Danish director/crazy genius Lars von Trier’s (Dogville) new movie Antichrist tells the story of an unnamed, married couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe), whose young son is killed falling out of an open window while they are having sex in a nearby room. This tragedy sends the mother into a deep depression, powered by a strong sense of guilt and self-loathing over the circumstances of her son’s death. The severity of the depression then convinces her psychiatrist husband to take her to a cabin deep in the woods, in an effort to confront her inner demons, treat her depression and help them both move on. However, the therapy goes both ways, to unveil dark secrets in both of them and setting of a bare-knuckle psychological standoff that, we quickly understand, can have no winner.
Or something. The point is not whether this short synopsis does the movie justice (I’m pretty sure it does not), it is that it is written at all. After Antichrist premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in mid-May, predictably splitting audiences between those who considered it further proof that Lars von Trier is the most wickedly visionary guy in modern European film-making, and those, just as many, that saw in Antichrist a movie so blatantly sadistic, misogynist and over-the-top crazy that Trier should be forced to apologize for even giving it an audience, it was all in a haze. Lost in the heated allegations was not only what the film itself was about, which I have tried to summarize above, or what the whole thing meant, but also what exactly elicited so much froth among film critics. For the first couple of days it was practically impossible to understand what the shouting was about, since the reactions themselves became the story. Sadly, even though it eventually became clear they were reacting to some very disturbing scenes of self-mutilation and unorthodox ejaculation of bodily fluids, that didn’t make it easier to assess the movie’s reception, because the debate on the merits was so obviously uncomfortable and vague (so as not to spoil a central plot point). However much I hoped to avoid it, this piece will probably suffer from some of the same weaknesses.
These controversial scenes, and the fact that Trier wrote Antichrist while fighting his way out of a depression himself have led some critics to the somewhat cheap charge that it’s not much more than a lesson in self-therapy. I’ll say one thing about that; even if it were simply a therapeutic movie for Trier, it would have been worth watching. That’s why I’m not particularly troubled by the fact that I still, days after my screening, can’t say what I really think about it. Some of the critics who actually liked the movie have been outraged by the reaction the most absurdly brutal scenes in the movie have gotten from some audiences. Faced with such incredibly detailed depictions of pain and violence, some people naturally will react by considering the absurdity of the whole thing, and simply laugh it off. More than it’s a cowardly way to avoid thinking about what the scene they’re seeing actually mean, such a reaction should be respected both as a legitimate interpretation – Trier is never easily pinned down, and particularly not when he deals in the grotesque – and an understandable coping strategy.
To dismiss such a reception of a Trier movie would mean to rob him of something that has characterized all of his movies: His unrelenting drive to challenge and provoke his viewers, all the way from Breaking The Waves to The Idiots, from Dogville to Manderlay. Honoring that tradition, in an incredibly beautiful epilogue Trier neatly and provocatively cuts between of the couple making love and their son as he falls out of the window, so as to say to that terrible things will happen once people give in to their instincts. In a recent post about John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, I labeled it sex-positive. If such a term exists, Antichrist is its definitive negation. It turns out the provocation of the epilogue is a central theme of the entire story, as sex, often understood as a stand-in for nature itself, is seen as inherently evil. Nature is Satan’s church, the mother says at one point. Sex seems to be held in equally low regard.
The philosophical nature of the thesis advanced in Antichrist makes it an interesting indictment of psycho therapy as well. Perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out that the husband, who insists to treat his wife himself, also has problems keeping his sanity. This is disturbing because we are educated to assume that the psychiatrist is the one in control of his feelings. That is the very reason he is entrusted with taking patients at all. But apart from playing with our perceptions of the psychiatrist as the solid rock in a sea of unpredictability and irrationality, Trier also twists the professional emotional detachment of Willem Dafoe’s character to such lengths, particularly at the beginning of their sessions, so as to make him an almost laughable figure. I ended up hating him for the way he staunchly kept his cool while his wife hurled the most outrageous accusations at him, because it reminded me of the kind of mind-numbingly self-disciplined moral relativism psychiatrists are supposed to cling to. No matter how much that may be his job and his best advice, it couldn’t help but feel a sort of suspicion from Trier’s story towards the psychiatrist’s tendency to conceptualize any feeling, hoping to make it seem like something relateable.
This leaves us with a problem I often have with movies whose most interesting feature is how they fail. Because they don’t succeed at what they’re trying to do, they have to be watched with some intellectual distance in order to be appreciated. It is my thesis that, conciously or not, this means that a certain amount of post-rationalization is necessary, because the movie as it unfolds does not grip me as a viewer on an intuitive level. I’m not saying that only simple, straightforward movies can be truly great, but I do think that movies like Antichrist, that are better at making you think than making you feel (in this particular instance it could of course have something to do with its cynicism) will start at a disadvantage.