This is it. The eye of the media shit storm; after the cultural digestion from the liberal arts programmes and columns but still before the reviews start raining in the ‘official’ verdict. Lars von Triers‘ Antichrist has been a fair while coming, but the great Dane has got the media machine humming to his tune, a maestro of stoking controversy, a grand master of publicity. To borrow the sacrosanct yet divine language befitting of the film I can say I’ve been blessed to see the film, and there is a lot to digest.
Firstly we need to establish some parameters to von Trier’s game, for those are the rules we have to play by.
Don’t ever take anything he says at face value. The hook he has given himself in the promotion of Antichrist is that he is ‘The Best Film Director in the World’ and countless hacks have taken the bait. Even if they all contextualise the statement and the humour in which it was said, the headline remains the same. Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times tries to put down von Trier by inventing his own word and denigrating that it as ‘pure undergraduatese.’ The fact that Appleyard continues to play this game on von Triers terms is proof if any that Trier’s declarations are anything but naïve.
A few critics have done a good job at calling von Trier out on this sport, and hats go off to the Guardian’s in-house film-hater-extraordinaire Peter Bradshaw for presciently speculating on the publicity value of von Trier announcing his depression over two years ago. That was the first word I heard of Antichrist, and it is wholly unquestionable that this is a film defined by a nigh chronic depression. It is bleak, unrelenting, and it spirals towards a hysterical ending. It remains firmly in the subjective of the female lead, struggling and failing to break out of a cycle of grief. As she is locked in depression so too is the viewer rooted, shackled to their seats throughout.
In its’ premise Antichrist is easily summarised, and its critics are quick to quip about its blunt symbolism. A husband and wife fall into deep mourning after the tragic death of their child. The ‘She’ is briefly hospitalised, physically debilitated by her loss, while the psychoanalyst ‘He’ carries his loss in a ‘typical’ manner. To tackle her ‘atypical’ mourning, the couple retreat to their isolated cabin, Eden, set deep in an overbearing almost monstrous forest. The husband is blindly convinced that he alone can give active and adequate therapeutic guidance to break his wife out of her depression. Despite promising signs early on, it all goes terribly wrong.
In its weakest guise this is a film about psychotherapy, and films shot from the therapists couch rarely grasp you by the eyeballs. Onscreen discussions on the value of medicated ignorance or the importance of exposure therapy clunk about in a heavy handed way, railroaded through the film by an increasingly insistent husband/therapist. Yet these doubts fade as the folly of this dominant approach slowly unravels, turning instead to a confrontation of cold rationalism against emotional hysteria. Put bluntly it turns into a straight up clash of the sexes.
This is hardly new territory to von Trier and his critics are all too quick to cite his major post-dogme films and the trail of ‘destroyed’ women he has left in his path. Dragging Nicole Kidman through misery on Dogville, driving Björk to eating her own jumper on Dancer in the Dark. While this rather glib trope of ‘dragging women through hell’ might be obvious in these later films, Antichrist draws its conflict from further back in von Trier’s past, harking back to his widely overlooked TV film adaptation of Euripides’ Medea.
A true archetype for the conflict and contrast of the hysterical wife against the coldly rational and distant husband, Medea casts the imbalance of the sexes at the heart of its conflict, and the tensions between the responsibilities of the mother (Medea) against the liberties of the father (Jason). It ends with Medea rejecting the shackles of her maternal role, killing her sons by Jason, and fantastically disappearing on a golden chariot driven by dragons. While von Trier’s Medea doesn’t end quite so fantastically, it keeps the bloody ending and the inner conflict of a woman uncomfortably vulnerable to a cheating husband she still loves remains as the films definitive dynamic.
This very anxiety carries over into Antichrist, driving a personal tragedy deeper into the realms of metaphysical and symbolic horror. Before the film has even been released across Europe discussions are already raging on the pages of the respectable press whether this film is misogynist or not. To boil it down as such is about as complex as speculating if the coin has landed heads or tails. Is the switch on, or off? Does von Trier hate women, or not? Such headbangingly simplistic debate is about the greatest injustice you can do the film, as it does away with the nuance of the personal and the broader issues that von Trier targets in Antichrist.
Equally the excessive violence at the end of the film does not definitively flick this switch on or off. For the media to be endlessly scratching their heads over it is surely to miss the forest for all the trees? In terms of British exhibition this film is unequivocally a milestone in what can be shown on legitimate screens, and some media debate over the role of the BBFC, and what they think about Antichrist, is natural. Yet when it boils down to the usual claptrap of ‘but is it Art?’ and ‘What DOES it take for a film to get banned these days?’ you can’t but worry for the state of educated discussion of such matters. Yes it is shocking, wince worthy, enough to make any human genuinely uncomfortable. But this is just about underlining the horrors that the characters go through. When Oedipus claws his eyes out it isn’t to anti-titillate the audience, it is (arguably) to drum home the horrors he has just realised, to make physical the dramatic revelation of irony that has been building up throughout. This is the school of tragedy von Trier is dealing with. Physical mutilation: par for the course. Deal with it.
Or is it?
The devilish imp von Trier really cannot be trusted, and for all the interviews with director and cast consistently pointing to the sincerity of this production you can’t but wonder what ire he was hoping to stoke up with all of this. He has widely discussed the two edits he had made, the uncut Protestant version and the cut Catholic version, and with his canny producers’ hat on von Trier must have seen this coming. Undoubtedly, but for all of its most extreme moments Antichrist is none the less a tremendously challenging watch, and all the better for it.