Girl Meets Context: In the wake of a crippling depression, Lars von Trier wrote and directed the controversial Antichrist, which debuted at Cannes in 2009. Audience members fainted during the screening, von Trier smugly declared himself “the greatest director in the world” when confronted by journalists about the film and the festival’s Ecumenical Jury derisively gave the film the “anti-award.” However, some critics rapturously praised the movie and fanboy culture soon embraced it, printing “Chaos Reigns” t-shirts and creating Twitter streams in honor of the film. The first film in von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy,” the movie’s plot centers around a couple whose young son has recently died, accidentally falling from a window while the couple was having sex. The nameless couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) retreat to a cabin in the woods in order to deal with the wife’s all-consuming depression. The husband, a therapist, throws away all of her medication and commits to a rigorous “exposure therapy” protocol. But as the couple struggles with their own toxic psychosexual dynamic, the forest around them seems to reflect an evil presence – partially-aborted fawns dangle from does, a malevolent fox speaks an ominous prediction, the trees violently pelt the roof of the cabin with acorns. Once questions about the woman’s mothering of the dead child are raised, she experiences a psychotic break. What follows is a blood-drenched grand guignol of genital mutilation, physical abuse and persecution. Kristine and I sat down to discuss the divisiveness of the movie, our own thoughts on the film’s tone, and whether or not Lars von Trier is the misogynist pig many in the media have framed him as. Be forewarned, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS, so go watch the movie and come back!
Kristine: I have been wondering how this discussion will go! There is a lot to say and I’m not sure I totally know how I feel about Antichrist, except that I thought the performances were great.
Sean: Yes, Charlotte Gainsbourg is awesome. Did you read Dana Stevens’ review on Slate?
Kristine: Yes, but it didn’t really mean much to me because this was my first Lars von Trier movie and her review mostly criticized his patterns in filmmaking, that he essentially makes the same movie over and over. Taken on its own, and without any of that baggage, I thought Antichrist was a good movie.
Sean: Right. I’m not quite sure how to talk about this movie either! One question we might want to tackle right off the bat is: Do you think it is a horror movie? Did I have any right choosing it for Girl Meets Freak?
Kristine: Yes, I think it is a horror movie. No question. I love the nature-gone-amok stuff, even when it was totally RIDIC and made me die laughing, like the Chaos Fox. I actually thought the smaller examples of menacing nature (the relentless pelting acorns, and the engorged ticks that attached themselves to Dafoe’s hand when he feel asleep with his arm outside the window) were creepy and effective. I noticed you singled out Gainsbourg for her acting. Did you not think Dafoe was great as a totally loathsome RIMA-gone-mad? [Editor’s Note: For the backstory on RIMA, see our discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy.]
Sean: The ticks were so disgusting and wonderful. I agree with you totally that the malevolent Nature stuff was the most thrilling, both visually and thematically. The “woman” question is, of course, tied up with that, even if that portion of the movie is less persuasive.
Kristine: I mean, things like the ticks DEFINITELY qualify the film as horror, don’t you agree?
Sean: Yes, especially if we understand “horror” in the more Lynch-ian sense. But to answer your earlier question, I didn’t particularly care about Willem Dafoe’s performance. He was fine and I was just impressed that he was game for everything von Trier threw at him. But it felt like Charlotte Gainsbourg’s movie.
Kristine: Yes, both actors were very brave. And sure, of course, it’s her movie.
Sean: I don’t find his face to be very… expressive. It’s like a mask.
Kristine: That is so interesting, because I was mesmerized by his face! I even wrote in my notes “Dafoe – HIS FACE!” Not because of its expressiveness or lack thereof… just because Dafoe’s face is crazy! It’s so handsome and so ugly at the same time. Just looking at his face is an intense experience.
Sean: Weird! That’s crazy that we both zeroed in on his face, just in totally different ways! I mean, he plays the “straight man” in this movie, in the old comedy duo sense of the term. All he does is allow Gainsbourg to play off him and cede the spotlight to her. His performance is mostly composed of just reacting and being a body that things are done to, until the very end. But I just don’t think he gave a dynamic performance. He was just there, for me.
Kristine: What did you think of the opening sequence?
