Lars has made some very good movies in his time. Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville are all examples of exciting, provocative cinema. And now comes this–thing.
I’m very mixed about this motion picture. Not torn up, not oozing, like after Eyes Wide Shut. There are some beautiful images in this film, the black and white prologue showing an erect penis going into a vagina has to be one of the most gorgeous shots of the sex act I’ve ever seen. The unnamed couple, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, then spend the next hour of the movie talking out their grief (mainly hers) after their young son fell out a window and died while they were in the throes of sex during the prologue. The film goes to color and it becomes a weird incarnation of therapist and patient (Dafoe plays an actual therapist). This interplay continues even as the couple goes to a cabin in the woods, their “Eden.” After a few days there, Gainsbourg says she is cured, but Dafoe does not believe her and continues trying to help her breathe, “Five, four, three…”
At times a David Lynchesque soundtrack comes on signaling something weird is going to happen. (Having just seen Inland Empire and being a fan of Blue Velvet, this touch seemed off-putting, as did Gainsbourg’s request to have Dafoe hit her during sex–another obvious borrowing from Blue Velvet.) The weird happenings are somewhat interesting–a deer running with a dead foetus stuck to its behind, a fox that is eating itself and then speaks English to a seemingly reserved Dafoe. He is the only one having these visions (if they are visions). Then, in the attic of the cabin, Dafoe finds Gainsbourg’s notes for a thesis (called Gynocide) she had been writing that doesn’t come to fruition, (film is fuzzy concerning whether it is finished). Arcane pictures, woodcuts in the manner of Dürer, and three never before heard of constellations in the sky called the Three Beggars–a deer, a fox and a crow (don’t worry the crow is coming).
The couple then have a discourse on violence done to women throughout history and how nature wrecks havoc on women with their cycles. Again in these moments the film creeps to a lull. Motion pictures communicate through images, that is their main function, but Von Trier’s images of two people talking aren’t interesting. They are Dogma-ticized, hand-held shots that have been so ubiquitous on TV for so long as to be übercliche.
But then Gainsbourg gets mad. Very mad. Why do you think she attacks her husband?
A. He is driving her insane with B.F. Skinner quotations?
B. He accuses her of putting her son’s boots on wrong to torture him when he was alive? (Something so contrived its appearance in the film is not unlike it’s sudden appearance in this post.)
C. She is an unstable woman who is not cured, who desires sex (but Dafoe constantly puts her off) and some kind of warmth like all human beings do?
Well…I can’t decide. Probably all of them at that. Therein follows sex with Dafoe but she smashes his erect penis with a log. He is unconscious but she jerks him off and he comes blood. Then, for a coup de grace, Gainsbourg burrows a hole into his leg with a corkscrew and attaches a very heavy grinding stone so he can’t get away. She seals the pipe attached to the grindstone with a giant nut and throws the wrench under the house.
I know I have just been recounting scenes for you. Maybe it is a way of dealing with the film. When watching this sequence, I almost audibly said to myself, “I can’t believe he (Von Trier) is doing this.” But it shouldn’t shock too much. Kidman dragged around an iron weight in Dogville and the murder scene in Dancer in Dark between Bjork and the policeman is much more effective and gruesome. But the images and the very idea of it sticks. Nature is full of violence and violence lurks in us.
In the ensuing scenes, Dafoe escapes (crawling with the grindstone) and hides in a hole near a tree where he finds the crow inside the hole with him. He seemingly kills it but it won’t die. Gainsbourg finds him and buries him alive but then is repentant and digs him up. She brings him back into the house and Defoe asks her if she is still going to kill him. When the three beggars arrive, she says. Then she cuts her clitoris off with an industrial strength scissors. As she swoons and pleads in the corner of the room, the crow starts up cawing and leads Dafoe to find the wrench that will unlock his leg. He finally gets free of the grindstone, but Gainsbourg comes at him with the scissors and chaos ensues before he chokes her to death.
