Dense, shocking, and thought-provoking, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is a film which calls for careful analysis. This web-exclusive exchange between Film Quarterly editor Rob White and philosopher Nina Power is meant as a first attempt at the in-depth debate that this major film deserves.
SPOILER WARNING: Please be aware that the piece assumes familiarity with Antichrist and does contain major plot spoilers. For ease of reference, a synopsis is provided at the end.
Rob White: Antichrist is already making headlines because of the explicitness of its sexual violence (especially two acts of genital mutilation). There are comparisons to be made with the current vogue for “torture porn” horror, but a better initial reference point is a group of 1970s films: The Night Porter, In the Realm of the Senses, and Salò, all of which relate sexual violence to mid-century fascism. Antichrist’s concerns are contemporary—gender, ecology, science—and its accomplishment, easy to recognize so long as one is not too distracted by the gore, is to explore these philosophical themes cinematically.
Antichrist is also a carefully plotted thriller. Recalling Don’t Look Now, it begins with a child’s death while mother and father (simply credited as “she” and “he,” played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) have sex. The next scene is the funeral, the couple filmed, in a shot reminiscent of the trapped hero’s view from the coffin in Dreyer’s Vampyr, through the hearse window. It is as if the dead child, Nic, were taking a last reproachful look at his parents. The true extent of their negligence will be revealed toward the end, when a flashback discloses that she was watching as the toddler climbed onto the window ledge from which the fatal fall then occurred.But Antichrist has not stinted on clues to her wrongdoing: the ragged chick devoured by its bird-of-prey parent, a self-taken Polaroid showing Nic playing behind his glassy-eyed mother who looms menacingly in the foreground, a flashback in which Nic wails as she forces the wrong shoes on him. The man is not exempt from blame. After he confronts her about the coroner’s report of Nic’s injured feet, he seems only interested in what the revelation of child abuse tells him about her psychology (via a ridiculous pyramid graph of her fears). This is a calamitous, solipsistic couple. He is a therapist without an MD. Some kind of drop-out? Struck-off? And one wonders if her rattle bag of a dissertation—which she cannot finish—on “Gynocide” has ever had any institutional ratification. These two are failures, lost in their own mirror world of goading games and compulsive sex.
Nina Power: The blanked-out faces of not only the other funeral-goers, but also of the massed women at the end, indicate that this is a story whose explicit focus is indeed the unhappy bourgeois couple and its miseries. After the abrupt death of Nic, the only other substantial characters are the animals, with perhaps the tree and cabin playing minor supporting roles. The Polaroid of an unhappy-looking she with Nic relegated to the background, and her neglect of Nic in the woodshed even as she follows what she thinks are his plaintive cries, demonstrate that this is a couple so profoundly turned inward that not even their child (or his death) can alter the course of their headlong mutual destruction.
“What are you afraid of?” His question to her, near the beginning of his “treatment” of her, jars. Surely the thing we would expect a young mother to be “most afraid of” has already just happened—the death of her child. Is his therapy so cutting-edge that he simply skips over the small matter of his child’s death (a fact which he seems surprisingly casual about), or is this further evidence of his poor therapeutic technique? His calming exercises seem to worsen his patient’s fears, and he seems unable to accept that what she is truly afraid of lacks an object. This is the Heideggerian definition of Angst—fear is always fear of something, an object or an outcome; Angst is the generalized feeling of not being at home in the world. Antichrist is a film about this deeper kind of anxiety, the kind that makes everything feel wrong: even when the stars align, their pattern resolves nothing. The film’s “Three Beggars,” Pain, Grief, and Despair in their various iterations, are a mythos suited to the malformed gnostic vision of von Trier’s Eden: a world where everything is a kind of abomination. If she is ultimately somehow attuned to the evil of this abortion of a universe, then perhaps it might do better to call her a kind of witch, skip over the flat and uninteresting charges of misogyny, and investigate the nature of her unholy powers.
