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Antichrist, Lars von Trier’s bleak but masterful vision

in the forest of the mind

in the forest of the mind

Antichrist – Lars von Trier

Wittgenstein said he always found Freud worth reading – for thought-provoking psychological ideas. He expressed no interest in Freud’s work as the basis for a therapeutic regime.

As ever, this is both clear thinking and wise. In Antichrist, Lars von Trier tempts us to become as entangled in Freudian description and interpretation as anyone actually engaged in the psychoanalytic therapeutic process does. As perhaps von Trier himself has in his past.

But Antichrist is a work of Art not psychological exposition. Reductionism is as profound a mistake, perhaps the ultimate mistake, in discussing Art as it is in Philosophy and other disciplines – except science which is reductionist by definition. There is no such thing as the meaning of a work of Art and the last place to pursue this illusion is in the ‘intention’ of the artist.

The opening scenes of Antichrist, the Prologue in von Trier’s formalised structure, are breathtaking: cinematically nothing less than masterly. As good as anything I’ve ever seen. With implacable economy von Trier sets up his narrative, establishes his two protagonists and embeds a tone and atmosphere of unremitting dread and tension that grips you throughout his extraordinary film. These opening images carry all the dread-full beauty of those of 9/11.

Totally lost in the passionate intimacy of unrestrained, knowing sex between true partners, the un-named psychotherapist Willem Dafoe and PhD student wife Charlotte Gainsbourg do not hear their toddler son first cry; then open his playpen; move a chair to climb on a table; take his favourite soft toy to the open 2nd storey window; stand on the window-ledge to marvel at the fatal, intoxicating beauty of the falling snow. Enraptured innocence is enticed by an indifferent necessity back to earth. Entranced to death. And nothing in the lives of Dafoe and Gainsbourg, can ever be the same again. Nature, as Gainsbourg later observes, is Satan’s church. Expressionless figurines of 3 beggars ‘Pain’, ‘Grief’, ‘Despair’ stand on the table; unmoving, unmoved witnesses to tragedy. Symbols of fate: the first in a film chaotically infused with symbolism.

Just as the arrival of a child in a marriage re-defines the relationship so here does the tragic departure of a much loved one. Armed with professional expertise Dafoe rejects the drug-based treatment of Gainsbourg’s grief by others. He resolves, against advice and acknowledged principle, to treat her himself. The first step is to persuade her to dump all her pills: to face up to her grief.

One distinctive emotional thread of the film emerges here: we will find that although their loss is equally shared, the film is dominated exclusively by Gainsbourg’s grief and Dafoe’s efforts to mitigate it. There is a quagmire of Freudian concepts to get stuck in here regarding Dafoe’s emotional response – not least, the intellectualisation of grief represented by his psychoanalytic approach to his partner: the denial of his own grief this could be argued to represent; or the projection of his own grief onto hers to avoid facing it himself.

Perhaps we can reduce this jargon to this thought: however consciously loving and well-intentioned are Dafoe’s efforts to help his wife in her inconsolable grief, he denies her the one thing that she needs – the real, tangible sense that her grief is shared; that he is overwhelmed, unmanned, by grief just as she is. That he too is out of control. That he shares her terror before the existential void.

Never throughout the movie, even in extremis, and boy do I mean extremis, even when he appears utterly helpless, does Dafoe lose his unassailable belief in his will, his control. Gainsbourg’s desolation generated by her loss, is the horror of existence within an implacable, hostile universe; beyond control, where all that is precious can be taken away in an almost mockingly banal instant of indifferent time. Dafoe’s dread, is the very idea that such a world exists – so he denies it. He must therefore define Gainsbourg’s implacably truthful perception of the human condition as misperception, temporarily and naturally generated by grief. His conviction is that with his guidance through the natural process of grief, Gainsbourg can recover a ‘true’ perspective on life. His perspective. As he says “what the mind can conceive, it can achieve.” The philosophy of a child.

