Watching Lars von Trier’s Antichrist

Though many people did not know it, for sixth months in the fall of 2009 and the winter of 2010, I was living in shame. For having spent much of the last decade thinking and writing about the films of Lars von Trier – my MA thesis, which was completed in 2008, is a study of the affective correspondence between sound and sado-masochism in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark – I had yet to bear witness to his latest provocation, Antichrist.

What is the shame in that, you might ask? Well, what is shameful is the fact that despite having had many opportunities to see the film, both at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema, and during its theatrical run, I had not. The reason? Because I would not – or perhaps more accurately, could not – bring myself to be subjected to its manifold torments, having previously investigated the affective structures at work in von Trier’s films, and drawn conclusions about the impact of these structures on the viewing body – or more importantly, my viewing body.

When Dancer in the Dark, von Trier’s reworking of the melodramatic and musical forms, was screened in Ontario, theatre owners were rumoured to have brought the house lights up immediately after the closing shot, rather than easing them on during the credits as was the standard practice. The motivation behind this curious directive seemed resolute in its intentions: to return the audience from the dominion of the cinematic imaginary without delay, so as to lessen the effect of the violent death of the female protagonist.

But such strategies had minimal impact on the viewers who surrounded me at my first screening of the film, and who wandered – alternately weeping or in stunned silence – into the lobby afterward. I was among the inconsolable. A spectatorial response so violent in its physicality, that despite my efforts to distance myself from the experience and speak about it coherently in the minutes following the film, it was at least an hour before the tremors fully receded and I started to feel like myself again. Was this an experience of empathy – an identification with suffering? Or was this simply suffering?

The first time I tried to see Antichrist, I had an anxiety attack on the way to the theatre and gave my ticket to a friend. The second time, I didn’t even make it out of the house. So imagine my delight when I came across a review by Anthony Lane in The New Yorker that offered this sage advice to the “squeamish: there is no shame in leaving [the theatre] as the tools – and I use the word advisedly – come out. In a way, you will be getting the best of Antichrist, which until now has been a film of awkwardness, confusion and great beauty.”

As a filmmaker, a von Trier scholar and a former auteurist, I wanted to see this suggestion as an affront. How dare Lane give the viewer such permission? Is it not the filmmaker who decides the duration of the work? Was this not what Hitchcock had fought against when he refused to allow late-comers into screenings of Psycho? But though I tried to hold fast to my indignation, I found little to fault in Lane’s recommendation, in part because he had created a sort of loophole in what might be called the spectatorial contract that allowed me to engage with the film on my own terms. Perhaps it was time to challenge my ideas about how to watch a film, to liberate myself from institutional and social expectations, and more importantly, perhaps, from myself from the hegemony of narrative structure.

A few months ago, I went to see Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg at the AMC theatre. Mid-way through the film, a couple wandered in and noisily plunked themselves down a few rows in front of me. They talked loudly for four to five minutes, trying to figure out what was going on in the film, sat quietly for another ten, and then abruptly stood and exited the theatre. I was annoyed. How dare they disrupt my spectatorial engagement with their disruptive and irreverent behavior? And in that moment, I saw the weakness in my proposed thesis. But later, when reflecting back, I realized I was dealing with two entirely different beasts.

For Greenberg, though rich in mise-en-scène, is structurally homogeneous. In fact, with the exception of the opening title sequence, it is a film in which the narrative is king. Von Trier’s films, on the other hand – at least since his move away from formalism in the nineties – while ostensibly narratives, are highly affective texts, employing a sort of parallel structure in which a series of non-narrative images forcefully and repeatedly interrupt the narrative flow. These breaks – think of the tranquil chapter headings in Breaking the Waves, or the jubilant musical sequences in Dancer in the Dark – not only provide a respite from the sadistic thrust of the narrative, but also an opportunity for escape, if escape is what you seek. For though their function in the film is obviously much deeper in terms of affect, and aesthetics, on the level of narrative, they are somewhat akin to commercial breaks, where one can sneak away without having to miss any important plot points. That said, these non-narrative images are not always pleasant or pleasurable. Sometimes they quicken the breath or cause the skin to bristle. And for those who remain in the theatre, the reprieve that they offer is temporary, for they can make us even more vulnerable when we are thrust back into the narrative’s brutal course.