Rob White: She first speaks about her anxiety when she is woozy with drugs at the hospital, having collapsed at the funeral. Grief has, it seems, overcome her, while he studiously maintains a medic’s detachment; she is the patient, but after he instigates—over her doctor’s objection—the trip to Eden, the question of whose mind is most disturbed becomes increasingly hard to answer. He fails to stay professionally calm and before the talking breaks down he starts to lash out at her, castigating her for statements about evil he has purposefully elicited. Antichrist is withering in its depiction of this cranky therapist, but the critique goes deeper than the one character, much as her angsty distress spreads to infect the environment. When he frantically protests at her claim that nature is “Satan’s church,” his rational objection is unpersuasive: “the evil you talk about is an obsession; obsessions never materialize, it’s scientific fact.” In this hellish world, delusion and reality seem redundant ideas: certainly the injured animals he encounters are fairy-tale perversions for which science has no category.
Antichrist plays narrative and visual tricks which never give us a settled reality—no viable distinction can be made between a normal outside world of hearses and hospitals, and a crazy, abominable one of forest fiends. Is the best explanation of this monstrous universe that the whole Eden trip is a fantasy (whether his or hers) which begins after the down-the-rabbit-hole transition when, instructed by him to visualize the cabin, she imagines herself lying on the grass outside and turning green, melting into the landscape? But this is just a version of his “obsession” theory and overlooks stylistic features of Antichrist’s cinematography which suggest eerier scenarios, in which he is a puppet not the disengaged scientist who can define reality. We first see, for example, the scarred, bleached-out wasteland outside the cabin during her visualization; she limps in super-slow-motion past the blasted tree stump. In the film’s penultimate sequence, we see that landscape again, filmed in just the same way. He strangles her, incinerates her, and drags himself away. But he limps through the landscape of her imagination. If we are to infer any meaning from this visual symmetry, it could be that she has a witchlike power over him.
Nina Power: The role of witchcraft in Antichrist should, in part, be understood in a context more complicated than that of Christianity. In some respects, Antichrist is a misleading title, implying a simple reversal of the Christian opposition between good and evil. It is unfortunate for us that our capacity for imagining nature is overdetermined by its depiction in the Bible: Adam gets to name the animals, Noah gets to pick them up in pairs, making sure to have more of the “good” ones than the creeping (and creepy) ones. But the disturbing hybrids of Antichrist resist easy description, reminding us more of Shakespeare’s dark litany of disturbed animals (Macbeth’s horses, “turn’d wild in nature,” start to eat each other). The use of contemporary techniques for getting the fox to speak, and the computer-game-like dream sequences which she conjures up and he stumbles through are the formal equivalent of the animal wrongnesses that Antichrist depicts. This is not a straightforwardly evil universe, but it is a world out of joint, a world which one god or other started but gave up on, perhaps having given language and insight to all the wrong animals. Chaos reigns.
If nature is itself unnatural, incomplete, why bother trying to give it a meaning? The “dissertation” she works on, nothing more than a teenage scrapbook of hacked-out woodcuts and increasingly incomprehensible scrawls, leads her only back to herself, the “Me” at the top of the pyramid of fear, a narcissism so pronounced that even her own child can be accused of neglecting her (“Nic wasn’t there for me either”). Crippling his feet and attaching a lathe to her partner’s leg seem to be the only way she can keep the men around her from leaving. Not unlike Kathy Bates’s character in Misery, she literally arrests and creates the narrative which binds men to her. But she appears to misjudge the extent of her powers: it is she who is in control of the landscape, who can “just turn green,” who understands what the acorns are up to. Perhaps it is she who better performs his awful therapy-speak phrase “what the mind can conceive and believe it can achieve,” which is quite possibly why, in the end, he has to burn her.
Rob White: Oedipus is named for his “hurt foot” and perhaps her urge to hobble man and boy is some extreme protest against the trademark Freudian “complex”; as if she had decided—“enough of word games and mind games, let me make it for real.” One way of thinking about the film’s subversion of rational, psychological, scientific meaning is to take its violence rather seriously, disregarding charges of arty self-indulgence. Antichrist’s world has undoubtedly gone wrong. It is a world of deformity, whose occupants are increasingly traumatized. In, that is, the root sense of the word—wounded—as much as its twentieth-century psychological variant. Physical injury as against its mental simulation; flesh not mind. The penetration shot right at the beginning is relevant: thoughtless, instinctual fucking, body entering body, as opposed to the emotional paraphernalia of Handel’s mournful aria or the baggage of this family unit—“daddy-mommy-me” (to use the formulation of a book which is relevant in more than just its title, Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus).
