Lars von Trier enjoys making movies that are a little on-the-nose. Some might say he enjoys giving viewers a punch in the nose. Even more might say they want to punch him in the nose. Leave it to von Trier to make a movie called Antichrist and set it in a place called (are you ready for it?) “Eden.”
Is your nose sore yet?
There are a lot of thematic elements in play in the film; if they don’t necessarily cohere, von Trier himself chalks it up to a haphazard scripting process. What interests me, though, is that von Trier — who returns to explicitly religious themes in his movies repeatedly — did not actually put a literal Antichrist in a movie called Antichrist. This from the guy who rang miraculous, heavenly bells at the end of Breaking the Waves. Instead, he presents us with a Bergmanesque scenario: a married couple who retreat to an isolated cabin in the woods to engage in passive-aggressive pas de deux (which the husband seems to think is “psychotherapy”) after their young son dies in an accident. Call it Scenes from a Miscarriage.
A lot of critics have called it worse. Armond White put it succinctly: “ Antichrist is really anti-cinema.” Others, ranging from Glenn Kenny (who drew an astute parallel to Tarkovsky’s Solaris) to Nick Schager dismissed it. I think the funniest sum-up was offered by Michael Tully: “The only definitive verdict I can offer is this: Lars von Trier needs to get out more. Out of his brain, out of his backyard, out-out-out.” The films quasi-religious allusions seemed to be a bit of a stretch, the violence was too shocking, and the story was too undercooked. I tend to agree that it is not a great film; from what I’ve seen, von Trier hasn’t really come close to matching his masterpiece, Breaking the Waves, with his subsequent work. But Antichrist is worth consideration. The reliable Victor Morton highly praised the film for evincing a psychological portrait of the torments of depression — a condition that von Trier claims to have channeled into the making of this film. That much is abundantly clear
“Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned…” – Romans 5:12
“Cursed is the ground because of you.” – Genesis 3:17
As controversial as Antichrist was for its graphic clitorectemy and the general disdain film buffs have for von Trier as a self-styled provocateur, I think critics would be even more scornful if they realized that the film adheres to a rather nasty bit of old Christian doctrine that says human nature is sinful and corrupt from birth. Original sin is not a favorite buzzword, even among the evangelicals, largely because nobody really wants to hear that being born human is enough for God to hate us and want to send us to Hell. Not every modern branch of Christianity accepts or preaches this doctrine, but it’s one of the main doctrinal reasons that some denominations practice infant baptism: because if a child dies before being baptized, that child would go to Hell.
What a lovely perspective on the miracle of childbirth.
Beyond this, though, there is also the Christian notion of a “fallen world,” a world that, because of Adam and Eve’s sin, is much more predatory toward humankind. Entropic, you might say. An anti-paradise where survival is a constant struggle, and where God has cursed men and women to have different roles and desires in order to succeed in surviving.
In the film, the characters (not named, but designated “He” and “She”) debate whether nature is evil. He, the rationalist, denies it, insisting that She has simply internalized this notion because of her thesis work. The subject of her thesis — “gynocide,” or Man’s systematic historical repression of Woman — was undertaken in order to combat this idea, but instead, She became convinced of its veracity. So it is that von Trier introduces another scandalous idea: women as occult beings.
She’s behavior throughout the film would seem consistent with unenlightened attitudes toward witches. She has a voracious sexual appetite; she resists His attempts to control her, and it is She who initiates physical violence towards Him. Though she supposes that she fears Nature/Eden when She’s in the city, once she returns to the forest, she seems to blend in, to become a part of it, just like the ghosts of all the other women in the past who were persecuted for being more in touch with the natural world than men deemed appropriate. Upon returning to her cabin in the woods, where — despite her initial protestations and anxiety, She claims to find a “cure” to her emotional torment — it is He who finds himself plagued by the insects, the sound of falling acorns, and, most significantly — incarnate visions symbolizing the loss of hope and faith.
Even beyond their namelessness, both characters are made more indistinct and abstract by the filmmaking methods. Between post-production color correction, production design, and wardrobe choices, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg blend into their surroundings, completely absorbed by the world around them when they are not recklessly absorbed in each other during coitus. Even the infamous opening sequence, in which their son falls while they thrash about the bathroom, emphasizes the extent to which they are indeterminable from the shower tiles, the bed, the washing machine. They live in a world where even the love between a man and woman is terribly, hopelessly banal and fragmented. When it’s finally revealed that She actually saw their son climbing out the window, but did and said nothing, the revelation doesn’t hold much shock value. What more could one expect from a world where the people are just texture.
So these two non-characters, who represent pseudo-scientific rationalism and pseudo-naturalist occultism, are locked in a conflict that ends in the death of one and the probable madness (or death, if we take the final image more literally) of the other. The holocaust visited upon women by men may end up being avenged at the film’s conclusion, but even those women are faceless and indistinct. The main question we should be asking is this:
Where is the grace?
In Antichrist’s hermetically sealed universe, neither rational thought nor the Venusian tide of nature offers any sort of comfort or solace. Faith, hope, and God have no part in this universe. Instead of being offended by the suggestion that pure reason and paganism are spiritual dead-ends, critics seem to have spent more time on his alleged misogyny and the couple of scenes of genital mutilation. In his previous two films in the U.S.A. Trilogy, von Trier named his protagonist “Grace,” and played around with the ways in which he could subvert, pervert, or otherwise manipulate perceptions of how grace functions in a narrative (such as being the agent of horrific vengeance or liberal condescension). In Antichrist, grace is notable mostly by its utter absence.
Various Christian groups have dealt with the problems posed by sin, original sin, and the fallen world in different ways, but mostly, it comes down to grace. Because of grace, God took pity on humankind and sent his son. Whether Jesus is interpreted primarily as a character in a story illustrating proper moral behavior or as the literal atoning sacrifice for the sins of humankind, Christians tend to invoke the concept of grace to reconcile the image of God the wrathful judge with God the loving father. Some Christians even take a much more universalist approach, saying that God’s love is so overwhelming that all people — no matter how bad they are or how antipathetic they are towards religion — are saved. That kind of optimism is entirely out of place in Antichrist.
Taking into account, then, the fact that the film was borne from von Trier’s own depression, and considering that the film deliberately erases any semblance of hope or divine mercy from its form, it’s easy to see that the film’s title has a few rather immediate applications. Firstly, the film accurately represents a state of mind (depression) that is equated with the absence of faith. Depression is a rejection of the real world (which, while fallen, does also include grace) in favor of a constructed, self-imposed prison. Secondly, the film offers up what von Trier evidently conceives of as the world as experienced by people who are without faith (depressed or not). The prefix “anti-” can mean “against” or “in place of.” He and She have substituted their relationship, their minds, and their attachment to nature for a religious faith. A further extrapolation might even be the suggestion that the cyclical recriminations of men against women (and vice versa) are inevitable without the mercy of the divine to intervene.
In his own perverse way, von Trier is once again giving his secular critics the finger. Cloaking his parable in his typical confrontational terms, he has made a film that affirms the necessity of faith and grace by showing what our psychological lives might be like without those things. His conception of a world completely scrubbed of God leaves only the problems of two little people remaining — and that constitutes the spirit of the Antichrist. Whatever it is that people use to replace the irreplaceable divine — in their conception of nature, of the human spirit, of hope — von Trier utterly denounces, counterpointing even Handel’s music with images of despair.
Von Trier cannot help but be mindful of thorny theology even at his most self-consciously dark. Therefore, even a brutal film titled Antichrist is meant to lead Christians to contemplate what is holy… and how dark indeed our lives would be without God’s love.