lash out at He. However, had it is the city which is partially responsible for the death of their son. Had he fallen out of the cabin’s window he would have just gotten a bump on his head, because the cabin is only a single storey. High rise buildings are only present in densely populated areas, which means that it was the essence of city life that took their son’s life.
As you can see the interpretations of this film are not clean cut. After seeing this film, and trying to pick it apart, I am still left wondering what von Trier is trying to argue. Is nature good or evil? For that matter, is human nature good or evil? Are women naturally evil? Is sex the expression of evil, and is evil pleasurable? None of these questions are easily answered given the text that von Trier presents, though all of these questions are raised. Despite all of that ambiguity, I am actually quite pleased for having seen Antichrist. It is a great joy to encounter a modern film that is less concerned with the plot as it is with style and ideology. And while I have yet to be able to deduce exactly what von Trier’s message was, or even if he had a message, I have been having a grand time trying to pick it apart.
Antichrist will play at the MFA on February 16 & 21.