Narrative structure and the film techniques in Lars von Trier’s ‘Antichrist’ (2009).
A film essay.
A Film Theory essay for my first post on the marvellous Medium may not make for the best beginning. I usually write film essays or comment only if they are University related. I’m not heralding a no-more-film-comment-blog at the same time. Here’s one on Antichrist. Von Trier is a favourite.
Note: Obviously includes ‘spoilers’.
Antichrist undermines “the unthinking acceptance of modern rationality” and the (masculine) facades of “caring liberal humanism,” by depicting scenes of “cosmic misalign[ment]” between its hierarchically ordered categories—man and nature, and woman and man.
A film in the league of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, Stanley Kubrick (1968) and ‘The Shining’, Stanley Kubrick (1980) with regard to it’s symbolism. It could be described as a horror film but whereas most films obtain horror through frights and scares this film achieves it through a deep psychological manipulation that stays with you for days afterwards.
Some consider Von Trier the master of the Art Cinema windup, and should not be taken too seriously. Others think this is the sickest film ever made. My own feeling is that Von Trier is trying something tough, to dramatize the rawest of human emotions; terror and grief.
Antichrist is told in four chapters, as well as a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue of this film is shot in black and white, slow motion to operatic music by Handel. It shows two parents, played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg having sex while their son accidentally throws himself from an open window on the seventh floor. This scene is quite harrowing but it is shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, in a way that makes it dignified at the same time, a kind of haunting glamour akin to that of a modern cosmetics advertisement.
The first chapter entitled Grief, deals with Charlotte Gainsbourg‘s character, ‘She’, suffering a terrible guilt and her husband, ‘He’, a psychotherapist takes her on as his patient which is his way of dealing with his own emotions. ‘He’ tries to discover the root of ‘Her’ fears which he traces to the forest, in which lies their holiday cabin called Eden. This is an obvious biblical reference as ‘Eden’ has connotations to the original sin and temptation into evil.
In this early scene Dafoe tries to make his wife face her worst fear and eventually become one with it. Her fear is that of the forest and the nature that surrounds it, and here we see her mentally envisioning herself with merged with the greenery and nature and become absorbed by it.
Throughout the film there are several graphic depictions of nature, such as the self disemboweling fox, the mis-carrying female deer, and a newly hatched bird being consumed by various forest animals. We are made to believe that this is a true depiction of the savagery of nature and the repercussions of the female character having merged with nature. She becomes depraved and insane, much like what nature is portrayed as in this film.
”Nature is Satan’s church”.
Dafoe’s character continues to try releasing his wife’s guilt and despair, but instead makes it worse and inadvertently releasing it upon himself by making her become one with her greatest fear. There are a number of images used to convey the terror that can be found in nature; most notably the self disemboweling fox. The fox is generally considered to be a cunning and logical animal and when Dafoe’s character sees it, this emphasizes his own realization that he has been treating his wife’s problems wrongly. He has been using smug, self satisfying logic to treat her, whereas the human mind is not naturally logical 3- it is chaotic and anarchic. The idea of the human mind being anarchistic was also conveyed in the recent blockbuster ‘The Dark Knight’, Christopher Nolan (2008), which I recommend as a more mainstream but still intelligent depiction of this theme.
The film’s title ‘Antichrist’, implies some kind of biblical struggle between good and evil and we see this between the two main characters. For instance Willem Dafoe has rather demonic looking features, which contrast the appearance of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character who bears some visual resemblance to the virgin Mary. Contrasts are introduced once more, when the peaceful forest contains several horrific depictions of nature, as mentioned earlier. This film has suffered a lot of criticism by people who accuse it of being gratuitous. Some critics even go as far as to say that they were insulted by this film. Von Trier responded well to the criticism and affliction he received about the horrific nature of some of the scenes — namely the genital mutilation scene. In a telephone interview with Xan Brooks, Von Trier responds masterfully;
“If you are an artist, and you make a film, and as long as the film is running, you are the party. In the sense that you are inviting people [into your sick mind], and they are the guests. So I don’t see that there is any reason to be insulted by being invited [even though its a sick party].”
Now most people seem to remember this film by it’s graphic content. Two scenes in particular are; the genital mutilation — the clitoridectomy and desecration of the penis, and the puncturing of Dafoe’s characters’ leg. Whilst of course I have found these scenes difficult to watch, they were necessary in the context of the film. To show that the female character believes her son’s death was entirely due to she and her husband engaging in sexual intercourse, and to punish themselves for it, she feels the need to rob both of them of the organs they require to engage in it.
I must praise the acting of Gainsbourg’s character as she portrays her internal struggle and distortion with amazing credibility and when she does unleash her inner demons, we as an audience are terrified by her. The idea of female antagonists in films, was a notion first bought into mainstream consciousness in the late 1980s with films such as ‘Fatal Attraction’, Adrian Lyne (1987) and ‘The Hand That Rocks the Cradle’, Curtis Hanson (1992) as a response to misogynist fears over women’s increased liberation. Had this film been more mainstream, I believe it would have been the culmination, but not necessarily the cessation of this trend in films.
Von Trier has gradually stripped down his style and segued into a career as independent cinema’s premier bomb-thrower. 5 His style always hung between the tensions of chaos and control. Never watched easily, but undoubtedly fulfilling, Von Triers films grab me by the throat and don’t let go for days afterwards. He did say in an interview that, only for his depression, he would have been operating the camera and would have gave the film a more documentary feel with the camera movement than what was in Antichrist.
“There are three scenes in the film in which I was in control of the camera, and you can see that it trembles a little”
There are many repeated components in Von Trier’s films. The splitting of the film into distinct chapters is one that is evident in a few of his films, namely; ‘Dogville’ (2003) and ‘Manderlay’ (2005) and also right back in 1996 in ‘Breaking the Waves’.
Just like with ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, watching this film more than once allows one to pick up on various aspects which you probably didn’t notice before. I acknowledge that this film is not for everyone and probably only a minority will be able to stomach the film and realize it’s content. Most have a visceral reaction and then try to categorize it, but I think this film has something that cannot be categorized fully.
The epic shot at the end, where ‘He’ stands at the top of a peak and the swarm of human figures with masked complexions emerge from the forest below to surround him in, what seemed to be, an elemental, ritual appraisal. It represents nature and the ‘female’ and man’s constant battle with them. It visually echoes the earlier scene in which the eagle’s young, falls from the nest high in a tree. Once hitting the ground it was engulfed in feasting ants. All portraying the sometimes viciousness of nature. However, in the same scene there are connotations that the body is nourished by the earth — the berries. This portrays a kind of a rebirth.
The ending probably won’t shock you. The female character dies and Dafoe’s character cremates her. This emphasizes that man’s first mastery over nature was the discovery of fire. I couldn’t really say I’ve enjoyed this film, as in, it was fun watching it, but I did consider it a rich, thought provoking experience. Roger Ebert calls it “the most despairing film I’ve ever have seen.” Jeffrey Wells brands it a “fartbomb”. Movieline’s David Bourgeois says its “the most original and thought-provoking work von Trier has done since Breaking the Waves.” Variety’s Todd McCarthy, who must’ve been seated in the same row as Wells, says the movie “cuts a big fat art-film fart”. My personal favourite reaction, is from the Times’ Manohla Dargis, who was said to be singing “That’s Entertainment!” as she left the theatre.