There is definitely an affinity with the Shakespearian macabre, but the more direct reference is to Shakespeare’s contemporary, Robert Herrick, whose spiteful poem, “Upon Some Women,” she quotes: “False in legs, and false in thighs; / False in breast, teeth, hair, and eyes.” Murderously minded these lines may very well be, yet they speak most plainly of the body in bits, and Antichrist insistently visualizes corporeal fragmentation and dismemberment, especially in the bookend sequences of close-ups of parts of her body, the subliminal image of her screaming face imprinted on the landscape outside the train window, the arms among the tree roots. Antichrist progressively reasserts the primacy of the body, albeit an oozing and hurt body. The three “primal scenes” in which he encounters the animals (deer, fox, bird) underline this: in each case he hears a rustle that prompts a studious look of curiosity which soon turns to horror when the creature is revealed. He wants nature to reward his curiosity, but he gets instead a bloody, messy, obscene revelation, “red in tooth and claw,” and perhaps the only reward is that, with a little help from her, he gets to have just such a body himself.
Nina Power: But what kind of body are we talking about? In the post-psychoanalytic age, Freud might be dead, as she suggests at one point, and yet our language is nevertheless shot through with his words, and no body is fully “natural.” Nic, a mere toddler, performs a spectacular and speedy fusion of the primal scene and Oedipal misery in his early leap from the window, his ghostly figure in the snow making a mockery of any life force that protects the young. Grief may be a “natural, healthy emotion” as he suggests, but the really complicated affect here is anxiety: the symmetrical scenes of the back of her head, the way her pulse turns from a physiological reaction to grief to a vital force altogether more sinister in nature—if she is “false” in “teeth, hair, and eyes” (among other things) it is because beneath this conventionally attractive façade something much more primal lives, like the Dantesque hands and bodies lying in sexualized sympathy with the roots of trees.
There is darkness under cover of beauty, there is murk in the midst of hygiene: the roots of the plant dirtying the water in the tidy hospital, the bloody crow in the quiet of the foxhole. If she can change semen into blood (albeit with the help of a handy block of wood), does this mean that transubstantiation is, pace Catholicism, far more common than we think? After all, sexual organs with the power to bleed are hardly “unnatural” for half of humanity, or at least we’re not supposed to think it odd.
He may get the identifiable animals, but she gets everything that swarms, those things that make the ecology feel unsafe and excessive: the acorns, the burning ground, the ants crawling on the runt chick at the end of her “therapeutic” exercise. Bitten by a host of bugs when he dangles his hand out of the window, his final vision is of an endless stream of women marching ever upward.
Rob White: The ending of Antichrist is wholly strange, perhaps in fact the oddest thing in an unusual film. Just before the epilogue begins, he limps out of Eden, no Eve by his side, no flaming sword to light the way. For a film so skeptical about modern ways of thinking, the image is appropriately medieval, redolent of Old Master eschatology (Bruegel, The Triumph of Death, Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights), with perhaps a dash of Wagnerian Götterdämmerung too (our heroine has, after all, been burnt on a pyre). And then back to black-and-white, and a sudden bucolic tranquility as he forages for berries, smiles at the animal ghosts, and—with the blank look of curiosity again—sees the smudge-faced women parading toward some invisible meeting place. The ending feels like a belated retraction of what has gone before. The mood is harmonious, even heavenly; this seems like a place of healing rather than hostility. Is this a repudiation of “red in tooth and claw”? It is hard to say, but certainly it is an alternative world, one more hospitable to him, whereas the forest world had been a place where she was at home.