Sean: Well, in order to answer that, I have to address the critique of this movie being “pretentious,” which I kind of think misses the point. I think it is a mistake to think that because this is “an art film” and it is by von Trier, that we are supposed to take it 100% seriously, or at least that we are not supposed to engage with it on the level of the absurd/comic. I’m not trying to say I think the movie is satire – it’s not. But I think the fucking thing is so direly presented (the intertitles, that opening sequence, the sound design, etc.) that we forget that it could still be a work of hysterical comedy (hysterical as in a work of “hysteria as comedy” and comedy in the bleakest imaginable terms). I mean, some kinds of horror movies let you know that its okay to laugh at them: splatter movies, franchises with wisecracking antagonists, exploitation movies. It’s easy to laugh at Dead Alive, because Jackson’s movie is winking at us and pulling faces, EXPECTING the laughter. But Antichrist doesn’t wink, it stares back at you VERY, VERY INTENSELY, humorlessly. But the extremity of that humorlessness is, in itself, comic, I would argue. I mean, of course von Trier is pretentious and batshit crazy and narcissistic and all that. But that’s all like, part of the charm. The movie is just…. bombastic. That bombast is part of the comic, hysterical edge that I like in the movie.
Kristine: I agree 100%. I think it is VERY self-knowing, and I think if you can’t accept that von Trier is, as you said, pretentious and batshit crazy and narcissistic (AND HE KNOWS IT) then you can’t really have a useful discussion of the movie.
Sean: The other director who I think of being as bombastic as von Trier is Baz Luhrmann, and I would rather watch Antichrist than Moulin Rouge any day of the week.
Kristine: Ha! Why aren’t any Americans as niche-y and bombastic as these foreign directors who just go for it and don’t care?
Sean: I love when movies just go for it. Would you rather watch this or Moulin Rouge?
Kristine: Dude, it totally depends on the day of the week. I cannot compare the two.
Sean: I am mad.
Kristine: No! Stop bullying me!
Kristine: Now, even though I appreciate and admire von Trier’s chutzpah, that doesn’t mean I thought everything worked. I never cottoned to a lot of the movie’s thematics, which the movie announces too intensely and too often for my taste. All the “pain, greed, despair” stuff and the three beggars and the fake constellation and the animals in the forest representing the three beggars… I was just like, whatever to all that. But I thought that his self-seriousness was actually great fun. von Trier reminds me of Pascal Laugier, especially when I read that he was suffering from both acute depression and anxiety when he made Antichrist and that he considers himself a woman, or at least thinks of his actresses as stand-ins for him. Isn’t that pretty much exactly what Laugier said about making Martyrs? I realize some people think these kinds of claims about the actresses being stand-ins for the director are all a big cop-out, a way for directors like Laugier and von Trier to excuse themselves for brutalizing women in their movies, but I think they believe it and are being sincere.
Sean: I totally agree. Did you read what John Waters said about Antichrist?
Kristine: No! OMG, I want to so badly!
Sean: He said: “If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, [Antichrist] is the movie he would have made.”
Kristine: HA HA HA HA HA! Love it!!!
Sean: Even before I read that quote, I was going to ask you if you think this movie is in dialogue with Hour of the Wolf.
Kristine: Oh yes, I thought of that right away!
Sean: Yeah, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Hour of the Wolf is an inspiration for Antichrist, just with the same basic premise of a husband and wife retiring to an isolated natural setting and one of them going totally fucking crazy. But in Hour of the Wolf, it is the husband who is destabilized and the wife who is the “rock.” In Antichrist, that is reversed. Both movies get criticized for a perceived sexism. Is there any way to do these kinds of immersive Freudian psychodramas without being accused of sexism?
Kristine: I thought of one last parallel between Antichrist and Martyrs – the way both movies are divided into distinct acts.
Sean: Right, though in Antichrist, that structural element of the film is made even more overt. There are actual intertitles and sections marked “Chapter,” “Prologue” and “Epilogue,” which really call attention to the film as a narrative, and as a story. Those intertitles I think are actually really important to the movie, simply in how they act as textual referents that inform that audience that they are being told a story. That fact, combined with the somber “dark fairy tale” aesthetics of the movie, announces that the film must be viewed in mythic, and not pedestrian, terms.
Kristine: Well, I’d like to tell you the thing I did not like at all about the movie. It is the plot point where He “discovers” that She was possibly abusing their son by putting his shoes on the wrong feet, causing a deformity. I thought it was a cop-out, and just thrown in to mark the transition into full on “horror movie mode.” I thought it was unnecessary. Tell me what you think about that, and also if you thought the whole “three beggars” extended metaphor works. DId it make you giggle madly, like it did for me?
Sean: Well, von Trier is a converted Catholic. He believes in God. So all that “three beggars” stuff seems like part of his fascination with Christian mythology which I find totally uninteresting. But I am thankful just that it led to all the weird animal imagery, which I loved. I feel like the movie occupies some weird space between Christianity and Paganism.
Kristine: I agree with that read.
Sean: I loved the three animals coming in at the end and just… being present. But I also LOVED the stuff about the mismatched shoes. I thought that was actually one of the most uncanny and effective moments. Just because of the small, subtle wrongness of her putting the wrong shoes on the feet of their son. It’s something that was plainly visible all along and He didn’t see. I liked that, and I don’t even care if it raises the misogyny question or not, because that question is dumb and boring for this movie, which takes on misogyny as text, not subtext. I actually don’t think this movie has any real coherent point-of-view on gender or misogyny. It throws a lot out there, but doesn’t come to any real conclusions.
Kristine: Okay, well, you have raised the Big Question. I don’t think the movie has a definitive point of view on those themes, either, but I do think it needs to be discussed because I think von Trier is certainly AWARE and on some level concerned with those themes. I think reading this movie as strictly misogynist OR feminist is a huge mistake, but certainly it is a movie about misogyny and gender, even if it doesn’t have a coherent or pointed narrative about those things. I agree with you that the film is just as much about Christianity vs. paganism, science vs. faith, and a handful of other “Great Themes.”
Sean: It is part of what makes the film work IS that incoherence. von Trier has essentially projected his psyche on-screen and, as such, it is allowed to be messy and grotesque and nonsensical. It follows, I think, the David Lynch school of thought that answers are less interesting than questions, and mysteries themselves are more revealing than their “solutions.” I see Antichrist as a question being posed, NOT a conclusion being drawn (though apparently the original intention was that the film would reveal that Satan is the one who created Earth, not God, but then one of von Trier’s producers “gave away” that secret in the press and von Trier freaked out and rewrote the movie). I am confident that the film would have been INTOLERABLE if he actually had approached it with a clear polemic in mind.
Kristine: Can we agree that Dafoe’s He is a gigantic self-important, sadistic turd?
Sean: Dafoe’s character is MISGUIDED more than malevolent. And of course he is paternalistic. He treats She as a patient and a child, and never as a person. That’s the problem with his approach. He makes a lot of mistakes, but I believe he loves her and wants to help. The road to hell is paved yadda yadda…
Kristine: Hmm, I kind of disagree, because She was getting treated by science, his chosen domain and world view. His methods may superficially be standard RIMA fare (cognitive behavior therapy and all), but his execution of them is extreme by any measure. I think saying he is misguided lets him off too easy. I do think He loves She, but I think he wants to punish her, maybe for their son’s death, maybe for her extreme grief taking center stage and pushing him into the wings. I don’t think he has some clear, well-thought-out plan when he takes her out to Eden (the name of the cabin is, again, a little much and thus, hilarious). I think He thinks all along that he is helping her, but somewhere inside he is actively inflicting pain on her. This is all especially evident in their sexual dynamic, where he begins by refusing her sexually, but then gives in. I do agree with the first part of what you said, how von Trier is Lynch-ian in being more about the questions than the answers, and I agree that if this was a “message” movie it would have been a nightmare. Can I just say, when He said, “We’re going to teach you how to breathe” and was controlling her breath I wanted to die.
Sean: If all that is true – and you make a convincing case – then I guess, for me, the flaw is Defoe’s performance. I think he plays the role like a warm-voiced daddy. He doesn’t, to me, betray hidden depths of repressed anger or blame. I DON’T think he is a dynamic presence in the movie.
