A CRITICAL VOW OF CHASTITY
There will be no thumbs up or down in this article. Antichrist is neither disgusting and worthless, nor is it one of the great films. It is a transitional work made by an artist clearly in crisis, but not necessarily the psychological crisis he discussed at length in the press at Cannes.
But this movie shouldn’t have come as such a shock to the festival’s film journalists. Crisis has been a regular if not predictable feature of von Trier’s career from the start.
In 1991, the 35-year-old von Trier came to Cannes with the Holocaust-themed Europa (released in the U.S. as Zentropa). With a prestigious international cast and visuals more elaborate than anything he had previously attempted, especially in terms of production design and optical effects, it was as if von Trier was aspiring to be the European Coppola. But Europa, which tried to do with post–World War II Europe what Dogville was to do so brilliantly with America in the Thirties—namely, turn a small, historically based crime story into a comprehensive vision of the human condition—was, for all its elegance, opaque and unconvincing. Von Trier was so indignant at not receiving the Palme d’Or that he denounced the Jury president Roman Polanski as a “midget.”
This embarrassing episode turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to von Trier.
Quickly setting up the TV series The Kingdom, a mix of horror, soap, and medical drama, he eliminated all vestiges of art-film glamour from his work. He started to focus intensively on working with actors, on handheld camerawork, and a new, nervously kinetic editing style. Von Trier’s subsequent accomplishments grew from this unfussy vigorous method, as did the concepts that became Dogme95.
Full disclosure: though I’ve never met or spoken with him, I worked as a writer for von Trier once. He was involved in preproduction on Breaking the Waves and I was hired by a producer to redo a script von Trier owned about a bizarre historical figure, Baron Ungern von Sternberg, a German-Russian aristocrat and Czarist officer who in 1921 lead anti-Bolshevik forces in Siberia, briefly conquered Mongolia, and dreamed of an Asian Buddhist army that under his command would conquer Europe. Himmler was apparently a huge fan. The original script was written by Fridrikh Gorenshtein (the screenwriter of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris) and it was laughably awful—or maybe just badly translated. I proposed starting with a detailed outline explaining, scene by scene, how I planned to diverge from the first draft. When I was done, I offered this modest proposal: von Trier should scrap the project and adapt Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed instead. The producer relayed this response from von Trier: “He thinks you did a very good job. He doesn’t want to meet with you, speak to you, or have any sort of contact with you, ever.”
It was a case of no harm no foul. I was decently and promptly paid.
[ 1 ] THOU SHALT NEVER TRUST THE TELLER
“Yes, I am a moralist. But I don’t want my films to be moralistic. I also don’t want you to think I’m a moralist. I want you to think that I’m cruel, hard, and manly.”—Lars von Trier
Some great creative artists assuage the burden of doing what they do by vehemently insisting that what they really care about is not art but rather the moral and spiritual example they set in their lives. They pound their chests, insisting “I’m a real person with a soul and moral instruction to give, not merely some artsy-fartsy aesthete,” but of course, being artists, they cultivate this persona till they’ve launched a second career as a prophet. In America, we have had many of this type, inspired by Emerson, including Thoreau, Whitman, Miller, and Kerouac. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy were strident versions of the tendency, but they at least had the advantage of coming from a culture and historical moment that took the notion of reconciling theological and political prophecy seriously.
There’s a problem with pursuing this vocation nowadays, as Norman Mailer discovered in the final years of his life. You have no national Church (or synagogue or mosque) to revolutionize, so you wind up on TV and in the press instead. And, absent a coherent political ideology to articulate, adhere to, or sell, you end up asking people to be fascinated by the vicissitudes of your ego—and risk becoming a joke in the process.
Lars von Trier has trapped himself in this weird territory. He can’t seem to shut up about his beliefs, his lack of beliefs, his sincerity, his upbringing in a paradoxically rigid hippie commune, his phobias, his dishonest mommy (on her deathbed in 1995, she revealed that her husband was not von Trier’s biological father).