The epilogue exudes a culty calm. After several viewings, I thought of the drug-induced pastoral hallucinations in the first season of the TV vampire show, True Blood, but my first association was with the bizarre interplanetary salvation at the end of the Nicolas Cage movie, Knowing. Although the symbolism in much of the film belongs to “Old Europe,” the setting is in fact Washington State. (David Lynch’s Twin Peaks is also set in that area, and there are other parallels between Antichrist and Lynch’s films—the use of droning sound design, for example, and a shared sense of exactly “darkness under cover of beauty … murk in the midst of hygiene,” as with the severed ear in Blue Velvet.) This is a New World. We seem to have moved from a European imaginary to an American one—to the culture of Robert Bly, hippies, scientology, Mormonism, the Rapture.
Nina Power: The most interesting aspects of the film are not the predictably headline-provoking elements, neither the sex nor the violence. What is perhaps most interesting in some ways is the absence of knowingness, and of recognizable place (though the film is “set” in Seattle, Washington and in their cabin, Eden, they take a train to get there, as Europeans would do, and the bulk of the film was shot in Germany). This is not an urban film, a sex film, a commentary on American foreign policy, or an arch nod to other genres, but it certainly attempts a certain kind of arthouse horror—part of the dismissive huffing and puffing about Antichrist is about the clunkiness of its themes and affects: depression, sexual difference, theology, and human nature. These are not themes well-suited to irony, and there is no post-Buffy wit and patter to temper the abyssal artlessness of the stilted dialogue and the grimness of the self-devoured yet self-replicating nature (“OK, Mr. Nature, what do you want?” / “To hurt you as much as possible”).
But Antichrist is a serious attempt to undermine the unthinking acceptance of modern rationality and the flat utility of technology. The toilet she both bashes her head against and throws her pills down has the seat up, as if, for all his caring liberal humanism, he knows in the end that it’s a man’s world. When he enters the cabin, he casually touches both the lathe and the toolbox, reassured that these are his playthings, not hers. Antichrist is ultimately a film about the other side of these routine assumptions, about the relation between man and nature, women and men, and what happens when these things are horribly, cosmically misaligned.
Rob White: Calling Antichrist “misogynist” is an opt-out from serious engagement, a critical short cut which reduces the film to the schematics of unconscious desire that von Trier so artfully dismantles in order to reach out to more visceral, counterscientific causalities. Maybe a better way of approaching the film’s gender politics is to observe that she is much the more interesting of the film’s characters. What a misfortune it would be to arrive in his consulting room! Whereas one could expect from her at least some crazy folkloric ruminations; she could be counted on not to be tiresome. It could be inferred from Antichrist that she is all the time playing along with his idiotic therapeutic games, as contemptuous of headshrinking as Humbert Humbert in Lolita (the novel). Thus the odd tonal quality of some of the things she says when they get to Eden, whether it be the flatness of the “Mr. Nature” dialogue or the earlier incongruous perkiness of her claim to have been cured. She will never get her Ph.D., but hers is surely the greater intelligence. In their Battle of the Sexes, he is outmatched in this respect at least.
Though brutalization and death often await von Trier’s female protagonists, there is a world of difference between, on the one hand, the heartbroken innocents in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark and, on the other hand, the resourceful avenging women in Dogville and Antichrist. She is kin to Grace at the end of Dogville, who says “I want to make this world a little better” and then has gangster henchmen put the town to the sword. If the hegemonic social institutions (couple, family, medicine, psychoanalysis) really are as oppressive as the 1970s critique (Reich, radical feminism, queer theory, Anti-Oedipus) claims, then such a slash-and-burn response may even be justified—though there is no getting away from one fictional face of that critique in action: her supine vigilance as Nic climbs up to the window. There are smudged faces elsewhere, but this merciless gaze is unexpurgated.
Nina Power: Von Trier’s fascination with female violence goes back a long way, and his 1987 Medea asks the same question that Antichrist raises: is there anything more frightening than the idea that mothers may wish to commit infanticide? If you flip the film over and listen to what she says (“you shouldn’t have come here, you’re just so damn arrogant, but this may not last, ever thought of that?”), it becomes clear that for all her play-acting at his clumsy therapeutic games, the initial scene had been set in motion by her at least a year before: the teddy bear tied to the helium balloon tantalizing Nic to reach for it, the baby monitor on silent, the reversed shoes, the windows opening twice to let in the acorns and let out her son. Antichrist is a fascinated yet horrified disquisition on the ambiguity of witchcraft, a set of spells and strange incantations not unlike those practiced by the filmmaker himself.
