After my Le Fin Absolue Du Monde article, in which I listed hard-to-find transgressive art films, I was informed that I’d missed one, Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist. Though I’d heard of the film, I decided not to include it, only because unlike the other films I listed, Antichrist was and is currently available on Netflix streaming, in an unrated and apparently uncut form. Now, having seen it I can honestly say that it does fit every other qualification I had, being surreal, disturbing, and certainly transgressive.
After the death of their son (who had crawled out a window while the two were making love) a nameless couple, credited only as “He” (Willem Dafoe) and “She” (Charlotte Gainsbourg) fall into a severe depression, in particular the wife, who suffers what I can only describe as a nervous breakdown. Despite not being a doctor, not to mention the obvious lack of objectivity involved, He decides to take over her psychological rehabilitation, forcing her to confront her fears and anxieties. When She confesses to fearing Eden, the wooded area she had retreated to as part of her study on witch hunts and Gynocide, He in his infinite wisdom decides this is the ideal place for them to return to continue her treatment. What follows is a trip into nightmarish imagery, sexual mutilation, biblical plagues, and foreboding forest creatures.
A while back, I wrote a lengthy paper for a rhetorical criticism class on the subject of Dario Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy (a subject I happen to get really nerdy about). Using Julia Kristeva and Barbara Creed‘s theories on abjection, I argued that the trilogy set up a battle between masculine logic and feminine nature (or supernature, in Argento’s case), citing instances such as the pervasively feminine, flowery architecture of the Tanz Akademie as a substitute for nature, or the flooded, corpse polluted basement in Inferno as a barren womb metaphor, or the fact that the only male characters that pop up are either controlled by women or happen to be skeptics. While I’ve since grown to reject certain elements of feminist film theories (in particular, the notions of patriarchal heroines, feminized villains, and the basic idea that all slasher films are inherently sexist), I can still recognize certain subtextual themes that feminists would point to. In the case of Antichrist, however, the “sub” part is nearly non-existent. The war between logic and nature (read man and woman) is open and blatant.
The “Woman” is an abject mother, one who not only tried to limit the freedom of her child (the mismatched shoes may have been less a sign of neglect than a deliberate attempt to keep the boy from leaving her, foreshadowing what she would later do to her husband) but who, with the loss of her child, has been stripped of her role of caregiver, in the way that a corpse (the ultimate abjection) has been stripped of its soul. While her husband, the “Man,” tries to use logic to get her to see past her emotional turmoil, she strikes back by turning her abject behavior on to him – dominating him, making him into an object over which she has complete control, preventing him from having any identity besides his relationship with her, his cold, calculating, but ultimately ineffectual logic being no match for her wild, emotional nature. The film is an exploration of misogyny through a sort of role reversal; by adopting the attributes of “evil” women that were the topic of her study on gynocide – witches, temptresses and yes, dominating mothers, she becomes the abusive husband, and he the put-upon wife. In other words, men have always feared in women the very horrors that they themselves are capable of.
In the case of the Three Beggars, I can’t help but find another paralell with The Three Mothers – not Argento’s version, but that of the Thomas DeQuincey poem from which they were derived. Like the Beggars, the Mothers each personify the emotions that follow death; Grief personified by Mater Lachrmarum/the Fawn, Despair by Mater Suspiriorum/the Crow, and Pain, in particular emotional pain, by Mater Tenebrarum/the Fox. Though Tenebrarum is usually interpereted as “insanity” (“She is also the mother of lunacies, and the suggestress of suicides,“) pain is as good a noun as any to describe it; as the Fox said, “chaos reigns.” Both trios represent the theological need to incarnate the abstract concepts that dominate our lives into beings who can be blamed or bargained with. Had von Trier kept the Sorrows (DeQuincey’s name for them) as women, it would have fit more clearly into the theme of masculine logic being threatened, and ultimately undone, by feminine emotion.
(It’s worth noting that several people are listed in the credits as doing research for the film on specific topics, such as misogyny, mythology, evil and horror movies, so its entirely possible these themes did not emerge organically from the story but vice-versa.)
To conclude, Antichrist, for all its shocking imagery and disturbing thematic elements, can be distilled to its bare essence, a commentary on the duality between male and female, and all the friction that this duality creates.
…But then again, what the hell do I know? I could mention that the film is beautifully shot, ingeniously constructed, and incredibly acted, but there are hundreds of reviews that would tell you the same. Highly recommended for those willing to see past the gore and sex.