Beneath the horrifying physical, sexual, emotional, gender battles between these two, once united lovers and parents, lies a stark metaphysical conflict: the remorselessly indifferent, hostile world to which Gainsbourg’s eyes have been opened by her son’s death is one Dafoe cannot countenance, will not acknowledge. For him his son’s death was a tragic accident: for her it is proof positive of the work of a malevolent fate. If there is a pathological move in her thinking it is here: for an indifferent universe is not necessarily a malevolent one. But having made this move in her mind, it is a short step to identify power and control as masculine qualities – a conception constantly re-enforced by Dafoe’s every step to guide her, think her, will her through her grief.

This does not explain or account for the horrifying events Antichrist depicts but it does provide a context of such powerful, disturbing, mental and emotional chaos, that the excesses to which each protagonist succumbs become only too credible even if their meaning is elusive, intentionally ambiguous and open to interpretation and debate. Freud’s concept of the unconscious is inescapably apt here: these are actions driven by forces deep within the mind: unknown, atavistic, instinctual: the dark forest of the mind within which are hidden terrors and irresistible spurs to violent action. A Darwinian ‘id’ before which the socialised rational ‘ego’ is powerless and the ‘super-ego’ defunct.

Within this charged atmosphere von Trier examines with forensic detachment the relationship between men and women, masculine and feminine; biological, visceral and genetic in the first contrast and social, emotional and conventional in the second. And of course sex and sexuality is the ground upon which the conflicts between the rational and the instinctive; control and abandon, pleasure and responsibility, are fought. It is no coincidence that total absorption in sexual union, passion, lust if you will; is what prevents both parents from hearing the child’s initial cry; and what distracts Gainsbourg from her usual periodic check on him. Again von Trier makes it almost impossible not to see the child’s death as a tragic consequence of conflicting demands of id, ego and super-ego – of animal instinct, rational thought and behaviour, and moral sentiment. These were not in fact Freud’s terms but those of his translator: the literal translations to me are more apt – the ‘it’, the ‘I’ and the ‘over-I’. The circumstances of the child’s death of course also resonate powerfully with moral and religious ideas of sin and most especially of course guilt.

As part of his effort to ‘manage’ her grief, Dafoe first draws out of Gainsbourg what frightens her most. When she reluctantly confesses this is the forest, he challenges her to return with him to the forest at ‘Eden’ where they have a remote hut. Going to Eden and the role-play exercises he plans there are all part of his therapeutic strategy. In his title, the casting of Dafoe (Scorcese’s Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ), and the ‘return’ to ‘Eden’ of his narrative, von Trier intentionally threads religious resonance into the fabric of his story. Biblical concepts, just like those of Freud, are left unexplained and unresolved. How one sees, understands, reacts to Antichrist will depend to a very large extent, on what attitudes, beliefs, prejudices you bring to it. And von Trier’s elusive, non-judgemental direction leaves mental and emotional space for all to engage with his movie in radically different ways: especially in the ‘return to Eden’ – this is a visual poem; unconfined, unrestrained. Disturbing.

The child’s funeral and Dafoe’s efforts to help Gainsbourg make up the first three ‘chapters’ of von Trier’s film. The initially benign experience in Eden descends into his final chapter – ‘Chaos Reigns’. It is tempting to call this ‘beyond Fate’. The symbolic three beggars are no longer harmlessly inanimate: they are now transformed into animal form as a fox, a deer and a crow. They remain detached observers but the fox speaks to intone “chaos reigns”. Many critics have baulked at a talking fox. I have no problem with that – this is palpably a symbolic, poetic part of the film. If there is a criticism it is that it injects an inappropriate didacticism: inappropriate because rational. Not for the first time von Trier evokes the magical tone of the fairytale with setting, animals rich in symbolism, and narrative when Gainsbourg intones that when the three ‘beggars’ appear to together – “someone has to die.” And of course – someone does: magical prophecies fulfilled reinforce the sense of a fate before which we are helpless. Just as our conscious ‘I’ is often helpless before the ‘it’ of our unconscious, and its unknown drives and desires.

