Lars von Trier, 2009
Few films are easier to scoff at than ANTICHRIST, a contentious film by the self-proclaimed bad boy of Danish cinema, Lars von Trier. It’s so easy in fact, that commentators (confident in the safety of numbers) are tripping over themselves in the rush to pour scorn on what might be a better film than many think. Mind you, who can blame them? This film is full of moments that have been dismissed as sophomoric and pretentious, but as anyone familiar with Trier knows, that’s par-for-the-course when it comes to this wilful Danish provocateur.
I wouldn’t call myself a fan, but I'm inclined to give Trier the benefit of the doubt, even though some of his films have irritated me. I couldn’t get to the end of Epidemic (1987), and The Kingdom (1997) is too calculated for me. But some critics rate them highly, especially the former, which is seen as a key-work in terms of understanding the methodology and intent of Trier’s self-aggrandising and self-deprecating cinema.
The Element of Crime (1984) was the first Trier film I saw. I liked it, but my interest waned before the end. Medea (1988) was more to my taste. It showed that he has an eye for poetic images and the capacity for restraint. There is a parallel between Medea and Antichrist in that they share the theme of children being sacrificed to the selfish appetites of adults, which, if what he says about his childhood is true, resonates deeply forTrier. Zentropa (1992) is a Kafka-esque attack on imperialism and complicity. While it may have thematic meat on its bones, it's too showy and populist to satisfactorily serve its underlying ideas – technically impressive, but ultimately irritating.
‘The Golden Heart Trilogy’ – Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998), Dancer in the Dark (2000) – revealed Trier as an auteur with clear thematic concerns (and an infamous taste for provocation). While the influence of Tarkovsky, Dreyer, and Bergman is evident, Trier’s own voice was developing in these films, characterised by a desire to confront presuppositions of all hues (his own included). This was even more apparent in Dogville (2003), an allegorical meditation on power, justice, mercy, and hypocrisy that was less didactic than it could have been due to its complex ambiguity. The Golden Heart Trilogy grappled with what could be called the ‘affliction of belief’, and in this respect his films share a dialogue with the work of Ingmar Bergman. However, where Bergman’s beef with 'The Big Guy’ could be described as the existential angst of an atheist, Trier’s films appear to be the work of a theist with an aversion to religion. Another similarity to Bergman is that Trier’s central protagonists are women with whom he obviously identifies (or not so obviously considering the flack he gets for his supposed misogyny).
Not one to shy away from contentious media attention, Trier nevertheless says that everything written about him is a lie. This could be more defensive than he lets on, just as his provocations could mask a self-doubting moral conservatism. His parents believed that discipline and boundaries stunted a child’s natural development, which seems to have left Trier with a propensity for self-doubt and depression, identity and relationship issues, and an abiding need for the parental influence of others. In this light, one can surmise that his cinematic heroes (Welles, Kubrick and von Stroheim, from whom he borrowed the ‘von’) are de-facto parents – or at least 'elders'.
Antichrist is an allegory apparently drawn from Trier’s depression therapy, so the central characters aren't literal in a conventional narrative sense, but symbols of two conflicting sides of a single entity. In fact, it’s a three-sided entity with the crucial inclusion of their 6-year-old son, Nick, who falls from a window to his death in the opening flashback sequence that shows his parents “preoccupied with themselves”. Nick is presumably Trier’s inner child (or Id), who is left to perish (metaphor) while the adult sides of his psyche (Ego and Superego) engage in worldly self-centredness.
The characters in Trier’s films are often avatars for his themes. Men broadly represent the severity of the world: reason, intransigence, condemnation, authority, patriarchal power (something Trier is at war with in his films and no doubt within himself), while women are the locus for sacrifice, redemption, suffering, transcendence, and an ongoing battle with patriarchy. When ‘He’ (the unemotional male side of the entity played by Willem Defoe) gets too close for psychological comfort, ‘She’ (the emotional female side played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) takes action to destroy that threat.
A key underlying theme is the quest for inner peace and transcendence, and breaking the shackles of ‘reason and antipathy’ (an allegorical male trait) and ‘fear and denial’ (allegorically female). Problems occur for viewers when they confuse allegorical traits with what is often thought to be Trier’s personal gender politics. The notion of the ‘punishment of women’ in his films is partly the outworking of themes dealing with patriarchal oppression, but it also juxtaposes the brutality of the world (power, money, hatred, etc.) with the spiritual (forgiveness, love, transcendence, etc.). While there’s nothing especially veiled about this, it would seem (judging by reviews) that many people simply don’t see it, or they dismiss it as banal or sophomoric, as if it’s all somehow beneath them. Films like Antichrist deliberately force the viewer to confront things about the world (and themselves) that they must either commit to seeing through, walk away from, or (as is often the case with Trier’s films) discredit.
If viewers engage with Trier’s stories at the expense of his themes, things get messy. A telling example is Roger Ebert’s reaction to Dogville, where he said that American citizens would never chain a helpless woman to a post so that the town could rape her. Ebert’s statement suggests that he has no grasp of the allegorical intent of the film. It illustrates how easily critics and audiences can take Trier’s films literally, as if they simply aren’t aware that cinema is a figurative art form. Given that Trier fashions his stories around themes of guilt, mercy, truth, deception, compassion, redemption; etc., it’s possible that accusations of misogyny and sophomoric banality stem from literal rather than allegorical readings. It also suggests that less of us know how to read a movie these days. Indeed, in certain quarters, subtext is a dirty word, while in others it appears to have no meaning at all.
