You know that old adage, “The devil is in the details?” Well, in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist it is. He shows so much, yet we glean nothing really. Antichrist is an extremely powerful film and one that no doubt has much meaning embedded within it, but it’s hard to get past some of the graphic depictions of details in order to focus on what it all means. According to the credits, Von Trier employed researchers in the areas of misogyny, myth, etc., so it would appear he wants he content to be taken seriously. The problem for me was the incessant need to insert these gasp-worthy images, which upon initial viewing at the time, repelled me.
Now that I step back and think about it all again while I write this, I am starting to think maybe there was a method in his madness. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, the set up. Von Trier’s film (supposedly part of an unofficial trilogy) stars the awesome Willem Dafoe playing a rather disaffected therapist who is in a relationship with a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg in a role that may make you listen differently to her latest record “IRM”). We are never really given much detail about her personal life with him except she recently completed a thesis (so she’s a graduate) who is also the mother of their child. The child dies in the first scene of the film while unattended to by the parents who are on a house-wide sex spree.
There has been much debate on what this film means, Von Trier knows this going into production I’m sure, and there’s even an in-joke in the film when Dafoe’s character begins keeping a log of what Gainsbourg’s fears are: the woods, nature, Satan, herself. Each one he scratches out as he concludes that he’s not figured it out yet. I think her greatest fear is pleasure. Immediately after her child dies, she is grief-stricken. Dafoe is too, but seeing how desperate she has become as a result of this event, he quickly becomes hardened and finds himself serving as her therapist in order to see her though the pain. I believe that he hardens himself for this reason not only because he wants to be the rock for her in this time, but because it enables him to think about and focus his thoughts on something else.
They gradually become a powder keg and he finds that helping her is more of a challenge than he expected, but this doesn’t happen quickly, instead it takes place in a specific structure laid out for the meat of the story: grief, pain, and despair. Grief is terrible, Pain is worse, and Despair is the gory, climactic final act. Grief is about discovering what it is that she can do to quell the hurt inside of her. She trusts in Dafoe, knowing that because of their intimacy he is not the ideal therapist for her in this time of need, but he makes the hard-to-refute argument that no other therapist could know her as well as he does and that is what is most important. He soon discovers that she has a fear of the woods where she worked on her thesis and raised their child for a time. So, in an effort to address that fear, he takes her back there.
Pain takes us through their journey in the woods of her past as they hike up to the cabin in which she lived with the child. Her greatest fear of the woods she says is the darkness which they harbor, but Von Trier places just about every scene in the broad daylight in a way to just psyche us out even more. What horror could possibly happen in the glorious daylight? How about a deer miscarrying? A fledgling bird of prey falling from its nest into an anthill? Or a fox eating itself? These are the daydream-like nightmares that begin to plague Dafoe as he enters into the world of pain that envelops Gainsbourg. In this segment, we also come to learn that Gainsbourg may not have been the best mother to her child either (something that is reiterated in the final segment of Despair as well). Dafoe learns of the fact that his child’s feet actually grew with a slight abnormality as a result of Gainsbourg putting his little shoes on the wrong feet. This is sort of a turning point for him, as he begins to question his relationship with her and the love that he may or may not still have. She notices his dissent and subsequent subtle retraction from her and this leads them to Despair.
Despair for her is different than it is for him. Despair for Gainsbourg is all about destroying (in this case maiming) anything that gives her pleasure in her life. It’s a hard segment to sit through, but it makes sense in terms of where they are in their lives. He seems only really able to help her by having sex with her anymore, and this is clearly not only what she needs in order to find herself again.
The best Von Trier I’ve ever seen (and one that allows itself to be subtle but powerful) is Breaking the Waves with Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson. I feel the urge to draw some sort of a comparison to the two films here, because Waves is very much akin to Antichrist in that it is about the ramifications of the absence of pleasure in a relationship between a man and a woman.
Taking cues from Alain Renais, the characters are nameless in Antichrist, simply referred to as He and She in the credits, but they don’t need names to be interesting. Similar in effect to Dogville, Von Trier is looking for ways he can break down the expectations of his audience and focus them in on what he finds most important. Every beautiful shot in this film shows only as much as he wants us to see. He folds us through the story as if we were reading it, each chapter heading giving a little clue as to what lies next. It’s extremely manipulative and some of the best filmmaking I’ve seen in a while.