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Robert Altman Week

Tuesday
Oct272009

« In Which Nature Is Lars Von Trier's Satanic Church »

Antichrist 

by JESSICA HOPPER

Akin to Andrea Dworkin, the legendary radical feminist, Lars Von Trier sees the world in full masochistic flower; he refuses to look away from the relentless blunt force trauma of patriarchy.

Antichrist is not the most direct route or noble ways of illustrating it, and his illustration of the nature of women’s suffering—which in this instance is unrestrained and gruesome—has been understood as perpetuating or endorsing that suffering (he was awarded a special, created just for him prize for misogyny at Cannes), rather than bearing witness.

Much has been made of Antichrist’s plotlessness, which has been called perverse and inexplicable, with bits of symbolism and plot from which it is difficult to extract meaning even days after viewing. LVT has called it a dream film, images that haunted him in the deep of his depression, and whether intentioned or not, it’s a film about male hubris. Which might be part of the reason a lot of male critics don’t get it, or call it a horror film.

Women (see Taylor Swift, witch trials etc.) are told throughout their lives, by men--familial, institutional, strangers—that they know better than her. They know what’s best for her body or mind. That she is doing it wrong.

Men grow up with that privilege, that the world values and is interested in their opinion, that however inexpert it might be it counts as (right) knowledge. Their place in the world has conferred them a right of governance.

In Antichrist, following the accidental death of their son while they fucked in the other room (opening sequence, not a spoiler) psychologist He (Willem Dafoe) takes on his depressed wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as patient. 

Operating at cool, composed remove from her grieving hysteria, he prods her with analysis. “I know you better than any doctor can,” he tells her as he embarks into treating her, which she reluctantly begins to cooperate with. He is clinical and flat, whereas she wails and heaves and bashes her head on the toilet bowl. His interventions set up the film's rationality-versus-nature subtext.

Her nature is portrayed as human wildness—while she cannot heal herself, she consoles herself with fucking—which could be read as an attempt to connect with her good doctor husband, reel him back into peerage, into empathy and not authority. Fucking seems the only pleasure she is capable of, her only circumstance of power.

In order to make her confront her fears, the couple—identified only as He and She—head to their cabin, Eden, which may or may not double as hell. Once they arrive, He begins to become haunted by his own fears, by the irrational, by all that he cannot control—his wife, an oak tree, a talking fox with a Black Metal voice.

Werner Herzog’s description of the jungle in Burden of Dreams, could serve as Von Trier’s thesis for Eden, which Herzog calls a “curse” and suggests the only harmony in it is “The harmony of overwhelming and collective murder…We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery, overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order.”

Once at Eden, once She tells her husband she is cured, which is when we get the major paradigm shift—where both she and the film itself come loose. What follows his refusal to accept her pronouncement of wellness is, true to LVT form, a fairly untidy everyone-gets-what’s-coming-to-them—He, She, a too-squawky blackbird all get revolting star turns of their own. Her vengeance is brutal, and it’s not particularly gratifying to watch—this isn’t Lady Vengeance or Ms. 45.  

Much has been made (rightfully) of the his n’ hers genital mutilation—though watching what she inflicts on him, I was instantly reminded of introduction to bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Mean, Masculinity and Love: “Women all over the world want men to die so they can live.” So cowed by the life-threatening power of men, they see it as the only way out of their suffering.

In her attempts to untangle from her suffering She does herself in, much the same way; by cutting off her own clit, her resource for pleasure being her only consolation, she is rendering herself inconsolable, unfixable, untamable.

In the final chapter of the film, Von Trier asks us to suppose something about nature, which in the film is suggested to be “Satan’s Church”—a kind of equation, where nature = evil, nature = woman’s nature, women = naturally evil. It’s not a particularly steady equation, but it’s an exaggerated response to the equation which we live with every day: men = rational, rational = good, men = good.

Jessica Hopper is a writer living in Chicago and author of The Girls Guide To Rocking and blogs at tinyluckygenius. This is her first appearance on This Recording.

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Reader Comments (17)

This was a really good piece. Probably the best thing I've read so far about Antichrist. Those who accused Von Trier of misogyny are, I think, lacking the irony required to appreciate his films.

October 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBrad N

Yes! More More!

October 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarson

"...a kind of equation, where nature = evil, nature = woman’s nature, women = naturally evil. It’s not a particularly steady equation, but it’s an exaggerated response to the equation which we live with every day: men = rational, rational = good, men = good."

...the bottom line, sounds like you've reenforced patriarchy. where one director release this imagery as irony, another would be (rightly) nailed for releasing porn. you name drop all the feminists you want, it doesn't mean there is a correlation here. nice try.

people dont seem to realise that films arent just what a filmmaker invents for a couple of months, they are they their public nature, the response of the media and their audience; films, and all art, is a subjective experience that no longer belongs to a filmmaker or artist. if most people think this is misogyny, and LVT intended it to challenge that, he made a terrible film.

October 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

TNY's Brody has a funny quip from the cinematographer about the non-porn of it
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2009/10/insert-shot.html

October 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFenn Brighton

While the writing is poorly edited, your point is taken. I haven't seen the film yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if I end up agreeing with you, based on my knowledge of Von Trier's previous work.
Fine article.

October 30, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjt

Thanks for the hard thinking you did on this film, which I have just seen. I certainly helped me consolidate some of my own thoughts. In light of your analysis, I found one moment of extreme irony when "He" delivers some rational-ising "feminist" dialoge about "She" internalizing the patriarchal inquisitions witch burning image of women, straight out of Dworkin or more likely, Mckinnon. (Von Trier certainly baited his traps well.) Of course. I looked forward to "He's" cumuppance (which I new was coming) from quite early in the film. As you said, it was not exactly gratifiying. To me the sexual mutilation scenes were SO over the top that the were kind of campy, I think intentionally so. In contrast, the part that I couldn't watch was the murder, not campy, but bloodless, and gruesome. In the end, I have to dissagree with your conclusion that Von Trier was asserting the Rational /Good/male -Nature/evil/female paradigm, or even that this is really the underlying cultural myth. ie Puppy Dog tails, Sugar and spice and everything nice. Demon rum and early feminism, the redstockings and Mckinnon. Its the nature of the "beast" in men that every one really fears. The three "beggars" appear by the miraculous sign of the stars in the sky ["there is no such constelation!"] and some one must die*(as opposed to a savior being born) For me, Defoe as the "anti"-christ in the end, with an epiphanal glow on his face, or is it the glow from "She" on the witch pyre, and hundreds of gynocided ghosts trailing after him like subjects was anything but good, or rational, and; I am pretty sure, there was a lot of sympathy for the devil.

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