It’s interesting that the religious aspects in Trier’s work are rarely mentioned or discussed in contemporary criticism, so in this sense Tarkovsky and Trier have more in common than mere camera movement. But where Tarkovsky emphasises Divine Omnipotence, Trier grapples with theological contradictions. While Antichrist may seem to have little in common with the great works of the cinematic canon, it nevertheless attempts to examine personal and universal truths with artistic (and spiritual) sincerity. His work may have little (some say none) of the high-art subtlety or grace of Dreyer or Tarkovsky, but nor should it. This is Trier's vision, his spiritual angst. The hysteria and excess in Antichrist reflects the disgust of the howling inner child, and its longing for spiritual and psychological health.
Some have called the film meretricious and dishonest, an audience-baiting prank at best, and while there may be some truth in that, Antichrist could be one of Trier’s most honest films. While that doesn’t necessarily make it great, it does behove film commentators to give it more serious consideration than most have, or to at least show a little less self-congratulatory condescension.
If it’s true that Trier forced himself to write a number of pages a day as part of his therapy, then Antichrist parallels Bergman’s Persona (1966) as a work of art that (as Bergman put it) ‘saved its author’. Both films are a response to the brutality of life and to personal implosion. They are two-actor films in which each character is one half of a single entity: the emotionally reactive patient half, and the more detached and logical healer half. Both conclude with a merging of the characters and an equally ambiguous sense of transcendence. Benjamin Christensen’s Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922) could be another influence, a Danish masterwork that caused outrage in its day for its graphic criticism of the age-old religion-endorsed oppression of women. The thesis that ‘She’ is writing is called Gynicide, a word used in feminist literature to describe the self-destruction of women oppressed by patriarchy. In terms of the subtextual meaning of Antichrist, Trier couldn’t have provided a bigger clue as to how viewers should read the film.
As I’ve already indicated, the misogyny Trier has been accused of may stem from a misreading of the allegorical suffering of his female characters, complicated by a dysfunctional relationship with his parents, especially his mother. In this light one may surmise that he suffers from misogyny, or maybe a deeper misanthropic condition (one that is more prevalent in our society that we know): narcissism. Self-hatred; an inability to give or receive love due to fear of abandonment and betrayal; a tendency to vent anger and contempt on those least able to defend themselves (or unlikely to pose any significant intellectual or emotional threat), are a few characteristics that define the narcissist. For them, the subject of their attack is a kind of de-facto self, deserving scorn for either being too much like them or inferior. The narcissist abuses others as a way of shielding themselves from self-loathing. Given what Trier said about his childhood, this might shed light on the conflict at the heart of his films, particularly Antichrist.
The title of the film could be self-referential in terms of describing someone unable to submit to the ‘Authorial Influence of God’. It could also describe someone who self-heals through therapy, and therefore an anti-Christ in the sense that they have no need for the Love and Healing that is (within a religious context) the reserve of God. So, ‘He’ is an anti-Christ in that he overcomes spiritual despair without God. All well and good, but many who see the film for the first (and probably only) time, might not twig to this. And if they do, they could easily regard Trier’s 'typically Scandinavian heavy-handedness' as risible, and dismiss what might be a brave and bold attempt by one of cinema’s most searching auteurs to tackle the essential brokenness of human nature.
If you can see past the histrionics of Antichrist (a film about madness that literally goes berserk) along with your conflicted feelings about the film, you might notice how beautifully made it is. It’s also rather funny, and some of the laughs are intentional. In the end, it comes down to how much slack one is prepared to cut a petulant show-off who happens to have a disagreeable way of expressing unpleasant truths. When a sneering prankster holds a mirror before our carefully concealed nature, it’s not surprising that our first reaction is to send him packing, but any filmmaker who gets booed at Cannes must be doing something right. Dreyer’s Gertrud had to endure jeering critical attacks when it screened at Cannes back in 1964. It too is a film about narcissistic dysfunction, but who now would deny that it’s one of greatest achievements in cinema history?
Of course, the hysteria, hyperbole, and downright unpleasantness of Antichrist may ensure that it never achieves the critical elevation of Gertrud, but once the hysteria, hyperbole, and downright unpleasantness subsides, more considered appraisals ought to emerge. One need only look at the often maligned The Idiots to discern the seeds that gave root to Antichrist. That too was heavy-handed and inflammatory, but what von Trier film isn’t? At least he challenges the presuppositions, expectations and limits of cinema, even if (as some argue) his motivations are calculated or disingenuous.
Like it or loathe it, Antichrist is packed with cinematic conviction, a forceful and insightful example of what auteurist cinema is about. One doesn’t have to like it to recognise that it has every right to be what it is, and that its ideas have the potential to say more to us and about us than most of the Euro-trifles that pass for cinematic art today.
And yet, if I am to be completely honest, I find it difficult to equate Trier with the best directors in world cinema. Despite what I've written, I struggle to see him in the same light as his cinematic heroes, or with provocateurs such as Haneke and Dumont. Like all narcissists (and don’t get me wrong, he may not be one), Lars could be (if he isn’t already) his own worst enemy. One need only look at 35 Shots of Rum, Paper Soldier, Birdsong, Jeanne Dielman, Still Walking, Wendy and Lucy, 24 City, Modern Life, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl, and any one of the many strong films in this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival to spot the difference. The missing ingredient (unsurprisingly perhaps) might simply be love.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader