Saturday, January 23, 2010

Thoughts on Antichrist

Antichrist is a remarkable piece of cinema. I highly recommend it for a certain stripe of cinephile, though I have reservations, which I will get to. Bear in mind that I am still working through my reactions, having seen it for the first time earlier tonight.

The story - which I will offer at this point relatively spoiler-free: a husband and wife are making love when their young child topples to his death through an open window. The first section of the film - "Grief" - that follows this prologue focuses on the husband's attempt to draw his wife out from her protracted suffering over the loss of her child; he's a therapist, mistrustful of medication as a solution to his wife's trauma. He's well-intentioned, but acknowledges that he's breaking a rule - that therapy and family should not mix; and is perhaps somewhat too detached, too distant from his own feelings. His wife is anything but; even a month after the death, she is still hospitalized, overwhelmed with grief, incapacitated by it, stuck in it, her pain acute and ceaseless. In a bid to help her work her through her feelings, he brings her to a cabin in a forest (Eden) where she had worked on her thesis, a book on the persecution of witches entitled Gynocide; she confesses that she is now terrified of the place, which is why he brings her there. At first things seem to go well - though there are hallucinatory moments (a self-disembowelling fox that proclaims to Dafoe, "Chaos reigns," for instance) that stand as omens of worse things to come; but there is eventually some tenderness between the couple, and the sense that he is actually helping her - though this may be superficial, as things only turn for the worse after she declares herself healed.

The talking fox aside - a moment of excess that is more likely to produce chuckles than dread - everything in the above is remarkably well-crafted. Von Trier opts for a degree of stylization in his images that I don't think we've seen from him since Europa (or Zentropa, if you prefer); the film's dedication to Tarkovsky, positively assaulted as an unjustifiable act of arrogance by some, seems quite acceptable to me, based on the very intense engagement with the image von Trier generates, the very atmospheric and compelling use of sound, and the restrained but lucious palettes (which, like Stalker, emphasize human figures in muted colours situated in almost otherworldly fields of green. Also as with that film, the forest is granted a near-mystical potency laced with elements of uncertainty, threat, and foreboding, though perhaps of a darker, eviller sort than the metaphysically perilous Zone). So often do comparisons to Tarkovsky mean next to nothing in the mouths of critics - often signalling merely that a film is artful and in Russian - that I'm surprised to find myself on the opposite side of the fence, defending the drop of Tarkovsky's name against those who would say it has no place.

The performances, too, are exceptional; Roger Ebert has tried to find meaning in the film by faulting the character played by Dafoe, but it must be said that Dafoe does a very good job of retaining our sympathies, while at times - as therapists will - seeming condescending, removed, and superior. Gainsbourg gives the really outstanding performance, though, as someone plunged in a bottomless abyss of grief. It's harrowing to be confronted by so believable a display of emotional pain. It makes Dafoe's detachment seem both inhumanly cold, on the one hand, and
a reasonable response, on the other - because someone in the relationship has to remain able to function. Dafoe and Gainsbourg represent, if you will, poles of human experience, in the face of loss - alternate strategies of coping, one of plunging into emotion and the other of trying to impose order on it and make it manageable; it is very tempting to see these as being figured as "male" and "female" approaches. (Tentatively, I'd like to suggest a possible meta-cinematic reading, as well, encouraged by the stylization of the film, which makes us consciously aware - again like Tarkovsky - that we are watching film as art, not merely moving through a narrative or thematic programme: by this reading, Dafoe and Gainsbourg represent two different levels at which the audience responds to cinema, with Dafoe as the rational, detached voyeur, viewing events from without and seeking their meaning, and Gainsbourg as the emotional, gut-level reaction, unmanageable and instinctive and scarily intense. There are many times during the film when our identifications toggle back and forth - from outside to inside, from male to female, from therapist to patient, from emotional reaction to thoughtful reflection, as we try to process our own feelings about life, death, grief, and the menacing aspect of nature - the main themes thus far raised; the film is at its best when challenging us to find our own position in between the extremes, and thus a comfortable location from which to view it - which we may never find).

Spoilers follow. At about the three-quarter mark, things turn for the worse, in a few ways. The ending of the film is definitely imperfectly realized, compared to the near-flawless first three quarters. Von Trier seems to lose confidence that he can convey what he wants to by sticking with the emotional development of his characters alone, and so throws in some rather muddled symbolism (the "Three Beggars" whose appearance heralds death; huh? Creepy animals is one thing, but a fucking constellation that doesn't exist, and exposition as to prophecy around it? Does this not feel a bit like a desperate tack-on?). There's also a somewhat surprising revisitation of an motif from Dogville (Dafoe being "hobbled" in a way that might remind one of what happens to Nicole Kidman); and a bit of Antichrist-for-Dummies thematic meditation, in which Dafoe and Gainsbourg discuss the nature of evil, Gainsbourg somehow coming to the conclusion that the female, identified most closely with nature, is a force of evil - something her liberal husband argues against, claiming his wife, in her self-hate, has gotten confused about her own thesis, that the witches burned at the stake and so forth were the victims of anti-female hysteria.

Or were they? Suddenly, the possibility that his wife IS evil is reinforced by the suggestion that she has been torturing her son by systematically putting his shoes on the wrong feet, as shown in photographs he discovers in the cabin. This discovery rather changes the rules that we've been playing by; we are no longer dealing with the problem of unconsolable grief and the element of pain/ "evil" in nature, but with a woman who may or may not have always been malignant, or at least a bit nuts - rendering whatever thinking the film has moved us to, up to that point, somewhat irrelevant. Almost as soon as Dafoe begins to regard his wife mistrusfully, she attacks him. She assaults his genitals - the consequence of her attack being shown in a horrific, bloody ejaculation - and attaches a weight to his leg by means gruesome and painful. He tries to crawl away, but is discovered, and she drags him back to the cabin, where she decides to punish herself in kind, cutting off her own clitoris with scissors, and producing a similarly bloody "ejaculate." There is the suggestion at this point - the climax of the film - that she either saw, or at least now imagines she saw, her son crawling towards his doom while she and her husband were having sex, giving her acts of violence against both their genitalia the aspect of highly focused punishment. At this point, Dafoe manages to remove the weight from his leg, freeing himself as Kidman did in Dogville to finally turn against the person he has been trying to help. As she tries to stab him with scissors, he strangles her to death, and limps away to find himself in a forest filled with what I assume are meant to be the bodies of dead women, the victims of the "gynocides" of history (there is actually no indication that the corpses that litter the hallucinatory landscape he limps through are women, but it would seem for the film to be coherent they would have to be; he has failed his wife and joined the ranks of female-murderers, his pretenses of therapy and liberal idealism having been no match for his wife's emotional maelstrom). In the epilogue - if I understood it correctly - these "ghosts" rise up to surround him, though they don't seem as intent on violence or retribution as one might hope...


Whether all of this is misogynist or not, I cannot say. The film certainly tables the theme of misogyny, quite explicitly - the "t" in the "Antichrist" of the titles and posters is the symbol for the female (though nature is also identified with evil in the film - and the female, to some extent, with nature). There is no sense - as at the end of Cronenberg's The Brood, for instance, where the protagonist, too, strangles the monstrous female - that Dafoe has done the right thing; in fact, he has failed to help his wife, becomes instead, at last resort, reduced to something he would have previously loathed, his whole endeavour previously now seeming an arrogant over-assertion of his faith in himself (I was rather disappointed that the ghosts of murdered women didn't actually dismember him, frankly, as the final image of the film - though I imagine it would have done nothing to ameliorate accusations of misogyny). The only truly suspect move von Trier makes - at least that I can recall now - is the suggestion that Gainsbourg had been systematically abusing their son before his death. The violence she does to her husband's and her own genitals can be justified as an extreme expression of her inability to forgive herself, or him, for their son's death, and the extremity of her emotions as a sincere attempt to figure something that is threatening to men about women - the intensity and unpredictability of their feelings, which Dafoe is further "punished" for failing to respect sufficiently... but the suggestion that she had been torturing her son throughout his life, for no reason that the film cares to delve into, does seem to raise the further possibility that women are monstrous, questions of pain and grief aside. This is not a possibility the film needs to table, if its purpose is just to query misogyny. A serious investigation of that phenomenon probably does not need to include among the theses it investigates the possibility that women really ARE evil, horrible critters. The film would be better off without the shoe business (or the clunky but unclear symbolism of the Three Beggars, or the highly direct exposition on misogyny) - would have been better just following the emotional arc of the characters, wherever it lead (perhaps even to genital mutilation and death!) - and then letting us figure it out. My main problem in the end with the film is not that it may be misogynist - since half of Hollywood cinema is misogynist, in ways less likely to invite discussion or reflection - but that von Trier doesn't quite live up to the promise of the project - the film, in its first half, sets a standard for itself that it does not ultimately live up to.

All that said, the film is aesthetically remarkable, compelling to watch, and, provided you can stomach the more disturbing images, will reward reflection sufficiently that I recommend it to anyone who cares about cinema. You might reject Antichrist, when its over, and that may be a reasonable reaction, but I suspect that attentive viewers will find enough of value en route to the troubling ending that they will appreciate having had a chance to reject it for themselves...

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