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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Antichrist- everything you need in horror

I first read about Lars Von Trier's 2009 film Antichrist while browsing Wikipedia during a night class. I read a synopsis, and a few days later found a streaming version online at some illegal hosting site or another. This film flashed "TEST" and the time periodically, and the sound was off from the action by about 3 seconds and I still sat through the whole thing. I was that impressed.

Von Trier brings a special style to the whole thing, but that's apparent in the first 3 seconds. Just watch the film. Netflix will stream it, which is much better than the way I first watched it.

My dad taught me, when we were watching The Others together when I was in the 6th grade, that the scariest movies work religion in somehow. I reckon he learned this in the 1970s, when The Omen made a big impact on him. Antichrist has this in spades, but also works in the subject my dad wasn't ready to broach yet.

I would suggest that sexual undertones are more powerful than religious ones in horror films. As a viewer, its tougher for me to get into the state of mind that I'm willing to accept demonic possession as a premise. Like anything else supernatural, the film has to make it seem natural to hook me. The Shining: ultimate haunted house story. Jeepers Creepers: you had me until he grew wings. C'mon.

I don't have a sophisticated way to relate sex and death, but it's there. Georges Bataille's book The Tears of Eros develops this topic carefully through a discussion of art. The book makes horror films make quite a bit more sense. Von Trier's film weaves sex and violence together in a similarly natural and sophisticated way.

A good horror story, to me, works like a philosophical paper, as a treatise on a particular topic. Antichrist could probably be just as effective on paper as on screen, as an investigation of what it means to be a woman. Charlotte Gainsbourg's character is writing a dissertation on gynocide, the murder of women, through history, and falls under the sway of its theological roots. This premise places man against nature. On the side of man is God, while nature is presented as the Church of Satan. As man made his way into the wilderness, he had to establish manly order as a bastion against the chaos of nature. Man's power over woman stems from her alignment with nature and Satan, as evidenced by her bodily cycle, over which she has no control. Thus, she is an instrument of Satan and a site of natural evil, and it falls to man to overcome her.

What a premise that is! It sets up one of those films that gives you something to think about. This is like a Nietzschean genealogy of power!

As you try that on for size, soak up what seals Antichrist for me. This film presents what it must have been like to be a settler of a strange land. Even the grass is threatening. The power and danger of nature haunts every shadowed tree, recalling an awe of nature lost in its modern subjugation. To watch this film and become afraid of the trees is what it would be like to experience the oldest horror of all, the kind that left paganism in its wake.

The violence in this film will make you recoil, but try to keep to the theme of the film and see those bodies as part of nature, living and dying in a flow. Then, once you feel that, apply it to the sexual content. It's as unsettling as it is amazing.


  1. My name is Alice. I'm friends with your sister at school. I'm a big fan of horror movies and literature - though, I do agree that they are generally low quality films. I'm really enjoying your reviews. You raise interesting points and have good insight.

    Antichrist is a terrific movie - definitely one of the best I've seen this year. You did a good job describing the relationship between nature and evil in this movie, and how that relates to what it means to be a woman (who has lost her child). The theme presented by Lars von Trier is so much richer than the average horror film, which is, admittedly often mediocre to the largest extent. It was a very artsy film, and fun to explore, albeit haunting. The only thing that turned me off of it's heavily serious ambience was the chaos reigns scene with the fox. Very disillusioning. Anyways, I'll let you do the reviewing.
    I look forward to more!

  2. Alice, it's nice to hear from you, and I'm glad you're enjoying my page!
    I'm interested in the female perspective, as far as reacting to the film, because it treads precariously around political correctness. I think von Trier made a masterful move in basically empowering She to buy into the historical misogyny she was studying. By doing that, he is able to present a logical historical and theological grounds for the history of misogyny, without portraying it either as the director's perspective, or the perspective of a male character, which could more easily be taken as offensive.

    So how does a woman walk away from such a film? Does it make her think about her relationship with her body? A male could hardly speculate about this, but to what extent does a woman resent her reproductive cycle? Or is it purely patriachal society that has convinced her to view that aspect of her body as an inconvenience?

  3. Well Jackson, to be honest, I didn't immediately personally relate to any of von Trier's many borderline misogynist messages, or leave the movie with any thoughts towards my gender. I often tried to justify She's horrific actions with the loss of her child, and tried to ignore that von Trier was using her actions to exemplify (dare I say) the perceived justification for misogyny.
    However, now re-examining the film (thank you), I've found that one of the movies central themes would not have been altered had the child not existed; von Trier believes that She would have let herself become affected by nature (or evil) with or without the grief for the loss of her child. The child's death was a scapegoat for those (like me) who would try to justify her actions and try not to relate them to feminism. That was clever of von Trier. I think he'd have a much angrier - and more aware - audience if he did it differently.
    I did not relate She's vulnerability to evil's influence on her gender. But that is because I do not resent my gender or sexuality. There are inconveniences to being a woman, namely misogyny, but they are mostly societally imposed. Her grotesque sexual hunger, also, seemed to be portrayed as a gender flaw. But I tend to believe that most media's portrayal of woman's "indecent sexual cravings" are male imposed myths to control women. Perhaps a man would name me a feminist for calling von Trier a clever misogynist. But overall I was not offended by the film!

