cinematographique

pourquoi? parce que

Antichrist ****

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AntichristGrief. Pain. Despair. Lars von Trier: Antichris♀. Prologue. As an unnamed couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) indulge in operatic, earth-shattering, slow-motion sex, their son tumbles out a window and plummets to the pavement with arms spread like wings of an angel. The high-gloss black and white, snow-globe aesthetics are a sarcastic snub to the highbrow stylization of grand opera. The child paused to watch his parents’ intercourse, and as they refused to acknowledge him, he resolved to take a leap: he put in great effort to arrange an elevated runway, across a table adorned with figurines labelled Grief and Pain and Despair. There is nothing accidental about Lars’ set-up. Act one. After spending some time in a psychiatric ward, tentatively exploring the early stages of grief, we enter the realm of a subverted Book of Genesis. The couple take refuge in their forest cabin, named Eden. He uses torturous psychoanalysis to drive her through grief; she is riven by guilt, as though it were the full weight of original sin, as borne by Eve. Rather than facing her fears, he immerses her in them. Act two. She wades through excruciating psychobabble, conflicted copulation and frustrated masturbation. Haunting symbols emerge in the guise of savagely mutilated animals. The fox speaks. We discover that she used to visit Eden alone with her child, to work on her thesis. A thesis on the concept of nature in archaic and pseudo-mythic acts of violence against women. She apparently gave up because he dismissed her subject as glib. Act three. She comes to the anticipated conclusion that her sexuality is responsible for the death of her son; internalizes her studies and becomes the embodiment of the evil she sought to critique; descends into psychotic sexual hysteria. Unbearably graphic violence ensues. Epilogue. Faceless souls of female subjects of violence ascend through the forest, spirits freed.

Antichrist leaves images in the back of your mind which you’d rather weren’t there. As I do not want to inflate the hype that the film will thrive on, I would like to deflate the mystery by covering some of these here. I recommend reading no further until after viewing – and if you don’t plan on seeing it, I would definitely recommend stopping here. In fact, it’s a shame that its audience has to be exposed to any information in advance, because it dulls the experience. It begins when she attacks him in the tool shed. Her hysteria is emergent, and we arrive at a tipping point between desire and violence. The attack melts to intercourse, but re-emerges as she grabs a piece of firewood and smashes his testes. He falls unconscious from the pain, and we see her masturbate him until blood spurts from his erection. She finds a large drill, and slowly bores a hole through his leg, before bolting a grindstone through it. As she disposes of the only wrench suitable to remove the nut, he becomes conscious of his horrifying predicament. Forced to escape, he drags the Sisyphean weight in agony, only just able to find a sinister foxhole sanctuary. In this catacomb, a live crow burrows out of the dirt and alerts her to his hiding place. Unable to extract him, she starts to dig with a shovel, burying him in earth. By the time she has pulled him out alive, the hysteria has subsided. She recovers the wrench and he removes the bolt. They lie in the tool shed. She asks to be kissed, and then finds a pair of rusty scissors. Before the camera, she cuts off her vulva.

Antichrist2Is there intellectual stimulation to moderate this gratuity? Lars says, “It’s quite important that it hurts you. I make my movies to provoke myself. I take a subject and a point of view that I do not share, and then I defend that.” And so he takes a view on the relationships between men and women, culture and nature, rationality and chaos, the powers of life and of death. Themes which have always preoccupied cinema, and on which he takes uncomfortable or seemingly indefensible positions. They are manifested in emotional brutality, horrific imagery, and countless red flags to interest groups. The commentary on original sin baits feminists, as Lars plays with the carcass of an elliptical argument about how “nature causes people to do evil things to women“, and that the evil in human (male and female) nature therefore justifies these acts. He takes a misogynist view and tries to make it defensible through endless qualification. For example, her self-mutilation is portrayed as a violent rebellion against nature, which has led her to inflict horrific violence on her husband: but her husband fully qualified her subjective eruption with perpetual objective violence. The husband defies common sense and medical advice by treating her himself and taking her off medication. He condescends her ambition, her studies, her motherhood and her grief. She is placed in an untenable position, without a sexual outlet, in a relationship that has become a conflict of interest. She is alone, and every possible support for her sanity is withdrawn. Lars is finding the hellish conditions under which moral codes bend, much as physical forces are warped by immense mass.

Here’s a conundrum: under such pretenses, what place is there for sarcasm, cheek and glibness? I’ve already suggested that the opening sequence is absurd, in a sort of knowing mock-manipulation. Across the length of the film, over-the-top artistic pretension parenthesizes sadistic violence pitched to appall. What can we learn from the fact that we don’t know whether our frustration and anger is better directed at the abuse of artistic pretension or the meaninglessness of subjective violence? The confusion in this mixed response, I think, is what Lars was aiming for. The first question he faced after the world premiere was from an outraged British journalist asking why he deigned to put the audience through such an experience. He replied, “I don’t think I have to justify…” before being interrupted with a vituperative, “Yes. You do. This is the Cannes Film Festival, and you brought your film here, and you have to explain why you made it.” I applaud that journalist, because it is vital that we ask the film-maker for justifiable reasons to call his work art. His lackluster response was, “I don’t have very much to say. I think it’s a very strange question: that I have to excuse myself. You are all my guests. It’s not the other way around…I work for myself, and I do this little film that I’m now kind of fond of. I haven’t done it for a review or for an audience.” Perhaps its personality might be the start of its qualification as art. Formal and aesthetic qualities, I will come to later. But Lars seems intent not to justify it as art. His thesis feeds off ambivalence.