Kristine: I think those interior resentments are expressed through WHAT he does more than his general demeanor. That’s what’s so scary about him; his mask of paternal civility always stays on, except at the very end.
Sean: I think you’re fanwanking his performance.
Kristine: One thing I loved and thought was interesting was how the film centers around a woman who raises questions about the possibly inherent wickedness of of the feminine. I thought that was novel. That’s always being done by paternalistic popes and scientists, but never by a lady herself. I liked that. And I can certainly see how the death of a child, coupled with her “misogyny studies,” could bring that about. And you are wrong about “fanwanking” because I am not and have never been an avowedl fan of Willem Dafoe. So stop treating me like a FAN GIRL because I thought he was creepy and good!
Sean: Wanky Times with Kwissie is the name of your radio show.
Kristine: You are being offensive! I thought all the birthing/infanticide imagery in this was awesome, by the way. We’ve established that neither of us think von Trier is necessarily a misogynist, but doesn’t he think sexuality is evil, though? Especially since he is a weird, late-in-life Catholic convert? Do we know anything about his sexuality or if he has relationships?
Sean: I don’t know about his biography in that arena (and I don’t think I want to!). I also loved the birth stuff. The deer with the fetus hanging out and all that stuff was so creepy and great. I wanted to pair this movie with Inside because I see them as being connected in a lot of ways. Both movies are about motherhood and also about two Primal Beings locked in a battle for supremacy and committing these atrocious acts against each others’ bodies. But while Inside pits these two women against one another who are fighting for the privilege of being a mother, Antichrist is about the abdication of motherhood, right? The way that doe expels the dead fawn from her body mirrors She’s own, more subtle, rejection of motherhood, whether its that she didn’t pay careful attention to placing shoes upon her child’s feet, or whether or not she was aware of her son being by the window moments before his death.
Sean: I am curious what you think we get out of comparing/contrasting the epic battles in the two movies?
Kristine: Yes, there are a lot of similarities, for the reasons you stated. But I feel like in Inside, the two combatants are somehow one, right? The films sets them up initially as a Dark vs. Light or Good vs. Evil conflict, but then they have “intercourse” and basically become one body, that of “mother.” Whereas in Antichrist, I feel like He and She are so far apart and they cannot connect, even as they try to connect through all the frenetic fornicating (most of which is initiated by her, significantly – She is the one who yearns to connect; He tries to hold her at a clinical distance). Back to the point of sexuality, I can see how some viewers could think the opening sequence is pretentious, with the classical music, the black & white cinematography, and the music video-like stylization, but I think it is very beautiful. I think the movie depicts sex as this very good thing. Their erotic climax coincides with the tragic accidental death of their child, but I don’t see sex as Evil, even though it is set up to possibly be read that way, right? I think it is just showing that these two things, sex and death, are part of Nature, and Nature is chaos, and chaos reigns, so something beautiful like their lovemaking can “lead” to something ugly, but it doesn’t MEAN anything. But She and He are desperate for meaning (She as the scholar/philosopher and He as the doctor/scientist) and it is their insistence and search for meaning that leads to their downfall.
Sean: Hmm. I like that. But what about She “remembering” at the end that she saw the child approach the window and didn’t act? I know that is meant to be unclear if that is hysteria or actual memory, but don’t you think that frames their sex act (or at least, her sexual appetite) as “evil”?
Kristine: I’m glad you brought that up. My read is that She didn’t really see that, and that the memory was all part of her self-punishment, and her desperate search for meaning. It is as if she is asking herself, “What if part of me knew, but did nothing?” She is crafting a worst-case scenario for herself. But that ambiguity falls into the camp of things I don’t like about the film, along with the implied child abuse. I think it is interesting that those “clues” and “memories” didn’t come up until the final act of the movie, when they are both already well on their way to total lunacy, so we can’t know if they are real or not. But it certainly works within the framework you set up, that von Trier is all about questions, not answers. It dramatizes the inability to “know” or be certain of anything. What did you think about She’s passive-aggressive needling of He?
Sean: Um, I just was rooting for her and wanted her to torture him. I liked her being mean to him a lot!
