November 2009

Arts & Letters

Tooth and claw

By Luke Davies
Lars Von Trier’s ‘Antichrist’

The opening five minutes of Antichrist (released nationally on 26 November) are a compelling symphony of exquisite film-making. In hyper-stylised black-and-white ecstasy – in super-slow-motion – the characters played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg make love, apparently unaware of the terrible fate that awaits their errant toddler, escaped from his crib. Images of water abound: drops fall ever so slowly from a showerhead; a moment of close-up penetrative sex is contrasted with snow falling dreamily outside. We seem to be in some state of pre-Edenic purity. Then the contours of the sex act are interlaced with the death of the child. As in opening scenes of his other films – the train sequence in Europa (1991), the swamp sequence in the ridiculously enjoyable nine-hour The Kingdom (1994, 1997) – von Trier wants to lull us into a beta-wave state, all the better for sending us off-kilter later on.

What follows Antichrist’s sublime prologue is a bleak but entrancing film that explores guilt, grief and many things besides. It is a film that will anger as many people as it pleases. After the death of the child, Dafoe and Gainsbourg are the only two actors on screen; neither is ever named. Dafoe plays a therapist who tries, while dealing with his own deep sense of loss, to pull his wife out of the catatonic funk she falls into. His relentless therapy banter doesn’t endear him to us, but this hardly seems a priority for von Trier. Rather, much of the film plays out as the clash between a man who intellectualises his grief and a woman who physicalises hers – both to disastrous effect. Dafoe’s characters are never the type to talk about the weather; here he does a fine job of making what might otherwise be stilted dialogue work. “You have to have the courage to stay in the situation that frightens you,” he tells her. “And then you’ll learn that fear isn’t dangerous.” Gainsbourg’s character, combative in her bewilderment, gets most of the antsy lines: “You’re indifferent as to whether your child is alive or dead,” she tells him disdainfully. “I’ll bet you have a lot of clever therapist answers to that, don’t you?”

They head to the forest, where they have a cabin in a place they call Eden. At first, though, Gainsbourg’s character doesn’t want to go. “Nature is Satan’s church,” she says; besides, Eden is where she had so much trouble writing her thesis the previous year ( her topic seems to have been something about medieval attitudes to women and witches). As Dafoe’s character will find out, it is also where oddities in her parenting began to realise themselves.

We know we’re heading towards something big in Eden; von Trier has an aptitude for turning anticipation into dread and foreboding, then tightening his grip on our anxieties yet further. Antichrist’s sound design is spine-tingling, but it is the director’s command of the visually surreal that is truly exceptional. He’s playing with the tropes of the horror genre, but, as things get weirder, he departs radically from its conventions. The real problem with genre horror is that its resolutions are fundamentally disappointing in their mundaneness: the Indian burial grounds, the orphans coming back for revenge. Even the best horror films, such as The Shining (1980) or The Innocents (1961), are great despite, and not because of, the ways their terrors are eventually explained. In Antichrist, in contrast, von Trier amps up the horror settings at the same time as he plays with them, knowing he’ll take us to a peak of psychic unease and leave us there, rather than resolve the narrative with any clarity. The effect is that we are simultaneously made anxious by the rising sense of menace and impressed by the boldness of the film-making. In Breaking the Waves (1996), his greatest film, von Trier walked the same tightrope with melodrama – Douglas Sirk meets Tarkovsky. We succumb to its overwrought extravangance and recognise its brilliant artifice in equal measure.

In a sense, what von Trier does in Antichrist, by signposting ‘horror film’ but subverting it, is to shift everything to the psychological: auditory hallucinations, ominous holes in the ground, theses on witchcraft. Early in the film we feel these might become significant plot devices; later, we realise we’re in the realm of pure metaphor. What interests von Trier is not so much how the subconscious informs the conscious, but rather – and rather simply – how he might cinematise the geography of the deepest subconscious fears. In this, he has obvious affinities with David Lynch. Lynch’s films go deep, but into something akin to a half-sleep state; they tend to be elaborate, complex dreams. For von Trier it is the violence we do to our psyches that is of primary interest. In both directors’ films, little pulses of weirdness are felt like disturbed fragments of a dream you can’t wake from but half know you’re inside; tiny distortions in the ‘norm’ build to a kind of vertiginous delirium.

Antichrist is a film so astonishing and so weird that I had to see it twice just to try to work out the exact point at which it starts to go wrong. On a third viewing I concluded that it’s very good and very flawed in equal parts. I still haven’t decided just how much of a dive the film takes at the moment when a fox looks up, bloody-faced from eating its own stomach, and says to Dafoe’s character – in the gravelly, distorted horror-movie voice that generally signifies the devil – “Chaos reigns!” In a ludicrous but genuinely scary moment in The Kingdom, the same kind of voice – disembodied in a room – growls at an unfortunate priest holding a medieval exorcism stick: “How do you wish to die, Jesus-lover?” There, it works; here, it seems somehow flashy and odd. Far more problematic is an awful scene of self-harm that has generated much controversy already. (In some countries, though not in Australia, the moment will be censored.) The shot in question lasts no more than two or three seconds, but it is very difficult to watch. True, it seems to be saying something about self-hatred and fear of sexuality; perhaps, too, the demonic, if ludicrous, fox tearing at its innards is saying something about the couple tearing their relationship apart. But while the fox scene, in isolation, can be forgiven, what Gainsbourg’s character does to her body is a little harder to stomach.