In Malleus Maleficarum, the fifteenth-century treatise on witches, there is a description of the hailstorms alleged to have been caused by two women in Ratisbon, Germany. It is this supposed power to control the weather that she invokes at the base of the tree while finally getting her wish that he hit her: “the sisters from Ratisbon could start a hailstorm.” The couple-form has comes to dominate all relationships, particularly in arthouse films about bourgeois life, but there is also, or was, a sisterhood, and the fear of this female bond (with each other and with an unholy vision of nature) is invoked throughout Antichrist. If a certain kind of order is restored at the end, with the deer looking over Nic’s suicide and overseeing the provision of berries for his father, it is a washed-out image of the world, a version of the Christian mistake which imagines that animals belong to man and that nature will always provide. The swarming masked and gloved women at the end are not touched by this hierarchy of man and beast, however, and plough toward a darker, but perhaps less divided, new Garden of Eden.
Prologue. A couple, simply known as He (a therapist) and She (a researcher into the history of witchcraft), are having sex at home. Their toddler son, Nic, gets out of his cot, climbs to the windowsill, and falls to his death.
Chapter one: “Grief.” She collapses at the funeral and is hospitalized. After a month, he insists that she discharge herself. He wants to take over her treatment; his theory is that she must re-live her deepest fears. She says she associates fear with Eden, a cabin in the woods, where (with Nic) she spent the previous summer trying to finish her dissertation on “Gynocide.” They travel there by train and start hiking through the woods. She tires and while she sleeps, he sees a deer whose stillborn fawn is still partly contained in its womb.
Chapter two: “Pain (Chaos Reigns).” He directs her in therapeutic exercises, while they continue their dialogues, breaking off for sex. He finds Polaroids of her and Nic. The conversation grows more intense. “I understood that everything that used to be beautiful about Eden was perhaps hideous,” she says. “Now I could hear what I couldn’t hear before, the cry of all things that are going to die.” He opens the report of Nic’s autopsy. Out walking, he sees a wounded fox which speaks: “chaos reigns.”
Chapter three: “Despair (Gynocide).” He finds her disturbing research materials in the attic. Later he initiates a role-playing exchange: “I am nature, all the things you call nature.” The encounter takes a disturbing turn. “If human nature is evil,” she says, “then that goes for … the nature of all the sisters.” They have sex beneath a tree, human arms materializing among its roots. She finds the discarded autopsy report. He confronts her with its observation that Nic’s feet were deformed, pointing out that the Polaroids show the child wearing his shoes on the wrong feet. She knocks him unconscious, batters his genitals, masturbates him, and bolts a lathe wheel onto his leg. He manages to crawl into a foxhole under the cabin, where he finds an injured bird.
Chapter four: “The Three Beggars.” She is remorseful. They return to the outhouse where, in flashback, it is revealed that she was watching Nic as he climbed up to the window. Agitated and delirious, she mutilates her own genitals with scissors. Her scream alerts the deer, fox, and bird, which come to the cabin. Seeing him about to extract the wheel, she stabs him. He fights back, strangles her, and burns her corpse on a pyre.
Epilogue. He limps away from the cabin. Doll-like human bodies litter the landscape. Later he forages for berries and sees the ghosts of the animal trio. He watches a host of women, their faces smudged, climb up a wooded hillside.
NINA POWER is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Roehampton, U.K, and author of One Dimensional Woman (Zero Books, 2009).
ROB WHITE is editor of Film Quarterly and author of Freud’s Memory: Psychoanalysis, Mourning and the Foreign Body (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
CREDITS: Antichrist. Director, writer: Lars von Trier. Producer: Meta Louise Foldager. Cinematographer: Anthony Dod Mantle. Editor: Anders Refn. © 2009 Zentropa Entertainments23 ApS, Zentropa International Köln GmbH, Slot Machine Sarl., Liberator Productions Sarl., Arte France Cinéma, Memfis Film International AB, Trollhättan Film AB, Lucky Red SRL. U.S. distributor: IFC Films.
STILLS CREDIT: Courtesy of Trust Nordisk ApS. An IFC Films Release.