“The cry of all the things that are to die”
There is very little joy in Lars von Trier’s flawed yet potent Antichrist. The film is a wail of agony. An unnamed husband and wife (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) lose their young son when he falls to his death while they are having sex. Her grief is extreme and overwhelming. Rather than allow her medication to soften the impact of this period of mourning, the husband, a psychologist, takes it upon himself to isolate his wife in their cabin deep in the woods. It is here, amidst the threatening natural world, that they lose their grip on sanity. This is a standard horror film set-up, but Von Trier simply employs it as a framing device for his weird allegory of animalism and intellect.
This couple is sophisticated and scholarly, but they’re caught up in a profoundly devastating experience—the loss of their child. Without the mediating effects of civilization, their grief is allowed to run rampant, and they regress into primitive creatures. He tries to hold onto his rational faculties for most of the film, but she—for her own desperate reasons—pushes him to let them go.
The film speaks in a language that is offensive to our modern sensibilities. It suggests a world of good versus evil, man versus woman, survival versus death. We want to be scornful and dismiss its ideas as absurd and primitive, but those ideas beckon something primal within us. The Nature depicted in Antichrist—the trees, animals, and our human couple—are tortured and tormented, unable to find firm ground. When our heroine remarks, “I heard a sound—the cry of all the things that are to die” we intuitively understand. The film lays bare the suffering inherent in being. A fox disembowels itself. A stillborn fawn hangs from a deer’s vagina. Our heroine snips her own clitoris off with a pair of rusty scissors. These images are appalling, but deeply resonant.
Much of the film is maddeningly abstracted. The metaphors and allusions are employed haphazardly. Formally, these would be considered flaws in the storytelling, but Antichrist strives to be flawed, or at least cryptic. The film’s references are predominantly biblical, historical, and psychological. The cabin in the woods where our man and woman take refuge from civilization is called Eden. The woman is a scholar; her academic focus was the medieval witch hunts. The man is a psychologist, and a proponent of rational thinking.
Subjected to Antichrist‘s visceral and intellectual bombardments, it is difficult to form a solid interpretation of its symbols and references. My personal feeling is that our heroine, deranged with grief, must create a reality for herself in which she is responsible for their child’s death. This crafted sense of responsibility becomes her talisman against the frightening emptiness suggested by death and loss. Drawing on her academic studies, she convinces herself that it is her sexuality that is the root of her evil. After having removed her sex, she sets out to create a situation in which her rational husband must sacrifice her like the witches that came before her. When talk doesn’t work, she desperately resorts to predatory violence, forcing him to defend himself like the wounded animal he has become. This pseudo-fable ends with the woman burned on pyre, with our man walking off into the woods, surrounded by ghosts of the thousands of women who have been murdered. This seems like heavy-handed moralizing, but that’s not really what Von Trier is up to. In keeping with his trademark alienation effects, the film fashions itself into the likeness of a moral fable, but it is meant only figuratively.
Any recent discussion of Von Trier will likely reference his “Nazi” comment at Cannes. That comment was a misstep, not because of his intent, but because of his naive assumption that the press at Cannes would be insightful enough to understand his comment. Von Trier never claimed he was in support of Hitler. His actual comment was: “I understand Hitler. I understand the man.” As much as we like to think that Hitler was a monster, he was actually just a human being. Human beings are capable of awful things, and it bothers us when people point that out. Although this comment was made during a press conference for Melancholia, it is actually far more relevant to the thematic concerns of Antichrist.
Lurking somewhere in the cinematic assault that is Antichrist, you’ll find this idea: In order to combat evil in the world, you have to recognize it, especially in yourself. Just because we don’t acknowledge it, doesn’t mean it will go away. In fact, it becomes more treacherous. It is only in owning up to our potential for evil that we have any hope of fighting it. Furthermore, it forces us to take our potential seriously. We are capable, Von Trier tells us, of just about any nasty thing you can imagine. All it takes is the right set of circumstances to turn a civilized and rational person into a savage animal.
We’d rather forget much of our history, and deny aspects of our nature, but this doesn’t make us better. In the words of Carl Jung, whose influence haunts every frame of Antichrist: “We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.“
Director: Lars von Trier
Writer: Lars von Trier
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg