The great people at Words without Borders and Open Letter Books have collaborated on a book marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Wall in My Head will be published this November but they've launched a great blog in advance of its release. You'll definitely want to take a look.
So, after all the hype, the prizes and anti-prizes, and my own squeamish fear of the already infamous auto-clitoridectomy scene, I decide this rainy July Saturday in Copenhagen to go in to the Dagmar to see Lars von Trier’s new film, Antichrist. (The final ‘T’ in the title incorporates the feminist symbol – something I cannot duplicate on my computer.)
The movie opens with a beautifully filmed scene of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg coupling with great passion to an elegantly impassioned musical background of Handel’s Rinaldo sung by a castrato voice. While man and woman mount toward orgasm, we also see a side story in which their very young son crawls out of his crib, catches a smiling peek of his parents in flagrante delecto, shoves a chair over to a table by an open window. On the table stand three tiny sculptures on whose bases are engraved the words “pain,” “grief,” and “despair.” As the woman is climaxing the little boy is spilling the sculptures onto the floor and standing up on the sill of an open window to watch the gently falling snow while he clutches his teddy bear. The boy falls, or perhaps dives, out the window to crash several floors below in the virgin snow, followed by his teddy bear (in defiance of the laws governing the acceleration of gravity).
The remainder of the film is the story, in four chapters and an epilogue, of the woman’s “atypical grief” and the husband’s insistence on undertaking her therapy (he is a therapist) in their isolated cabin far out in the mountainous countryside which they call “Eden.” He seeks to help her understand that the nature she has become so afraid of is not really dangerous.
Antichrist has been attacked by feminists as anti-feminist and defended by others as being a representation of male rationalism versus female emotivism, of the woman as a “therapy victim” and the man as a rationalistically manipulating therapist, as a representation of Antichrist nature versus the Christian world which at its best is ruled by love and mutual consideration.
Kim Skotte, a film reviewer for Denmark’s Politiken who right from its premiere in Cannes gave the film six out of six stars, describes the woman character as “a heroic figure in a tragic world and perhaps anyway a mirror image of a hero.” He writes, “…it is not films with sweet Christian miracles that rouse debate on Christian values. That is done by tales describing how terrible the world would be without love and trust. Films like Antichrist.”
Skotte asserts that the film takes all of its horror and makes of it “a life-affirming film.”
As strong as the film is, I must confess to find little life-affirming in it other perhaps (and this might be a self-indictment of myself as a rationalist male) than the male character’s attempt, even if ill-advised, to help his wife out of her pain and despair – which is described by Professor Joanna Burke of Birbeck College as “the violence of…rationalism’s heartlessness.” Professor Burke goes on to describe the violence in the film as “rebellious, transgressive and beautiful.” Perhaps in addition to being a heartless male rationalist, I am a wimp, but I saw nothing “beautiful” in Charlotte Gainsbourg’s snipping off “her” clitoris (a rubber facsimile, painstakingly accurate) with a kitchen scissors or thumping her husband/therapist in the groin with a hunk of firewood (ever been kicked in the balls, Ms Burke? It’s not beautiful) or graphically boring a hole in his leg and performing other violence-porn acts upon him. Powerful perhaps, but not beautiful.
Perhaps the point is that the violence of nature depicted in the film – heart-rending and “natural” as it is – is just that, natural, heartless as nature. The dozen or so ticks or chiggers that affix themselves to the Willem Dafoe character’s hand as he sleeps with his arm dangling out the window say it all. They are tiny vampires sucking his blood in a” crime” of opportunity – but no, they are as natural as we are. No, in fact, we are more despicable than those little bloodsuckers – we heartlessly, rationally organize nature for our pleasure and convenience. Our crimes of opportunity are truly crimes and they are enormous. Compared to us, birds of prey are innocents, even when they swoop down on a baby bird fallen from the nest.
That the film opens and closes with a castrato aria from Handel’s Rinaldo seems a tip-off about the theme intended: Rinaldo is an opera about the First Crusade in which Rinaldo, the crusade leader, is taken prisoner by Armida, Queen of Damascus and a powerful enchantress who tries repeatedly to stab his beloved but in the end is defeated and converted to Christianity. It seems hard to deny that this is a film about Christian love and engagement versus evil (as has been said, Christianity is a magnificent philosophy – if only someone would give it a try), a man who seeks to render care to a woman who has become infected with evil via the study of human wickedness (she has been writing a thesis on the torture of “witches”.)
A moment of passion leads a couple to be unmindful of their responsibility toward their baby, resulting in his death. The woman (perhaps because she might actually have seen and ignored the danger to the boy in favor of her pleasure) responds with a debilitating grief. The man believes that he can through reason save her from the anxiety that has developed within her by making her understand that what she fears – nature – is not really dangerous (presumably is not really dangerous to human beings who, arguably, prevail over nature and whose emotional life can lift them beyond the heartless indifference and opportunism of nature).
However, perhaps there is a deeper secret in the woman. Perhaps she understands more deeply that what she fears is dangerous, that human nature – she has become convinced – like all nature is evil. Perhaps her mind has been tipped by its immersion in her study of the evil done to women, and she is now in the grip of her own evil. It later appears that she had been systematically deforming her son’s feet, and she does nothing to save him as he climbs up to the window. Perhaps she has been driven mad by her witness of evil.
She now believes that nature is the church of Satan. The constant sound of the acorns falling on the roof becomes a symbol of nature’s reproduction of itself. She has lost the balance between reason and natural force and chaos reigns in that imbalance; she sees evil in nature and the evil within her is encouraged and increasingly breaks through into violent actions. When her husband discovers what she had done to the boy, she attacks him, brutalizes him, smashes his groin and in a symbolic sense turns his leg into a woman’s womb, “impregnates” it with a grinding wheel that is perhaps a symbol of the millstone nature has forced women to carry, bolts it in place so that it cannot be removed. It is a mockery of reproduction. She is the Antichrist – nature out of balance with itself, unalloyed by reason.
Her madness rages further, and she cuts off the source of pleasure that drives humans to propagate. She has become nature against herself and thus another form of Antichrist, filling the world with wickedness.
Finally, after his resurrection from the fox hole where he hides while she is on her murderous rampage, she tells him that she will kill him when the three beggars arrive. Three animals do arrive (fox, doe and bird) but he manages to remove the millstone from his leg and he kills her.
He wanders the countryside. The three animals watch him tamely as he eats wild berries. Are nature and humanity back in balance? At the end, crowds of faceless women appear from the woods and mass around him. Why? Is this the second coming of Christ who has destroyed the Antichrist? Are they surrounding him to follow him or to destroy him? Why are their faces blurred? Are they coming to him to be given an identity? (Hardly seems possible.) And what an irony is echoed in the castrato aria in view of the fact that it was the Catholic Church that originated this beastly practice of cutting off the testicles of pre-pubic boys to preserve the “purity” of their voices: Is von Trier contradicting his Christian message or just tempering it?
Perhaps someone can answer these questions, but when art prickles with symbols that need interpretation and puzzles that need solving, I feel that I am more closely involved in the realm of the intellect than that of the soul, and I lose interest.
Nevertheless, the movie is a strong experience filmed with startling beauty and acted memorably. It is definitely worth seeing even if you, like I, have to look through your fingers at a bloody scene or two.
Greetings from this ancient kingdom! Thomas E. Kennedy (www.thomasekennedy.com)
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