He doled out endless amounts of this at Cannes, as if Antichrist couldn’t stand on its own. Von Trier has become a Nabokovian invention, fostering the image of himself as a fraudulent wannabe, when—wonder of wonders—artistically, he’s the real deal. Most of us mediocrities do our best to be taken seriously. Von Trier, who’s made more great or near-great films than any European director under 60 except Almodóvar, does a perfect imitation of a fake.
Von Trier’s breakdown coincided with a moment of crisis for art films generally, that had its external symbol in the death of Antonioni and, especially personally for a Scandinavian, Bergman. You can’t think about Bergman dying without thinking about the end of the art film as we have known it. In an oblique but powerful way, Antichrist feels like a response to the crisis of von Trier’s future as an artist, a new anxiety about the economic and cultural viability of a serious career in film now dominated by the commercial power of Hollywood genre cinema. Porn and horror film violence have always shadowed art cinema, and in films as varied as Un chien andalou, Meshes of the Afternoon, Saló, Hiroshima mon amour, Persona, and Prénom Carmen, art cinema claims the power to depict the most extreme human behavior in a coherent, mediated way, incorporating but going beyond the capacity of marginal sensationalist genres.
But now, in a worldwide recession, the single-minded sensory extremity of porn and horror has a power and viability that the art-film director views with both envy and alarm. In Antichrist, with the anxiety caused by the death of one of his artistic fathers compelling him, von Trier experiments with marrying the language, imagery and narrative codes of pornography, and slasher-film violence, even to the point of ceding them a certain degree of autonomy in the construction of the drama.
He is doing this as a nervous, desperate “good son” trying desperately to have a hope of saving the family business his “father” ran with pride and dignity.
[ 2 ] THOU SHALT NOT TAKE WHAT HUNGOVER, SLEEP-DEPRIVED JOURNALISTS AT CANNES SAY ABOUT ANY MOVIE COMPLETELY SERIOUSLY
If von Trier’s press chats are a creepy embarrassment, the rhetoric of journalists responding to Antichrist in Cannes was borderline psychotic. Off the top of my head I can’t think of another film that has elicited so much wildly inaccurate description. A few corrections:
No, it’s not exceptionally violent. The opening aside, violence doesn’t occur until 20 minutes before the end—and even then it is hardly uninterrupted, nor is all of it graphically presented.
No, von Trier isn’t joking or taking the piss. The grisly juxtaposition of a child’s body smacking into pavement with clothes curling in their dry cycle is memorably ironic and about as funny as watching a girl torture a scorpion at a comparable structural moment in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Von Trier is perfectly capable of being funny when he wants to be (The Boss of It All, The Five Obstructions, parts of Dogville) and this time he clearly doesn’t intend to be. (Arguably, the film might be better if it were funnier.)
No, Antichrist is not boring. It is superbly shot, with a constantly morphing color palette by Anthony Dod Mantle, a von Trier collaborator since Dogville. And it is superbly acted. Even when their characters are making impossible transitions, and their reactions are confoundingly implausible, Gainsbourg and Dafoe perform with so much confidence, dedication, and tact that we stay with them.
The incapacity to be boring may in fact be von Trier’s biggest handicap as an artist. As with David Lynch, who he resembles in many ways, von Trier and his creative team run the risk of getting mesmerized by their own phenomenal talent for using images, sounds, and bodies in cool ways. This gift can distract him from noticing when he’s in danger of going off a cliff conceptually. Dancer in the Dark is like this. Watching it is like being forced to watch a car wreck over and over again. Antichrist always seems to be about to succumb to this, but never quite does.