Antichrist3Critics have taken Antichrist as a glib joke at the expense of the audience. Was a joke not enough to justify the exhibition of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain as an artwork? Lars certainly knows his reputation as a prankster, and villainous abuser of female leads, precedes him: the film opens with his name in enormous letters, as though he is the star, an eponymous Antichrist. For all its duplicity, Antichrist is no laughing matter. Its dare to engage on an intellectual level, while giving the impression of little substance to engage with, is an intriguing provocation. But only if one can quarantine feelings about the horrific aspect of the film. It is black as the mood in which Lars conceived it, and its comedy consists in little more than a couple of wry smiles to the audience. Consider the lengthy cutaway of a substantial erection penetrating a suspended vagina, protruding from the otherwise overblown and highbrow opening sequence, thereby undermining the sincerity of the whole prologue. Even more suggestive was the self-portrait Lars placed on his press handout, staged in imitation of Alfred Hitchcock’s promo shot for The Birds. Where once a live crow perched on Hitchcock’s shoulder, it now lies prostrate at Lars’ feet. Yet this is more than a joke; a statement of intent: where birds drew the line between female sexuality and the chaotic horror of nature, they now signify its evaporation, heralding a communion of birth and death. This time, “nature isn’t going to get away with it“. If Antichrist is a joke to some, this is largely down to their own apathy. A few members of the audience at the first British screening laughed at the gored fox as it spoke its poorly chosen line. It is a matter of choosing to accept or reject the propositions of the film, of opting in or out. Laughter is an outburst of insecurity with the material, a release of tension when one has difficulty playing the game of make-believe. But Lars isn’t looking for laughs. The fox is not intended to scare or amuse, but rather to speak out for a symbolic code that ruminates on nature and evil. Having listened to Director of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle talk with great caution and sensitivity about Lars’ intentions, I think it is worth at least giving him the benefit of the doubt. What, then, is the meaning of it all?

Its violence is the obvious starting point. It has little to do with ‘cinema of transgression‘: at most it offers an experience which expands on aspects of those offered by Noé or Haneke. Its relationship to film violence is something which is probably of marginal interest to Lars, but it’s an interesting thing to consider. Antichrist doesn’t seem to directly comment on the current phenomenon of ‘art-house rape‘: the misapplication of sexual violence against women by auteurs aspiring to artistry. It could be a furious attack on the qualified yet pornographic application of violence in contemporary slasher conventions – some of the images described above would readily attest to this. Yet as an artistic parody of ‘torture porn‘ it’s too hard to take. Is it enacting catharsis for the martyred women of cinematic violence, tackling an evil nature mediated by film? We are looking at the wrong species of violence. There may well be a key in one particular plot point: she abandoned her thesis, ‘gynocide‘, because her husband called it glib; and he insists on making it absolutely clear that she has internalized her subject, coming to stand for everything she wrote against. Why does this sound familiar? We’ve been calling Antichrist glib, whilst discussing Lars’ penchant for internalizing indefensible views and the explosively violent film which has resulted. Much as the husband undermines his wife’s study in a tyranny of objective violence, the ideas of the film are undermined by misinterpreting a series of wry asides from the director. This critical process, like objective violence, has a ripple effect which can cascade into subjective outburst. Having subjected his protagonist to such abuse, Lars’ film is ripped open by subjective violence. Correspondingly, by offending highbrow sensibilities and riling critics, Lars may well harness the explosive power of hype and see much greater success with Antichrist than had it not been labelled so controversial. He also takes a stab at the concept of film hurting its audience, creating a bloody mess, and tacitly acknowledging just how integral a part of objective violence cinema can be.

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Lars leaves other clues to unravel. Antichrist has nothing to do with the supernatural: its symbolic code begins and ends with nature; in Eden, nature is alpha and omega. Equally, by virtue of its title, Antichrist has obvious connections to Nietzsche. In particular, it adopts his stance on evil as something which doesn’t exist in nature: as the absence of good, as devised by Christianity. What is phrased by his protagonists as a question of the nature of evil (or the evil of nature) is reducible to the mere fact of life. To Lars, nature is somewhat like Herzog’s notion of “chaos, murder and hostility“, but manifest in a madman’s poetic nightmare. What drives his characters to Eden, and pursues them there with a vengeance, is the realization of human sexuality as a part of a nature perpetually becoming: the violent, penetrative, reified and immortal force of life. In the forest, they are besieged by an environment screaming in the perpetual throes of birth and death. The fawn is stillborn; the fox is maimed; the crow is undead. Acorns take on an unforeseeable menace. This is the same vision of nature that Stephen Mulhall read in the Alien films, but without any of their optimism. There is no doubt that Antichrist is the product of an extremely dark place in the psyche of Lars von Trier, and I’m hardly surprised how uncomfortable Dod Mantle is about discussing his participation in this personal space.