Kristine: : )
Sean: No, but seriously, of course I felt for him. I mean, the movie does a clever job of splitting our sense of identification between the characters. We root against He because He’s the Patriarch, and because She is in so much pain and we feel such empathy for her. But we root for He because he is, on some levels, a well-meaning Patriarch and also, our gut instinct is to feel empathy for someone whose body is violated in the ways his body gets violated. I do think the movie is, on one level, just a spate of repressed rage against the Patriarch. But then again, it’s also a polemic about Eve, though an incomplete and incoherent one. I don’t know what to make of the last image of all the blurry-faced women marching up the hill.
Kristine: Oh yeah! I don’t either! Do they kill him?
Sean: They seem indifferent to him. Just part of the landscape.
Kristine: Right, right. I didn’t get it but I loved it. You know, I really liked this movie, Sean.
Sean: I do too!
Kristine: Yay! I didn’t at the beginning. It was sooooo boring at first.
Kristine: But I thought the tedium was on purpose, cause we were in HIS world. Then we enter HER world (or Nature) and it gets batshit crazy and good.
Sean: Just fyi, my boyfriend watched this with me when I first saw it and he was actually nauseated and traumatized by the blood-cum ejaculation scene.
Kristine: The blood-cum scene was crazy awesome and very upsetting and gross. But I loved her insanely masturbating him while he was knocked out. So weird!
Sean: SO WEIRD. And the grindstone on the leg.
Kristine: Can I say that I laughed when she smashed his penis (his “wood”) with a log of wood? I was like, “Really???” while laughing hysterically and flinching at the same time.
Sean: Oh her smashing his gentials with the log is CRINGEWORTHY. I find the scene of him hiding in the foxhole to be hysterically funny. And her stabbing at him in there, bellowing? It makes me laugh!
Kristine: I like that this movie culls out the squeamish. I LOVED the womb/foxhole, and how dumb it was that he was hiding in there!!! And I loved her crow friend squawking to her that he was there. It was like Snow White-gone-bad, with all the forest creatures “helping” her!
Sean: Yes! Hahaha!
Kristine: But smashing wood with wood? There was a lot of dark humor in that last act, I thought. I mean, it was so horrible you just had to laugh!
Sean: Yes. What about the clit-cutting scene?
Kristine: Well, I have to say the wiener-smashing, the blood cum and the grindstone through the leg shocked me more, because I didn’t know about them. I had heard about and was waiting for the clitoridectomy, but it was still VERY hard to watch. I FORCED myself to watch, through my fingers, with a pillow shoved between my clenched thighs!
Sean: Hahahaa! It is HORRIBLE to watch.
Kristine: I love that SHE saw her sexuality as the issue. Her self-loathing was very moving. I just feel that if you CANT find meaning elsewhere, you naturally turn inside. And that’s what she did. The real tragedy here was their NEED to ascribe meaning to something that had no meaning.
Sean: I really dug the whole idea that She had been in the cabin with the kid (something Dana Stevens found preposterous) and that the witch and misogyny stuff combined with the setting of the woods sort of… infected her psyche. I mean, She IS presented as a polluted body as much as Regan in The Exorcist is presented as one.
Kristine: I agree!!!
Kristine: I thought it was interesting that the film focuses SO much on their bodies, right from the get-go with the graphic sex, and they are both naked so much in front of the camera, but when he burns her on the pyre (like a witch) her body is treated as insignificant by the camera. You just barely see her leg sticking out of the woodpile! What did you think of the critical backlash against this film, since you have seen most of von Trier’s movies.
Sean: Um, I just think a lot of critics don’t get the movie at all. Critics mostly raved about all von Trier’s early movies, like Breaking the Waves, which I didn’t like and Dancer in the Dark, which I actively loathe. I’ve seen some critics (like my beloved Dana Stevens at Slate) create this hierarchy between von Trier’s early movies (which were, according to them, austere and mature) and his most recent films like Melancholia and this movie (which are described as being juvenile and sophomoric). Dogville was the first one of von Trier’s movies that I found interesting, and that is often pointed to as the beginning of his decline into trash art cinema. I think Antichrist and Melancholia are sort-of-masterpieces. But I am like, “Huh” that so many of the film’s detractors call it juvenile. As if Freudian psychodrama is… beneath their refined sensibilities. In fact, I think the substance of the critical backlash against Antichrist is about the same things that actually make it a legitimate horror movie – it is messy, unrefined, bombastic and confrontational.
