Antichrist (2009)

Dir. Lars von Trier
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg, etc.
74/100 (initial score: 71)

If Penny heard some details about this film, I’m pretty sure she’d be interested in seeing this. (I’d be mildly surprised if she came out loving it, though.) I’m not sure how Chris and Kevin would react, but I’m sure they would have interest in seeing this at least. (Flip a coin–or read more and make a decision.) I have trouble believing that Mitchell and Grace would want to watch this, and I’m close to not recommending it to them. (Read the comments after this to get a better idea.) Don, Joel, Larri and Marc. (I could see Marc being highly annoyed with this.) shouldn’t see this. Jill could probably be added to the list as well, but there’s a slight chance she might find this interesting.

Anyone familiar with von Trier knows his films are often controversial. This might be the most controversial (I’ll reveal the specific reasons later, although it might be small spoilers.). The film is about a husband (referred to as “He;” Dafoe) and wife (referred to as “She;” Gainsbourg) who have just lost their infant son. The wife experiences severe depression and the husband, a therapist, decides to treat his wife, against conventional wisdom.

Besides this, I really don’t have a good idea of what the film is about. I could describe some details about what happens next, but I don’t think it would make much sense, since I don’t have a good understanding of the film.

I will say that I really liked the look of the film. I forgot the degree of von Trier’s skill as a filmmaker–especially visually. (I don’t remember a film of his looking this good–but it’s been a while.) I think this is one of the big reasons I liked this film–even though I didn’t really understand it very well.

The film does seem to try use a more symbolic approach and, at times, may be more dreamlike and surreal versus a realistic film. The film may also deal with several possible themes and issues–e.g., a critique of therapy, the nature of sex and the relationship between men and women…maybe something else? Like Dogville, I find the film compelling, but at the same time, I can’t help wondering if von Trier really knows what he’s doing or just throwing all kinds of ideas and issues into the film and hoping something coherent comes out of it.

That’s what a wrote several months ago. I think I have a better understanding of the film, so I wanted to write down my interpretation (although it’s not entirely complete). Before I do, I forgot to mention the controversial aspects of the film. First of all, there are graphic scenes of genital mutilation in the film–of both sexes. There is also a scene reminiscent of the gruesome scene in Misery, but this one is even more excruciating. Second, like other von Trier films, some have complained about misogyny. One could make a case for that, but I don’t particularly interpret the film that way. OK on to the interpretation. (Possible spoilers.)

Von Trier has been seeing a therapist for his depression, and I see the film as a (satirical) critique of that therapist or the therapy (cognitive). If you approach the film as if it’s a kind of sarcastic “hate letter” to his therapist and the therapist’s ideas–as if he’s giving his therapist the finger–I think the film makes a lot more sense.

In this reading, the characters represent different positions: he represents the cognitive approach, or more broadly, reason. She, on the other hand, represents emotion and impulses, particularly darker ones. Another person I know suggested the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy, and think that really does fit, except I prefer Camille Paglia’ Apollonian-Chthonic dichotomy, which she ostensibly uses it in her book Sexual Personae. Here’s a wiki definition that I found very helpful:

For Paglia, the Apollonian is light and structured while the Dionysian is dark and chthonic (she prefers Chthonic to Dionysian throughout the book, arguing that the latter concept has become all but synonymous with hedonism and is inadequate for her purposes, declaring that “the Dionysian is no picnic.”). The Chthonic is associated with females, wild/chaotic nature, and unconstrained sex/procreation. In contrast, the Apollonian is associated with males, clarity, celibacy and/or homosexuality, rationality/reason, and solidity, along with the goal of oriented progress: “Everything great in western civilization comes from struggle against our origins.” (emphasis added)

Chthonic also refers to the underworld, which fits with the Antichrist motif. Moreover, it helps us understand the depiction of nature—as the film’s depiction of nature is dark and sinister.