The chaos of von Trier’s last chapter is not just confined to the random cruelty and unpredictability of an indifferent, even hostile natural world. His rigorously non-judgemental direction of performance and narrative sends mixed and perplexing signals: there is planning; methodical, purposeful motivation and action; these vie with overwhelmingly instinctive visceral violence; regret, remorse, triumph, forgiveness and revenge; love and hate; compassion and cruelty. We are accustomed to seeing these threads of human experience separated out and woven into a pattern we can recognise; or better, a pattern we are comfortable with. Von Trier has not only not separated them out for us he has intentionally woven them together to form a whole that seeks to be pattern-less. And of course he is, I think knowingly, subject to his own paradox: the effort to represent chaos is in itself methodical, rational. Human. The nature of his ‘chaos’ in the fourth chapter derives logically from the narrative that precedes it. He leads us by a common pathway into the sinister forest and then leaves us to fend for ourselves, constantly teasing, frightening, challenging us; never letting us recover our balance; defying our expectations. This is an intentional representation of chaos, but rigorously unresolved. Still, he teases us for our desperate desire, like Dafoe, to order chaos through reductionist strategies to account for human behaviour – notably Freud’s mechanically structured conceptual model. He even makes this concrete when he has Dafoe discover, hidden away in the loft, Gainsbourg’s research material full of sinister historical imagery of man’s inhumanity man; and even more, man’s inhumanity to woman.

The ‘resolution’ of the conflict between his characters, called in von Trier’s cast list ‘he’ and ‘she’, segues into his ‘Epilogue’ The form this takes is perplexing, perhaps intentionally so. However as the resolution of the conflict between ‘man’ and ‘woman’, between Dafoe and Gainsbourg is itself paradoxical with the ‘winner’, the survivor, having lost; the striking end-image perhaps balances this with its own paradox – that the ‘loser’ also wins.

It may be a truism but more than any recent film, what you get from Antichrist will depend heavily upon what you bring to it. He first immerses us in an all-to-real human tragedy and engages our emotions, our hopes and fears for the characters, especially Gainsbourg’s. Then following him like the Pied Piper trailing a narrative thread to guide us in to the forest – he disappears – abandoning his guiding narrative that was only there to entice us into a metaphysical space we might have been reluctant to enter. Then he challenges, teases, mocks, surprises and shocks us. In a sense to echo an old Dylan song I can’t remember the name of – von Trier drags us into the same mess he’s in. He challenges us with the stark existential choice his characters face: a bleak un-solaced world derived from an implacably unsentimental acceptance of remorseless facts; or one where our reason, our intention, agency makes a difference – gives us a degree of control over our lives. Of the many forms this latter perspective takes, he challenges us to adhere, in extremis, to reductionist models like Freud’s without self-deception – or in Sartre’s words “bad faith”.

Von Trier’s view, derived precisely from his determination to present the choices to us in a detached, non-judgmental way, implies an instinct for the bleak view as these two philosophical positions are emotionally asymmetric: the bleak view is always provisional, open to possible if not expected events in the world: to hold the other view requires a commitment to it; whether it be a recognised faith or belief system, or an intellectual trust in explanatory models like Freud’s or simply an instinctive faith in the power of thought and reason. The asymmetry between these positions is dramatically and graphically highlighted in Antichrist where we see that to sustain his own metaphysical perspective Dafoe must characterise Gainsbourg’s as pathological, by definition a sign of unhealthy mis-perception: to acknowledge the validity of her perception would be to accept its truth – and thus be forced to embrace it himself.

Von Trier will have succeeded if response to his film is vehement and conflicting. By leaving moral, emotional space for our own attitudes to engage with the film he makes this inevitable – if his aesthetic motivation is understood. Feminists are likely to read an underlying misogynism in Antichrist; those with a religious faith, sinful delusion or even blasphemy. Inevitably a psychoanalytic response to his film will place it within the conceptual scheme of the analytic tradition and see the film itself not as a legitimate vision from without psychoanalysis but a form of expression of Von Trier’s own emotional imbalance, itself requiring therapeutic help. It is my hunch that no reaction would delight von Trier more than this last.

Both Dafoe and Gainsbourg are magnificent; Gainsbourg is simply mesmeric – she at times inhabits her character to a degree that transcends performance.

The fact of Antichrist rather than any argument within it suggests a bleak vision of the human condition in general and a deeply perplexed and disturbed conception of the possibilities of relationships between men and women. Misanthropic perhaps; but not in my view misogynistic.

Impressive, challenging, perplexing and at times deeply disturbing, Antichrist is the work of a consummate film-maker with a serious if at times ambiguous purpose. Don’t miss it.

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