On Lars Von Trier's <em>Anti-Christ</em>

While many are going to focus yet again on whether Von Trier is a misogynist (more on that in a minute), I found in this film a central impulse to indict as ineffective and self-deceiving man's attempts to superimpose order atop his own woefully un-examined (mis-examined?) nature.
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Dir. Lars Von Trier
Denmark, B&W, 109 minutes
IFC Films

Analyze This: Anti-Christ, Beyond Good & Evil Cinema

Human beings have always given form to their fears by creating a Demon-God -- usually called Satan -- that reflects their own insecurities -- and it's the same with maverick filmmakers, who are revered or reviled in accordance with the viewers' self-projection, as they discern between good cinema or evil cinema. In using the term "maverick", I'm emphasizing the mid 19th-century origin of the term as told to me by this computer's dictionary, "from the name of Samuel A. Maverick (1803-70), a Texas engineer and rancher who did not brand his cattle" [emphasis added], just as Lars Von Trier is reluctant to explain his motives or intent beyond what he's put up on screen.

Since Lars Von Trier -- who is certainly not unfamiliar with revilement and reverence, often stemming from equally inchoate camps -- has been known at times to set unique parameters within which his films or his collaborators' work must conform, herewith, my own inchoate grappling with his latest, very worthwhile, and yes, challenging film, Antichrist, briefly considering the film (despite the director's understandable insistence on not being pinned down and his stated disavowal of any such intent) as a feminist re-telling of the Adam and Eve myth; an indictment of the Compulsive-Breeding class; a parable of a Nietzschean Superman...to be certain, there are many other, far more sensible ideas on this film than what I'm putting forth.

First, by way of a quick synopsis: As a husband and wife, (named He and She, although neither ever says the other's name) make love, their toddler falls out of the window and dies. She goes into a deep depression, described as "atypical" by her doctor. In his capacity as husband and professional therapist, and over his wife's objections, a hell-bent-on-confronting-fear-directly He makes a patient of his wife and plans a trip for them to "Eden", their cabin in the woods, where She says her malaise began. When they get there, after He and She both have unnerving hallucinations, things devolve into a grisly battle to the death. Except, of course, it's not really that simple.

While many are going to focus yet again on whether Von Trier is a misogynist (more on that in a minute), I found in this film a central impulse to indict as ineffective and self-deceiving man's attempts to superimpose order atop his own woefully un-examined (mis-examined?) nature. When a talking fox in Anti-Christ proclaims that "Chaos reigns", foreshadowing the coming stripping away of the certainties and methodologies to which He has clung, I thought of Nietzsche's indictment of institutions (most often religion) which He called out, in varying degrees of lucidity, as inhibitors of man's self-realization.

At the NYFF press screening, I asked Von Trier (see our comical exchange at the 2:53 mark and also in part three of the videos below) a question about Nietzsche -- and Bergman and society in the same nervous moment, and as I stared up at his 30-foot head, projected full-screen via Skype, I hoped no one would laugh at my question:

Lars Von Trier: "I'm very sorry to say I couldn't hear the question so you'll have to repeat it -- it sounded very complicated"

The audience breaks out laughing.

Michael Vazquez: "I've forgotten my question"

More laughter.

LVT: "I'm sorry"

MV: "I've got the questions back" [I repeat the lengthy question, midway through, am told by moderator to speak much louder and ask only one question at a time]

MV: "Are there specific coping mechanisms that society uses, that you wanted to strip away, and force your audiences to confront?"

LVT: "I don't think I have an agenda like that with my films; yeah, I do films very much for my own sake and not to have any [pause] I don't have any idea how, you know, it will reflect on society."

MV: "Did Nietzsche's concept that humans find nature abhorrent play into this? I also was thinking of Ingmar Bergman's Persona where two women, one of whom wanted a dead baby go to a remote island and they sort of transfer roles, with the one that had been comfortable with these [societal coping] mechanisms falling apart -- did that play into it at all, except you sent a man and a woman back to Eden? Or was this not even a thought?"

LVT: "Well, Persona's a film I like very much; Nietzsche, I'm not so [pause] I don't know enough about Nietzsche; my problem was I have this Anti-Christ book laying on my table by the bed now for forty years and I haven't opened it yet' -- more audience laughter -- "so it's just the title, I know, I don't want to say anything about Nietzsche other than to say that He in the film, He suddenly embraces a horse over Wagner's music, a scene which I liked."

I was thinking of a passage from Nietzsche's The Will To Power, not The Anti-Christ, but here, Von Trier is giving us much, directly from the horse's mouth, though' not (necessarily) about the film, but about himself, and Nietzsche: Von Trier has made it widely known that the filming of Anti-Christ was preceded by an episode of not inconsiderable depression. And while he doesn't spell it out, it's also true that in 1889, an unhinged Nietzsche was found in Turin, naked and hugging a horse.

Von Trier does make clear that he set out to make a horror film and he told interviewers that he liked The Shining and Carrie -- a film that is as much a revenge fantasy (and all the better for it) as it is a horror-flick.

Getting back to the film, after the baby dies, She begins to re-examine her abandoned thesis on the history of gynocide and the historical, sociocultural imbuing of the female identity with cunning and Original Sin. As She begins to wonder about her most primal, inexplicable (therapy be damned) impulses, coming to believe her own historical press as it were, He confronts her and tells her that this is a regression -- rather than debunk the things She was researching, She's embracing them.

I should leave this to the Feminists out there, but why Lars Von Trier is deemed a misogynist is beyond me -- in fact, to my feeble mind, he has often enough championed women as saintly ingénues, or unleashed Female revenge by stripping away the blindfolds of Lady Justice, forcing Her to see a naked historical reality and subsequently unleashing Her wrath -- or both, or neither; but his work always invites myriad interpretations.