[ 3 ] THOU SHALT NEVER COME COMPLETELY CLEAN
“For atonement, in the sense of the mythic world that the author conjures, has always meant the death of the innocent . . . Mythic humanity pays with fear for intercourse with daemonic forces.”—Walter Benjamin, “Goethe’s Elective Affinities”
The second-best scene in Antichrist is the opening prologue juxtaposing a married couple fucking, with a baby stepping out of a window and falling to its death. As commentators have observed, it’s an astute allegorical rendering of mankind’s Fall into the mundane corrupt quotidian. It’s also the first and the last time that the film feels like it’s set in a recognizable contemporary world, the one where over-scheduled married couples steal time for sex while doing the laundry—the tempo of the clothes whirling in the dryer matches that of the erotically linked bodies, in a particularly delicious touch.
Part of what’s brilliant about this sequence is that all the elements—man, woman, baby, washing machine, laundry, falling water droplets—are made graphically interchangeable. Nothing is individuated to the point where conventional narrative causality can be inferred. This is one of those moments when von Trier gets everything that he wants to do going at once. The couple and child effectively become Humanity. The realistic is subsumed completely into the mythic. It’s tragic-funny-sexy-violent-horrifying-real and fantastic all at once.
[ 4 ] THOU SHALT NOT SUFFER A MAN TO HAVE A PENIS
“The male protagonists in my films are basically all idiots who don’t understand shit. Whereas the women are much more human, and much more real. It’s the women I identify with in all my films.”—Lars von Trier
This perhaps is counterintuitive, but von Trier doesn’t have a problem with women.
He has, on the other hand, a serious problem with men.
The male figures in his films are either inept and passive (Jean-Marc Barr in Europa, many of the supporting citizens in Dogville), graceless brutes (the rapists in Breaking the Waves, rapist and thief David Morse in Dancer in the Dark, Stellan Skarsgård in Dogville), or else their symbolic castration is plain as day as with Skarsgård in Breaking the Waves. Von Trier was obviously venturing beyond himself and into masterpiece territory in Dogville with the introduction of the Paul Bettany character, whose mixture of tenderness and cruelty, intelligence and myopia, altruism and egotism, strongly implicates us in a way no other masculine figure in the director’s work ever had done before. Unlike any other von Trier film, Dogville incorporates the image of a believable masculine norm that might conceivably link up with feminine spiritual power and grace. The subsequent collapse of that alliance is excruciatingly sad, granting Dogville a depth and universality unique in von Trier’s films.
For much of its length Antichrist is a compelling Bergman-esque marital psychodrama with the male figure articulating secular-humanist Reason struggling for power over a female embodying Emotion and Intuition, with some scenes playing like a remake of Through a Glass Darkly. (Dafoe’s resemblance to Max von Sydow physically and vocally as well makes this link particularly powerful—and they did both play Christ.)
The only problem is that despite Dafoe’s gracefully good-humored sincerity, his character as written is a maddeningly obtuse idiot (so was von Sydow’s doctor-husband in Bergman’s film; there was just less of him), and Gainsbourg gets all the good lines (“The doctor says my grief is atypical”; “Can’t I be afraid without a definite object?”). Von Trier assumes we’ll accept Dafoe as a generic horror-movie skeptic scoffing at the supernatural before getting his bloody comeuppance. The problem is we seldom have to listen to those guys deny what we all know is coming for nearly the entire length of the film. They’re usually dispatched much sooner than that.
[ 5 ] THOU SHALT NOT BE FOOLED
“Let no man beguile you in any wise: for [it will not be], except the falling away come first, and the man of sin be revealed.” —2 Thessalonians, New Testament
“God matters less to Pascal than the refutation of those who deny Him.”—Jorge Luis Borges
In his films, is Lars von Trier religious? Is that why Antichrist is dedicated to Tarkovksy, whose religious orthodoxy was aggressive and indisputable? No. Von Trier is more of a magical realist who ransacks the images and tropes of religion to enable the smashing of realist aesthetic conventions. The fox, the deer, and the crow that confirm the legend of the three beggars in Antichrist, function this way.
