Due to my penchant for psychological thrillers, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist sat on my “recommended” list on Netflix for over six months. I had never seen a film by Trier, so I read through the reviews section several times, trying to decide if I wanted to devote two hours to the cause. I noticed how divided the reactions were—some people loved it and wrote lucid reviews, other people thought it was totally offensive and disgusting. During this time, I also read news of Trier offending the film industry with bizarre Nazi comments at Cannes. With my interest in the director piqued, I decided to see what all the controversy was about and give Antichrist a go.
Once the first “Act” started rolling—a slow-motion, passionate love scene between Willam DaFoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg-—I was immediately impressed with Trier’s artistic approach and the cinematography. I thought of how Trier could make a fortune directing short vignettes for high fashion—a racy Gucci ad, or something. However, as the couple’s son Nick falls from their apartment window to the ground several stories below, the glamour ends and the viewer abruptly moves into the next act, with the couple (who, by the way, do not seem to have proper names in the film) crying and stumbling through a funeral procession. The wife is wrought with grief, and is undergoing treatment by a psychiatrist, who we learn prescribes her drugs (“too many” in the husband’s opinion) and informs her that her grief pattern is “abnormal.” The husband is also a successful therapist and doesn’t believe that the psychiatrist is doing a proper job, so he eventually asserts himself as the therapist of his own wife.
This prideful act on husband’s part introduces the film’s central dichotomy between the rational/logical and the intuitive/natural/chaotic. Dafoe’s character approaches his wife’s massive grief with a conqueror’s mentality, believing that his various psychoanalytic strategies will help her overcome her grief and bring her back into the rational world. He forces the wife to admit her deepest fear, which is “Eden,” the remote cabin that the couple owns and where we soon learn the wife spent time writing her doctorate thesis on gynocide, the systematic persecution and murder of women throughout history. The husband arranges a trip to “Eden” in order to push his wife to confront her inner fears. As their train races out into the wilderness, the camera is focused on the rapidly passing trees outside of the window, and demonic faces and images flicker through the brush, foreshadowing the evil that the couple will face in the wilderness.
As the story moves to “Eden,” Trier focuses his artistic prowess on creating a nightmarish version of nature. The image of a cabin in the middle of the woods, not accessible by roads, when done correctly, is probably one of the most terrifying settings available to a writer or director. Lynch used this setting successfully in his TV series Twin Peaks, and Trier follows suit, backing it up with unsettling imagery—elapsed shots of moonlight moving through forests, a dark hole under a tree which serves as a source of fear for the wife and from which we watch the couple hike towards the cabin, etc. All of these speak to an uncanny sort of fear—however, Trier also uses in your in-your-face, grotesque images, such as when the husband spots a beautiful deer in the forest, only to find on closer inspection a dead fawn dangling from its womb, a victim of some horrific birth. In my opinion, these CGI-enhanced grotesque images negatively impact the film, and place Trier on a slightly lower level in comparison to a director like Lynch‑-at least in terms of horror.
As a side note, there are clearly other interesting themes and symbols present; one of the most obvious themes deals with the Christian story of the Garden of Eden. The three animals that keep appearing—the deer, the fox, and the crow—are directly out of classical paintings depicting Adam and Eve, with perhaps the crow serving as the trickster archetype as well. However, since I am not that versed in Biblical references, I will look closely at the rational vs intuitive dichotomy instead.
Once at the couple arrives at Eden, Trier is able to really develop the theme of the rational, logical mind vs the intuitive, raw, chaotic side of nature. As I mentioned before, the husband had a certain amount of pride in the fact that he could act as his wife’s analyst and help her through her grief. She intuitively fears “Eden,” but the husband dismisses these fears as irrational. At one point he claims “fears distort reality, and not the other way around.”
Things begin to unravel out in the woods, with the husband slowly losing his psychoanalytic grip on his wife and realizing that she believes the opposite of her doctoral theses—that women are actually evil and deserved persecution. His wife becomes more and more violent and unpredictable as he pushes harder and harder to “cure” her. During this time, nature outside of the cabin offers its signs: as the husband sleeps with his hand resting outside of an open window, a bunch of ticks latch on and have a bloodmeal. Additionally, while out for a walk, the husband encounters a disemboweled fox which mutters the words “chaos reigns.” The husband, representing man’s rational crusade, begins to realize what he’s up against.
In a particularly creepy plot turn, it’s revealed that the son’s autopsy report, which the couple initially ignored, revealed one small but interesting abnormality: the bones in the child’s feet where deformed. As the husband rushed through scrapbook photos, he realizes that his wife had been putting the child’s shoes on the wrong feet the whole time she was staying at Eden. This is a great example of a reversal of logic or rational behavior, which points at something sinister within the wife. And there is indeed something sinister present, as she draws the husband into more and more violent sexual encounters, culminating in the two scenes that made the film notorious—one in which the wife crushes her husbands testicles after sex, and the other where she cuts off her own clitoris. I remember at one point yelling “oh jeez!” in my living room, and my girlfriend asking what happened, to which I responded, “she just cut off her clitoris.” Sadly, this is probably how the film will be remembered for many viewers, as something of shock value and not something of philosophical and psychological depth, which it really is. I’m not sure why Trier mixes these two elements, but it definitely moves his films into the realm of transgressive art, for better or for worse.
Critics of Antichrist say that it is misogynistic. On a surface level it is. The day after I watched the film, walking through the streets of Manhattan and glimpsing women with suggestive expressions in fashion ads, I couldn’t help but to see something slightly “evil” in the images. Clearly it had some sort of effect on me. But to say that the film is purely misogynistic is missing the point, I think. Trier chose to represent the dichotomy of rational thinking vs chaotic nature with the dichotomy of man vs women (which in turn is connected to the other Biblical themes that I have not covered here). The finale at “Eden” involves the husband killing his the wife and burning her on a pyre. The wife’s research, which the husband finds hidden in the attic, dealt with historic witch hunts. So in a revealing twist, after getting angry with her from diverting from her “thesis” that women were in fact wrongly persecuted, he ends up becoming one of the persecutors. Thus the “rational” character gives way to the chaos and ends up becoming a murderer.
In my mind, this points at a universal lesson. Man has always wanted to dominate nature—one can think of the trajectory of the sciences, to look deeper into subatomic particles and father into the universe and to understand the mysteries. Yet as we do, the essences constantly evade us, merging into infinity and chaos. It is because we do not realize that as we look farther out, we’re also looking farther within, and we’ve forgotten that we are nature. Perhaps this lesson (and the dichotomy of the film) can be best summed up by a quote from Nietszche:
“He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.”
On a final (and personal) note, I also wanted to say that this theme (rational vs intuitive/chaotic) imparted by the film could also be applied to the grief process. Both characters are grieving in the film at the loss of their son, the wife most dramatically. Various strategies are applied to “cure” her and get her through her grief, but all fail. I think Trier is trying to make a point that grief over the loss of a loved one is so deep that rational attempts at dealing with it are really futile.
I myself have experienced this after my sister’s suicide three years ago. I was angry for long periods of time because other family members were acting wildly, blaming others, and in general causing me a lot of stress. I wanted them to just act sane, but I’ve since realized that in the wake of tragedy, there is really no logical order or sanity. Even after a year of therapy, I feel possibly more confused by the cyclical and liminal nature of grief. This is not to say that psychotherapy is bad (a claim that Trier was more willing to make in the film), but that it’s not going to “defeat” grief, or even fit it into a linear trajectory. What Trier might be saying is that grief (and other extreme emotions—for example, the directors own clinical depression) will never be able to be contained by the rational mind, and it is a mistake to attempt to do so.