With this information let me present a more specific interpretation of the events in the film. He and she lose their son, and she becomes clinically depressed. He, against the rules of therapy, and out of hubris, decides to treat his wife. In the process, He decides that She must identify her fears (I’m not sure how this related to her depression), he draws a triangle, and during the course of the film, he fills in words starting at the base and moving to the peak. At the base he writes words like, “leaves” and “trees;” above that is “woods;” above that “Eden (garden).” Two possible options for the pinnacle are “Satan” and “nature,” both of which are crossed out. Right before the She attacks him, He writes “Me” signifying the woman (“herself,” he says out loud). Essentially the triangle describes Pagalia’s chthonic concept.

Now to understand why She is placed at the top, we have to go the role playing scene, with He playing the role of Nature, which is trying to hurt her, while She plays the role of reason. He threatens her, but she says he (Nature) can’t hurt her. But then he suggests that Nature is within her–i.e., human nature. As the conversation progresses, She responds by talking about a part of human nature that seeks to kill women, but then she shifts gears by saying that if human nature is evil, then, she implies, that women are evil, too. “The nature of the all the sisters,” she says.Then she says, “Women do not control their bodies. Nature does.” (Earlier she says something about “not underestimating Eden—implying that Eden has endowed women with an evil nature, too?).

In my opinion this means several things. By placing herself at the top of the triangle, She fears herself–or more specifically the chthonian forces within her. Here I think the She works on at least two (complex) levels. On one hand, the character is saying she fears these forces within her–as the unbridled sex could actually allow letting her son die. (She sees the son fall about to fall, and doesn’t do anything to stop him. This could mean that the sex was so consuming that it prevented her from stopping her son. She chose sex over her son’s life.*) On the other hand, She herself represents the chthonian, just as He represents the Apollonian. In this way, the film asserts that the chthonian must be respected and dealt with. It is real, not imagined as He, the cognitive therapist stubbornly asserts:

“Good and evil have nothing to do with therapy.”

and later,

“The evil you talk about is an obsession. And obsessions never materialize. It’s a scientific fact. Anxieties can’t trick you into doing things you wouldn’t do otherwise. It’s like being hypnotised. You can’t be hypnotized into do something you wouldn’t normally do, something against your nature.”

If this is the stance of cognitive therapy, then I believe the film (von Trier) is emphatically rejecting this view–or at least flipping it off. The ending seems clear on this point. He does manage to kill (reason strangling the chthonic), but as he walks away from Eden (Nature), the a sea of women (witches) come upon him and overwhelm him.

Some other loose ends to explain:

  • She fears Eden, the retreat where She did her research on witches. (There she learns about chthonian nature within her. By the way, the same nature is in men, but He represents the Apollonian and He also denies this existence of this nature, i.e., evil.) She has trouble walking into Eden as well as touching the ground. She, unlike He, is aware of the danger of the chthonic. But He convinces her that She must face her fears, etc. The process seems to unleash and intensify the chthonian forces. (Again, She respresents a character as well as the Chthonian forces themselves.) This explains She’s bizarre, psychotic behavior. But the cause of this is He’s approach which denies the existence of the chthonian or thinks a cognitive approach can deal with it. Wrong! is what the film seems to say.
  • Let’s go into the bizarre behavior. First, why genital mutilation. Others have suggested that she does this out of guilt, because they were having sex when the son fell to his death. And if the sexual passion overwhelmed the woman to the point where she chose not to stop the sex and save her son, then we can understand her revulsion toward the genitalia. (I wonder if we could also read the mutilation as von Trier’s frustration, anger, and revulsion towards the chthonic part of himself.)
  • Second, she making her son wear the sons on the wrong feet and screwing the sharpening stone onto the man’s leg. If the males represent the Apollonian, then both acts might symbolize the way the chthonian, represented by She, hobbled or cripples reason and the Apollonian. (At first I thought the shoes on the son suggested that she was literally a witch, but I’m less convinced by that reading now.)
  • The fox saying, “Chaos reigns.”
  • The sex scene by the tree.
  • The use of the witches in the film. Witches are related symbols to the chthonic.

This doesn’t tie up on the loose ends, but I think this reading sheds light the film as a whole, and many of the specific details. (I’m still not sure about the 3 Beggars and why someone has to die when they arrive.)

(*Another possible reading is that she actually wanted her son to die in order to appease the Three Beggars–i.e., “someone has to die when the Three Beggars appear.”)

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