Kristine: I agree on all those points. I also don’t have a problem with a director making “the same” movie over and over again, as long as it remains entertaining. Do you think von Trier is “guilty” of that?
Sean: You know, I’ve actually been thinking a lot about that, about artists who revisit the same territory over and over. Remember our discussion about the latest Junot Diaz book? I mean, didn’t most great writers? Didn’t Henry James? Didn’t Salinger? Didn’t Cather and Wharton and Hawthorne? Fitzgerald and Faulkner?
Sean: We have weird expectations of filmmakers, right? To be more diverse. Like, Scorsese… He makes Hugo. He makes his mafia movies. He makes Cape Fear and Shutter Island. He makes Taxi Driver and After Hours and The King of Comedy. He makes The Age of Innocence and The Aviator. He has a diverse filmography. We expect that, don’t we? Is that leftover from the classic Hollywood era when the greats (Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder, John Ford) made Westerns and rom-coms and war movies and dramas?
Kristine: Well, I don’t know. There are people who get annoyed and say, Why can’t Scorsese go back to his mafia movies? I think in some cases it’s more like the public is humoring someone like Scorsese by “letting” him make these other movies, but we always want him to get back to the what we consider his “real” movies. I think the backlash against von Trier is because his “thing” involves woman suffering terribly, and you can’t keep doing that over and over again without getting a bad rap. I don’t understand it: women suffering terribly is certainly rich for exploration!! Now, I don’t want every movie I watch to be that, but I don’t have a problem if every movie someone makes is about that. Regarding your point about different kinds of artists and our expectations… maybe it’s because filmmakers are more seen as entertainers than artists? Unless they reach auteur status like Scorsese, then all we want is the same thing from them?
Sean: Maybe. Well, what would you rate this?
Kristine: Wow! That’s hard. Let me think. Batshit Insanity and… and.. and.. MASTERPIECE! A flawed Masterpiece, but still! Are you shocked?
Sean: I rate it Batshit insanity AND I’m traumatized but it sort of feels good AND Provocative and problematic.
Kristine: I’ve been waiting for me to consider something a masterpiece that you didn’t!! I can’t believe it’s with this movie!
Sean: I really like this movie, but I am not ready to call it a masterpiece.
Kristine: I was so surprised at how much I liked it, I thought, what the hell!
Sean: I love that you wound up liking the movie so much. Were you dreading watching it?
Kristine: Yes, I was kind of dreading it, but mostly because you said it was like three hourslong! Which it wasn’t.
Sean: I got it mixed up with Melancholia, which is 2 and 1/2 hours.
Kristine: Oh vey. I HATE long movies. You said it made your boyfriend sick – but did he like it?
Sean: He did really like it, and he LOVED Melancholia. But yeah he liked this even though it upset him.
Kristine: I think people are allowed to hate this movie. My roommate hated Melancholia and thinks Lars is a misanthrope who is not worth anyone’s time. He is utterly dismissive.
Sean: I agree that von Trier is a misanthrope and I also agree that people are allowed to hate this movie.
Kristine: I agree, too, but I don’t dismiss. Did any awards come out of this? For Charlotte Gainsbourg, I bet.
Sean: Charlotte won Best Actress at Cannes. I mean, you know about the Melancholia Cannes scandal right?
Kristine: Yay for Charlotte! Oh yeah! The Nazi thing! I forgot! I want to ask you about that because I know some read it as him being a provacateur, but I think he is just genuinely weird.
Sean: He is a freak, yes. I mean, when people were jumping all over him for Antichrist, he declared himself “The best director in the world.” I think people’s opinions of Lars cloud their judgment of this movie. Plus, I like a good misanthrope who has a soft gooey center, as Lars does. That being said, I would never want to spend ANY time with him, ever.
Kristine: Sure, but I am less tolerant of people not liking that movie because of their notions about Lars than I am about them not liking it just because.
Sean: Agreed. Don’t be a hater.
The Girl’s Rating: Batshit Insanity AND Masterpiece!
The Freak’s Rating: Batshit insanity AND I’m traumatized but it sort of feels good AND Provocative and problematic