    Though I would like to know - what did you take out of the film as a male? What of von Trier's representation of He as a godlike figure?
    Also, and I've been itching to ask someone this:
    What did you think of the child's deformed feet? She seemed to do it, before her trauma. . . But what did that add to the movie for you?
    Also, what of all the women walking up the hill at the very end of the film?

  4. You raise so many points and questions, I'm having difficulty addressing them in the order you present them.

    Let's play with the Eden metaphor a bit. A man and woman alone in a place called Eden is pretty straightforward. In that sense, I wouldn't consider He to be a God figure. Rather, He's trying to play God, which I've seen in others' analysis. They criticize the character for lording over his wife with his psychological distance. I think we can go a step further and say that he is inadvertently contributing to the historical progression of misogyny in that when he steps up to help her, it convinces her that she is weaker or subservient.
    Worth mentioning, I think, is their differing methods of reacting/grieving. I have seen this in my own relationships (but can't speak for others) that when one partner falls apart, the other necessarily does not. Perhaps the maintainer is repressing his true feelings to support the other, or instead he sees his own suffering expressed vicariously through the other person.
    That aside, in Eden, what is the forbidden fruit? I think we have two: academic knowledge, and sexual pleasure.
    I don't think there's any evidence to suggest that She began to resent her child before going to Eden. While there, doing research for her thesis, she was alone with her child and began placing the shoes on the opposite feet. I suggest that if she came to resent her gender by buying into the history of misogyny, then her child would certainly represent to her an extention and reminder of her womanhood.
    But this resentment is always at odds with her motherly instinct, so she is able to regret what she does to her child.

    ALTERNATIVELY (just thought of this), or even concurrently, she may view her child as an imposition by men upon her, given that women are expected to raise the child, often essentially alone. On top of that, men have the privilege of orgasm, while women are guaranteed none, and are even discouraged from having them.

    So let's say she created this animal self, that is ambivalent towards its progeny and desires orgasm the same as food and shelter. That explains why she is able to watch her child fall while in the throes of intercourse.

    It's not at all that she is driven mad by the loss of her child, because she resented the child before. Her madness is derived from the self-reflection the loss of her child has forced upon her, where she cannot come to terms with the two halves of her, the one that is the normal, rational person, and the other side, so completely given over to the sway of historical misogyny that it becoems the self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Couple of questions for you:

    Are you actually calling the director a misogynyst? Your statement on that point is unclear to me.
    I think the film is actually feminist in that it describes She's existential struggle to understand herself in a world where patriarchy has a way of telling women what/who they are.
    Imagine a film where a Jewish character, studying the history of antisemitism, falls sway to the propraganda and believes himself to embody every caricature of his people.
    Except in our mainstream society, we have collectively done away with Mein Kampf. I think misogyny is more prevalent, and more subtle.
    When I asked about a woman resenting her gender, I meant something more along the lines of, when she has her period, does she welcome it as an affirmation of womanhood? Or does she joke that men have it easy? There are women everywhere who believe that women are naturally unfit for public office, or military combat. Do they believe that because men said so, or because they reason it independently? What do we make of the unpredictable effects of hormones on our behavior? Men are now believed to undergo hormonal cycles, but for some reason, that still hasn't really caught on as a debate topic.

    Finally, I've read that the women on the hill are victims of misogyny. Their faces are digitally obscured. I think you could also see them as part of the set dressing of Eden, similar to how at the end you can see the shapes of women hidden in the flora, and the way that women's arms reach out from the roots of that tree.
    Perhaps He see them while walking out indicates that He, through this traumatic experience, has had his perception of women perverted, but I'm not sure that they, or the talking animals and the like, does much more than develop the atmosphere. Maybe I'm looking for metaphor where there is none.

  6. I'm sure you're not "looking for a metaphor where there is none." The women on the hill were not there by coincidence. But it is definitely ambiguous. It would make sense that the women on the hill were victims of misogyny, as you suggested, because couldn't She be any woman? And She certainly was not alone.

    No, I'm not calling the director a misogynist, really. Though many of the themes were borderline. However, I certainly would not call Antichrist feminist. I agree that it brings awareness to the existential struggles of women throughout history, and the patriarchal society that has oppressed women so extremely for so long. But the film seems to complete the cycle. It demonstrates her struggle, but she never breaks free. In the end, the man has to metaphorically eliminate the mess his gender has perpetuated, as more victims of misogyny walk up the hill to be driven to madness themselves.