As I left the theater, I canvassed one person (who happened to be female, and also a HuffPo contributor) asking simply: "Whatdjathink?" and I was told "There was definitely some misogyny going on there" prompting me to ask rhetorically if it wasn't more an indictment of misogyny, historically veiled as benign patriarchy, which I found manifested in the very telling scene in which He, exasperated by the futility of therapeutic approaches, and increasingly unnerved by his own hallucinogenic torment, initially begins to break down, nakedly revealing his de facto patriarchy, exclaiming: "You don't have to understand me, you just have to trust me."

When She confesses to him that She witnessed the child falling out of the window when they were making love, it's perhaps not a wholly inelegant ponderation to re-evaluate the black and white lovemaking scene which opens the film as a micro-metaphor for a woman's total right to her body, over child-bearing - and, or, of post-partum depression, though Von Trier denies any knowledge of whether She saw the baby falling. In any case, it is one amidst many worthy and challenging meditations in this film, just as her castration of him dually negates the celebrated male orgasm, and renders Him capable only of bleeding like a woman, which He does when She masturbates him, raping his unconscious body, to which She's affixed a permanent weight in the form of a barbell drilled through his ankle (a reclaiming of the proverbial ball and chain of domesticity?). Strangely, the details of Elizabeth Smart's kidnapping are being recounted on the news as I write this.

The violence is baroque, yet one of the great ironies about Von Trier's work is that while his violence outstrips that of other films, it is his violence which is infused with a poetry; he writes and shoots some of the most wrenching acts of desperation, but in this universe where everything is permitted, he is arguably amongst the more aesthetically justified in doing so -- simply put, addressing human identity, psychological boundaries, history, and existence in an unignorable manner is always a worthwhile endeavor. And Von Trier's general cinematic poetry -- occasionally more heavy-handed and generally far more stylized than on previous efforts but none the worse the change-up -- is manifest nicely; it doesn't feel like an accident that some of the most beautiful photography in the film occurs when She, under hypnosis, is asked to imagine the place of her fear, and her voluptuous inner-vision seems an homage to the very art of wraith and memory made cellulose, as She walks through the forest over a footbridge and lays down in the grass, serenely overtaken by nature, which in the course of events, She ultimately is.

Although there are moments in Anti-Christ where silence might emerge more diabolically than the cue-the-scary-music synthesizer, when the wind blows and the woods curve up at the edges of the screen, the film exquisitely evokes the lapping-at-the-edges terror of His and Her total envelopment in the viscosity of existence. Eden's a pretty scary place, seemingly sanctified by a prickly phallus of a lightning-struck tree.

Getting back to the film, He comes to and manages to flee, huddling deep in a foxhole, which feels like a rediscovering of the womb (womb as foxhole?). She, in a moment of guilt and panic, digs Him up -- Adam being born from the dirt, but only after an act of penance from Eve? Is this reverse entry into the world a defecatory re-birthing? Irrespective of first-cause, or the fact that She's spared his life (albeit, after nearly killing Him), He re-emerges, giving full license to his own instinct -- the fight-or-flight reflex He'd mentioned earlier in the film -- fully apprised of the clash of wills-to-power (or of Man VS Nature or of the Battle of The Sexes?) that is human existence, and now coming into his own -- or at least to his own rescue, from this natural Hell he's helped unleash through his haughty presumption about the improvability of the self-in-nature. He lays waste to her then sets her ablaze in a Jean D'Arc pyre, subsequently finding throngs of women following him through the hills -- a newly birthed superman? A reminder of historical male dominance? Of Nietzsche's twisted dicta, "When thou goest to woman bring thy whip"? I'll note that for a flash-instant during their death-lock, their faces liminally suggest that they could have, that they were free to, reconcile -- perhaps it's just the hopeless romantic in me -- but He instead commences with the fatal strangulation of She. Thus, is Eden lost.

What if Eden was ruined not by an interloper but instead by the need for compulsory breeding?

A tree need only produce one sapling every hundred years, notes She mid-film, as the roof of their cabin in Eden is pelted with acorns in what will likely be one of the most oft-referred -- amongst quite a few overt (and at times at times literalist) scenes in the film. But Her's is a point which opens a small camera obscura aperture, illuminating an all-too-human subtext. Even with the benefit of psychoanalytic awareness, denying their own nature may increasingly be what She and He do best -- and, as we find ourselves in the midst of a baby boom (and population explosion), it seems worth noting that one could say that this serves a kind of indictment of the breeding "instinct", by examining what is laid bare when you remove the excuses one has put in place for one's own shortcomings. Because it's always worth noting how often children are the self-justification of the quietly despairing Average Person, (perhaps my former child self and future parent self included). Earlier in the film, She reminds him of how, long before the baby died, he had ceased to take an interest in her, adding that it's only post-mortem, now that he is viewing her as his patient, that he is even paying attention to her again; when She also expresses bitterness about abandoning her thesis on gynophobia and gynocide, I was oddly -- yet powerfully -- reminded of the debate over exactly why Sigmund Freud abandoned his own early and potentially shocking research on paternal abuse of daughters, and whether as a psychotherapist he could really discern fact from fiction or was simply refusing to see a given and brutal reality.

Suffice to say, it is, whether intended by the director or not, eminently to Von Trier's credit, (and this reviewer's endless and likely misguided fascination), that his films help us lift certain blindfolds, even if, we, no doubt, merely replace them with our own.

So perhaps, instead of wondering if Von Trier is a misogynist or if he was thinking of Nietzsche's twisted dicta, "When thou goest to woman bring thy whip", we might again paraphrase a line from Persona: We should see each other like children; tormented, helpless and lonely, full of good intentions but sometimes controlled by inexplicable forces, and capable of terrible behavior.