The hitch is that vivid, psychologically plausible human interaction is precisely what von Trier is supremely gifted at putting up on screen. It’s when the supernatural becomes transparently and literally “true” (the ending of Breaking the Waves, the musical numbers in Dancer, or the faceless women who “reclaim” Nature at the end of Antichrist) that he becomes temporarily idiotic. What von Trier does have in common with Tarkovsky is a compulsive hatred of secular power structures for their irredeemably hypocritical pettiness and cruelty, whether he’s attacking the small-minded communities that do mean things to Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, Björk in Dancer, and Kidman in Dogville, or the self-deluding liberal humanism of Bettany in Dogville and Dafoe in Antichrist.
[ 6 ] THOU SHALT NOT ALWAYS BE ABLE TO HAVE IT BOTH WAYS
“I don’t see my film characters as either male or female. It’s just that they assume a female appearance… They are part of me. But I’m not a woman. I’m not a woman! Let’s make that very clear! Oh, I don’t know, maybe I am. I am an American woman. Or 65 percent of me is.”—Lars von Trier
Antichrist is both inspired and disabled by von Trier’s ambition to link a psychodramatic art film to a horror movie. And this boils down to the film’s evasive uncertainty about whether to represent Gainsbourg as a case of psychological trauma or an incarnation of mythic evil.
Von Trier seems to be demolishing psychological interpretation of Gainsbourg when he reveals that she was abusing the couple’s child the summer before he died. The evidence of Gainsbourg’s chaotic academic writing further indicates that their vacation forest retreat has possessed her. We think, okay, it’s like The Shining, where you finally figure out the ghosts are real. She’s really the monstrous incarnation of malevolent female Nature. But how exactly are we meant to take this Female-Nature-is-Satan’s-Church stuff? Is it every forest, rock, river, flock of seagulls, that’s female-and-evil, or just this spot on the outskirts of Seattle? Von Trier seems to be going further than ever in pushing masculinity, as such, almost out of existence.
But just when we’re accustoming ourselves to seeing Gainsbourg as the vengeful monster in a horror film, she smashes Dafoe’s dick with a block of wood, screaming “You’re going to leave me!” This is not the voice of savage gynotheological goddess energy erupting against civilized constraint, this is more like Annie Hall gone bad. The next step of bloodily fastening an iron weight to Dafoe’s leg is a further inconsistency because it draws upon the imagery of the violence that men did to suspected witches, as depicted in the pages of Gainsbourg’s thesis. If she’s Woman angrily erupting, why exactly is she behaving like those who torture women?
Von Trier can’t seem to keep from confusing the mythic power of the oppressed Female and the history of repressive violence done to women. The two kinds of violence arbitrarily cross paths. Thus Dafoe mutates from symbolizing masculine oppressiveness to being the castrated victim—a proto-woman himself. And this gets mashed up with horror movie conventions. He eventually morphs into the “final girl” who generically survives the knives of movie serial killers like Jason in various horror franchises. And the clitorectomy Gainsbourg performs on herself only dimly makes sense if she has also undergone a spiritual sex change, actively assuming the persona of vindictive masculine oppressor.
The inappropriate way to rationalize this is to say it’s all a dream. More precisely, the realistic and supernatural levels of the story come unhinged at a certain point and, despite his brilliant moment-by-moment craftsmanship, von Trier can’t put them together—or has, toward the end, simply lost interest in doing so.
Fortunately there is one great sequence about two thirds of the way through the film that lets us glimpse what a balancing of all these elements might look and feel like. Gainsbourg recounts hearing a weeping voice near the cottage the previous summer. She and we assume it’s the wail of their child but she discovers him playing, smiling happily. She says she recognizes it “as the voice of all those that are going to die.” This is the one moment where Gainsbourg is allowed to have the visionary gift that goes with her thematic trajectory of sacrifice and martyrdom. The event, recounted through the prism of grief, now foretells not only the tragedy of their child but links that to the knowledge of all loss. The grief for all things that will die is to be illuminated by, but not limited to, the agony of the particular death of those we love.
This is a theme both real and grandiose enough for a masterpiece. Hopefully, we will look back at Antichrist in a few years, and recognize it as a sketch for the next great film that will renew the remarkable career of Lars von Trier.