    I like the Eden metaphor. Now, if we follow it, one could say that He had no right to play God or attempt to psychologically treat his wife. He was unassumingly making it easy for She to treat him as a symbol of misogyny. But the ending makes it difficult. For He's survival, he had to murder She. That could easily be misconstrued as: for the survival of man, men must oppress women (because, perhaps, their hormones make them beyond management, or however it could be construed). That is how von Trier is treading close to allowing the film to be interpreted as misogynistic.

    When you said: "let's say she created this animal self, that is ambivalent towards its progeny and desires orgasm the same as food and shelter." I think that's exactly it. But who is to blame? She? He? Mankind? It's easy to blame some kind of evil that could have possessed She. A less believable category of horror would comfort its viewers by blaming insanity on the devil. Of course, it can be pulled off well (like the Exorcist). But what really startles an audience, and makes it difficult to sleep at night, is the Clockwork Orange brand of horror. Because no one can exorcise Alex from who he really is - human nature is really the most horrifying "evil" of all. And that is what Antichrist is too, whoever is to blame for her insanity.

  7. Now to address your question about womanhood: The doubt and resentment very prevalent in women about their gender and gender role is not as easy to explain as I would like. There is definitely not a black and white answer. But what I believe is that there was in insecurity about ourselves before we grew old enough to witness men exploiting it. Periods aren't fun, and childbirth probably isn't either. But women alone establish a unique connection with their offspring that men can not. Perhaps it is because women carry the children in their wombs. I'm not qualified to answer why. But what I'm getting at is there is always something to find about being a woman that can negate any resentment towards female inconveniences. Even if it's the pride felt for belonging to a minority group. And sure, women can do whatever we like! We aren't physically built like men, and have a lot of preset standards against us, but that just means that we have to work harder. The hormones are an inconvenience, but do not make us any less fit for a position than a man. Any woman who doesn't think so has either unfortunately been worn out from the fight against male dominance, or has been told otherwise by men. They allowed themselves to be persuaded by men because they looked at the past; women have rarely held power. They probably think, "what makes women so special now?" But unfortunately, we should be thinking "why haven't we taken a stand before?" It's easy, in this way, to feel resentment towards men, as I'm sure that She did. But we often forget that we are allowing ourselves to become oppressed and persuaded to believe that we are the weaker gender. She must have strangely believed that women are less capable, but also blamed this on men in order to buy into misogyny and resent men for it. But thinking back, this mindset isn't uncommon in women, and probably struck a chord in other female viewers. I hope this makes sense. . . Thanks for your patience!

  8. Revisiting the closing scenes, I now firmly believe that He undergoes a transformation in the end.
    Earlier, He psychologizes She, describing the physical manifestations of her anxiety as they are shown in black and white, almost X-ray quality closeups, which are suggestive of her experience of them, as close as film can provide. The heartbeats and pulses and aches and naseau are all indistinct, like the images, because she cannot escape them or identify them apart from one another.
    But right before he strangles her, he is shown in this form for the first time, and it is then that he first taps in to the natural self.
    Beyond that scene, he adopts very animal behavior, eating berries one by one, rather than gathering, and when he looks upon the faceless women, he adopts no self-consciousness, but watches them like a cat looks at people.
    I think in this closing, He has finally understood the conflicting forces that played between He and She. He had previously aligned with the force of man, God, society, technology, symbolic thought, and abstinence, while She was something of the opposite: woman, Satan, nature, instinct, immediacy, and hedonism.
    In murdering her, he understands for the first time what it's like to be on the other side of the power structure. Except it's more than that. He's actually in touch with human nature.

    I would not say that He has to murder She for his survival. On second viewing, it seems very clear that he killed her after the moment had passed and she ceased to be the aggressor. In that light, I think a conclusion that man must oppress woman is an error in interpretation.

    You are spot on that human nature is the evil in this film. I think thematically, Christ(ian) describes the human that thinks itself above nature, and the Antichrist is all that is fundamental in living things, reminding humanity that no, you are not the master of the world. You are part of it.

  9. I don't think She came to resent men, in the sense I think you are indicating. I think that by buying into the genealogy of misogyny, she came to hate herself. She separated two classes: men as rational animals (as Aristotle would say) and women as irrational animals.

    She comes to resent He/men, not because she recognizes that misogyny gives him power and takes hers away, but as a baser frustration rooted only in jealousy, namely of his autonomy. As an, as she sees it, higher being, he has the privilege to leave her at will, while she depends on him and vainly attempts to keep him with her by providing sexual pleasure.
    I think the grindstone plays a big role as evidence here. When she drills the grindstone through his leg, she shackles him to one of the greatest symbols male/theological power: a piece of machinery that grinds away the undesirable aspects of something natural to make it "useful."