In the black and white epilogue he leaves Eden on a crutch made of a branch, eats some berries, stops on a hill and watches a group of hundreds of women with no faces walk toward him, seemingly ignoring him. THE END
Okay. The film has stayed with me for more than a few days. I woke up one morning with thoughts of it. To me this is the sign of a significant work of art. I wanted to be a film director some years ago and studied film, made them, breathed film, kissed film before I went to bed at night. I still do to an extent. I see films now and many make little impression, like I haven’t seen them at all, but of course I have, but the images and sound doesn’t resonant. Films like Duplicity or 500 Days of Summer, though I enjoyed both to some degree. So Lars has slapped me around a little and if feels good. I recall the effect of Kubrick, Bergman, Haneke, the early Scorsese, Cassavetes, Lynch.
Boarding the Muni in San Francisco after we saw the film I said to my friend who I’d just seen it with: “So I guess the point of the film is men are always going to dominate women.” An off-the-cuff remark. He agreed, but then we discussed the films it reminded us most of and threw out The Shining, where the man fails to kill both the woman and child and they escape. It couldn’t be this simple of course and a part of me felt ashamed I was reducing the film to these broad generalizations.
I’ve seen articles on Slate and elsewhere about Von Trier’s misogyny. In Breaking the Waves the main character dies a saintly death. Bjork is unjustly accused and is hung. In Dogville though, Kidman escapes her iron and has the townsfolk that did this to her (along with rape) executed. In this film the main female character is weakened from the beginning. Dafoe is repressing her for the entire film, toying with her. In a way he is getting what he asks for. People in relationship challenge each other in subtle ways everyday. As the stakes get higher, he seems more alive, more pleased. That nature rescues him and indeed, has been summoning him to kill since they arrived in Eden, is problematic but plausible. I don’t know what to make of it.
If it’s anyone’s film, besides Von Trier’s, it’s Dafoe’s. Here is a 54-year-old actor with an impish, beautiful face and smile of someone 20 years younger. He played Jesus when De Niro didn’t. He played as gruesome as it gets in Wild at Heart, he bore life into Born on the Fourth of July for about ten minutes. In Antichrist he nobly endures the stone for a half hour and then turns into a killer. I don’t think this is an easy thing to do as an actor, but he does. Still, does he have a choice in killing his wife? The three beggars: the crow, the fox and the deer all appear in the cabin at the moment that his wife tries to kill him with the scissors. And she does stab him at least once with it. But then I have to ask, does Gainsbourg have any choice after what she has been put through? No matter how attractive I find Willem Dafoe from a heterosexual viewpoint, would I want to go back to Seattle with him? He talks like a psychology textbook.
Going over the film now I find it interesting that we hardly see Dafoe’s face in the sex act during the prologue. Close-ups of his penis, ass, but nothing to do with the thing with two eyes and teeth. The only face we see is Gainsborough’s open-mouthed shuddering pleasure. And the ending? I resist answering what the women mean, what they represent. As a writer I get this all the time. “Well, why did that happen?” “What’s the significance of this?” I don’t need that image to mean anything. It’s speaks to something unconscious in me like how Bach’s Cello Concertos touches my soul or Gerhardt Ritcher’s slurring, icy black and white interpretations of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist group blissfully trip me out.
I think I started this post aiming to criticize the Antichrist more than I have. But in going over the film, recounting the scenes and images, no matter how despondent the forty minutes after the prologue are, I find it is a powerful film and one I would love to see again in the theater but I doubt the film will make it to Buffalo. It’s unrated and I believe only a few dozen cinemas in the United States will play such a film. Also, despite the sex and awesome violence, I doubt the film will make much money. The title doesn’t help either. I wonder what Nietzsche would think of the dear old Danishman using his title for a film in which a clitorectomy occurs.
7 thoughts on “Lars von Trier’s Slippery, Sloppy Antichrist”
I haven’t seen the film and I’m unlikely to catch it in the theaters. Von Trier is a complicated figure and while it’s easy to conflate his work with autobiography, and reduce his work with all kinds of easy interpretations, a viewer/critic is better off exploring all the tensions, dichotomies, complexities. I think, as evinced in the Slate article, that von Trier has a deep anxiety of influence, but he’s able to transmute it into provocatively horrific imagery, narratives, etc. Another article that may help complicate this picture is this one: http://www.doublex.com/blog/xxfactor/why-antichrist-feminist-horror-film where Karina Longworth argues “Why ‘Antichrist’ Is a Feminist Horror Film.”
I think one of the critical moments in this post is when you shared how the “film has stayed with [you] for more than a few days” and how you “woke up one morning with thoughts of it.” And I agree that this is at least one “sign of a significant work of art.”
I’m a huge fan of Richter too. His extraordinary command of craft, and how he utilizes it to explore the mundane and sentimental (I’m thinking of his candle paintings) is inspiring. And I also like his weird, and paradoxically controlled, abstractions as well.
I still would try to see this if you can. He’s really trying something here that we don’t see much in pop art. It’s frustrating and beautiful.
Richter is great. His show I saw that the MOMA in SF was the best visual art experience of my life.
Hey Greg, I’m a bit late on some of the more recent Big Other discussions about film but I wanted to make sure to chip in on your thoughts about Antichrist. I really liked the movie and wouldn’t quite call it “sloppy.” I’m a fan of LVT and think it’s one of his best films…I’m probably not as critical of it as you are. I think he really pulls together different strands from his ouevre in a compelling way– I liked the element of hypnosis that he played with in Europa. And I’ve always thought of LVT as a Brechtian kind of director and I appreciated the more surreal aspects of Antichrist– like the slow motion image of acorns falling in front of Dafoe’s character, like the body limbs protruding from the tree. These more supernatural elements of the film reminded me of The Kingdom (which has to be–along with Twin Peaks– one of the best made for tv mini-series ever). Definitely I agree with you about the Lynch connection–also the close up of the baby bird covered in ants seems to be a citation of the ear in Blue Velvet.
I was surprised to read that people at Cannes jeered when they saw the dedication to Tarkovksy at the end…it made sense to me. The slow close up of the dirty water in the flower vase at the hospital seemed an extremely Tarkovskian image… All in all, I didn’t think the ending was as big a deal as people made it out to be. And I thought his ratcheting of tension throughout was so amazing–a beautiful choreography of malice–that he could have done just about anything at the end and it still would have been a great film.
Thanks Michael! Yes, I was going to be more critical, but as I wrote about it, I realized I like it more and more. I think the ending is perfect mysterious. Like the bells ringing in the air at the end of Breaking the Waves, there is an incredible vision to that scene of the women going up the hill.
Oh I agree he’s definitely Brechtian. That Tarkovsky dedication made me watch the old masters films, I’d only seen one. What incredible images.
This film was very personal for me. It has stayed with me for years now and at the time I saw it, it immediately reminded me of this passage from a book of Zen parables called ‘No Loving Kindness’:
There was an old woman in China who had supported a monk for over twenty
years. She had built a little hut for him and fed him while he was meditating.
Finally she wondered just what progress he had made in all this time.
To find out, she obtained the help of a girl rich in desire. “Go and embrace
him,” she told her, “and then ask him suddenly: ‘What now?'”
The girl called upon the monk and without much ado caressed him, asking him
what he was going to do about it.
“An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter,” replied the monk somewhat
poetically. “Nowhere is there any warmth.”
The girl returned and related what he had said.
“To think I fed that fellow for twenty years!” exclaimed the old woman in
anger. “He showed no consideration for your needs, no disposition to explain
your condition. He need not have responded to passion, but at least he should
have evidenced some compassion.”
She at once went to the hut of the monk and burned it down.
as wife suspected to be mad schemes to escape justice for the torture and murder of her child .open window lure . her grief is atypical it is fear