The awful event, or rather the woman it involves – a von Trier character clearly in the process of losing her mind – is unapologetically pathological. But then, von Trier has always been a cartographer of pathologies. I recently discovered his 75-minute Danish telemovie Medea (1988), which he based on Carl Theodor Dreyer’s unproduced 1965 screenplay adaptation of the tragedy by Euripides. An homage – of which Dreyer would surely have been proud – it is an exciting low-budget masterpiece, a boldly impressionistic study of Medea’s terrible revenge (double infanticide) upon Jason, who has fallen in love with Creon’s daughter. In Breaking the Waves, Bess (Emily Watson) – simple at best, delusional at worst, a kind of unknowing Christ-figure – believes she must sacrifice herself in order for her lover, Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), to live. In Dancer in the Dark (2000), perhaps the least realised of von Trier’s films, the Icelandic pop singer Björk (the dancer of the title) is like a female Job for whom too much bad fortune is never enough. Meanwhile, few among the wild array of characters that populate the hospital in The Kingdom could lay any claim to sanity – with the exception, perhaps, of those with Down syndrome.

The pathology in Antichrist is far more in-your-face, yet somehow harder to pin down. This may simply be to say that it is not easy to understand the meaning or intention of specific images and details of the film. The broader themes are clear: grief, original sin, relationship disintegration and, of course, nature red in tooth and claw. For von Trier, nature is real evil in that it always wants to hurt us. Werner Herzog spoke of the same idea in relation to his Grizzly Man (2005): there is nothing majestic or worth anthropomorphising about the bears in the film; there is nothing but a kind of blankness. Herzog sees that blankness in the most unlikely places. “Look into the eyes of a chicken,” he has said, “and you will see real stupidity. It is a kind of bottomless stupidity, a fiendish stupidity. They are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in this world.” Dafoe’s character in Antichrist, at close quarters with a nightmarish raven down a claustrophobic foxhole, might beg to differ.

People have accused Antichrist of being misogynistic, but to me that is overly simplistic. It’s deeply about women – far more so than about men – but what von Trier thinks of women is not so readily apparent. It’s certainly nonsense to say, as some have over the years, that von Trier is a misogynist by virtue of “putting” his female characters through such ordeals. Strangely, though, in Antichrist, when a turn of events sees the female protagonist torture, hound and debase the male (before, admittedly, turning her psychosis on herself ), I found myself wondering: Just how dark is von Trier’s view of womankind?

“How dare you leave me?” Gainsbourg’s character screams hysterically, though Dafoe’s character has no apparent intention of doing so. “You said you wanted to help me!” Is the film, at some metaphorical level, about the lengths a woman, already awash with loss, will go to in order to prevent a man from leaving her? Could Antichrist merely be a revenge fantasy about clingy women?

There’s something more going on. “Good and evil,” Gainsbourg’s character says, “they have nothing to do with therapy.” In Breaking the Waves, von Trier studied ‘true’ and ‘false’ good, as evinced in the story of Bess and the severe, unquestionably misogynistic churchmen against whom she is pitted. At the inquiry into her death, her sympathetic doctor (Adrian Rawlins) is asked if he is trying to imply that, in his professional opinion, Bess died from “the psychological defect” of “being good”. In Antichrist, we witness an excess of badness. Of course, for von Trier, this badness is found in nature: the Fall didn’t happen as the result of human decision, it was already there, pre-existent in the Garden of Eden.

Antichrist is not an easy film. Having seen it, you may feel you’ve been flayed. But it offers a rewarding kind of flaying. It’s a chthonic epic, a trance and an unsettling parable rolled into one. There’s something neurotic and reactionary in the controversy and near-hysteria surrounding the film. It is a good thing that von Trier is making challenging films – they don’t always work, but his courage is admirable.

It is impossible to watch Antichrist and not be taken to a very strange place. For all his wild excesses, von Trier truly understands drama. He knows how to move in close – to characters, to their frailties and their fears. On a dark afternoon, as acorns clatter on the cabin roof like the early moments of a hailstorm, Gainsbourg’s character mournfully recalls the previous summer when her boy was still alive. “The acorns fell on the roof then, too,” she says. “Kept falling and falling, and dying and dying. And I understood that everything that used to be beautiful about Eden was perhaps hideous. Now I could hear what I couldn’t hear before: the cry of all the things that are to die.”

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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