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What of the film’s dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky? Dod Mantle contends that it is a sincere dedication. Lars is taking the opportunity to acknowledge Tarkovsky’s influence on his work, and more directly, the inspiration Tarkovsky’s photography has afforded Antichrist. This has been a bone of contention for critics, who took that nod to the most revered Russian as a slight too far. I would chose to accept the dedication as genuine, and that Lars is equally reverent of his progenitor. But surely there is more to it? Antichrist explores the boundary between the real world and the world of its protagonist’s feelings. This sort of exploration does not examine propositions per se, but rather, their presentation. What are the differences between her beliefs and her internal game of make-believe? Lars asks pertinent questions about our physical and psychological relation to the world under states of anxiety. This calls to mind a pertinent question of his protagonist: she asks, “can’t I feel something without directing it at an object“? Object-directedness is generally the preserve of emotions rather than feelings. Her husband finds it impossible to determine what lies at the top of her pyramid of fears (is it Eden, Satan, nature, herself?) because she suffers from anxiety, a feeling without an object. It could only be an emotion in a loose sense: she suffers a transcendental anxiety, whose abstract objects are the conditions of her being as defined by gynocide. Now consider the subject of Tarkovsky’s Solyaris: what happens when memories come to life? Propositions entertained become propositions believed, and a tear opens between a world and the world. Emotions which were directed toward a world that no longer exists shift their focus to objects in the world. This is similar to the state of anxiety in Antichrist, where fears about ideas gradually shift focus to their symbolic manifestations in the forest of Eden. Such an analysis obviously over-estimates the importance of the Tarkovsky reference, but it’s another fascinating dimension.

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Some might contend that Hitchcock is a more suitable reference point. Like many of his works, Antichrist is in essence a psychological thriller with the semblance of art but the components of a genre piece. As in The Birds, various genre tropes are introduced but distorted in their articulation. The trailer for Antichrist promised Gainsbourg as a typical female victim, terrorized by Dafoe, until supernatural forces enter the fray; but the supernatural and the ‘final girl‘ are conspicuously absent. Instead we find a relatively chaste man at the mercy of female sexuality in crisis. In keeping with genre mechanics, repressed desire transforms into violence; but this dynamic exists within a closed relationship between the only two members of the cast: a marriage in which has become illicit by way of a patient-therapist conflict of interest. “Never screw your therapist“, he jokes. The horror genre is about fear of the inhuman getting under your skin, and Antichrist is in turn about that process. Lars, like Hitchcock, is an auteur engaging with metaphysics.

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The upsetting quality of the third act brings us crashing back to earth. I felt the film offered sufficient warning to anticipate the distressing power of the most graphic injuries, though I can only vouch for myself and would be concerned for others. Participating in the anxiety puts the mind in a defensive state, which both leads some viewers to laugh at talking animals and allows others to cope better with graphic violence. We maintain a safer, less oneiric, distance from the fictional propositions we entertain while watching Antichrist. And so its affective potency is dulled to a tolerable level. An uncanny consequence: the memory of the experience is more traumatic than the initial viewing. When I recall the horrors of the film, it is easier to flirt with an associative, dreamlike state where beliefs and make-believe can seem to blur. It becomes possible to entertain the propositions of the fiction as though one is the subject. Its images can come to mind when its content is most readily transferrable to our experience of the world. I certainly wouldn’t expect its audiences to be as comfortable with intercourse shortly after viewing. I also wouldn’t expect them to access the film without knowing what they were letting themselves in for. On that basis, I don’t think it is objectionable. I am intrigued to know what a different experience it might have been without this sort of preparation.

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Antichrist is food for thought. Whether or not it is for our sake, even if it is a highly personal catharsis, I can only judge it on the basis of the experience it affords. And that is utterly unique. Perhaps this is the thrill that draws me to extremes of cinema – the affective experience, whether it is the physiological anxiety of Ringu or the heightened subjectivity and distressed psychology of Antichrist. So much of this depends on aesthetic and stylistic properties. Dod Mantle’s cinematography achieves a quality unparalleled in cinema. From palettes of black and blue, through woody green and brown, back to black, it refines the sort of colour symphony made famous by Chris Doyle’s work in China. But here it takes on a subtlety and formal confidence surpassing past efforts. Shifting from chamber drama to extraordinary, haunting stylised sequences, this demonstrates quite how powerful digital video has become. In terms of structural nuts and bolts, some may find it a little bloated around the middle, although I think its captivating images of natural beauty and natural horror carry us through those passages. An intentionally fractious, incisive, disturbed masterpiece.

 

Antichrist, Dir. & Writ. Lars von Trier, Star. Charlotte Gainsbourg & Willem Dafoe, Zentropa Entertainments, International, 2009
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  1. […] singing penis, and upsetting liaison with Ron Paul)? Much like von Trier’s opening scene in Antichrist, this is a case of the auteur turned prankster taking the piss out of liberal critics and audiences […]


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