I once heard an anecdote about Alice Munro and the pleasure she gained from reading out of sequence, by which I mean, picking up a novel, selecting a chapter at random, and then reading it – which is probably the most explicit manifestation of the notion that the reader finishes the text. Now, I can in no way attest to the veracity of this story, but I like what it suggests: that one may engage with a literary or filmic text – at least if the constraints of the theatre are removed – as one engages with life, extending its duration and allowing the story to develop at random, or according to one’s own desires.

With Antichrist, I knew there were images that I did not want to commit to my personal memory bank, but I wasn’t sure how best to avoid them. Glancing at the menu, I saw that as with Breaking the Waves, von Trier had divided the film into chapters, and so I did something that many people may find objectionable: I opened up Wikipedia and read the plot summary, noting the problematic sections so I was able to choose which chapters to view and when to view them. Then, resisting my instinct to begin with the prologue, I selected the chapter entitled GRIEF, pulled my chair up to the computer, and put on my headphones. There is something both comforting and a little disconcerting about plugging oneself into a machine and shutting out the world. For a moment, I saw myself as James Woods inVideodrome, inserting the video cassette into my stomach – Long Live the New Flesh. I hit play.

Though it takes me a moment to orient myself, I quickly realize that I am looking through the rain-splattered glass of a hearse that is moving away from a group of people walking down a tree-lined path. They are clearly in mourning as HE (played by Willem Dafoe) is openly weeping and SHE (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) is in a trance, her face like a death mask. Suddenly, she collapses onto the ground and the screen fades to black. From here, we begin to piece the story together: SHE is in the hospital, heavily medicated, her mourning pattern according to her doctor, atypical. HE is a therapist, and he thinks he knows what she needs. He wants to take her home, and treat her himself, going against professional wisdom just this once, because he loves her.

Back home, the therapy begins, and on the level of narrative, it plays out like an intro to psychology course as HE takes SHE through the stages of grief: from sadness, through anxiety and fear. There is something awkward and forced in this sequence, as mirrored in the performance of Willem Dafoe. HE is reason, and like the narrative sequence, he plods through, trying to make himself understood, but somehow failing to have the impact he seeks. SHE is pure feeling. And like Bess in Breaking the Waves, Selma in Dancer in the Dark, and Grace in Dogville, she has been granted a certain agency, as though the force of her will alone is what allows the time-images of the crystalline regime to bear down so forcefully on the organic.

In the opening scene – which despite its horrific subject matter is indescribably gorgeous and gentle – we discover that their infant son has fallen to his death while the couple are making love. Though officially an accident, the sexual passion that made her oblivious to everything happening outside of that union, sees her burdened with a guilt that she cannot shake. What SHE feels cannot be rationalized or explained away – as is made clear when HE tries to take some of the blame upon himself – and it is not easily understood by those who have not been through a similar tragedy.

But it can be felt – as von Trier makes clear in Antichrist. For in a film about anxiety and fear, by an individual who was by all accounts plagued by such severe anxiety during the making of the film that he would disappear from the set for days at a time, the bipartite structure serves to destabilize us to such an extent that when confronted with the horrors of the narrative, we are utterly powerless to defend ourselves. Rationality fails us, for with each intrusion of the crystalline image, we merge further and further into the text. In the cabin in the woods, HE too is failed by science and reason, succumbing to terror dreams as the power of her feeling drives them both to acts of unspeakable violence. The time-images are points of entry. They open up to us and we plunge into them, becoming part of these terror dreams, as though seeing them from our own eyes, and feeling them on our skin and in our organs – this new flesh.

But why does any of this matter?

Eventually, I did watch the entire film, with the exception of a couple of particularly gruesome moments in which I turned away. I even watched it in order. So what are my conclusions? Well, the components of the organic regime, that is to say the narrative and its devices, don’t quite work. Though the images are at times profoundly beautiful, and I, unlike many critics, had no problem with the talking fox, the symbolism is often heavy-handed, and the dialogue, especially that which is spoken by Willem Dafoe, is pedantic. Some of the ideas intrigue, but when you try to put the pieces together, there are many gaps in logic. And it is highly problematic in terms of its themes.

Yet the feelings it engendered, even when viewed in parts, stayed with me for days. When I stood at the kitchen counter, looking down at the knife in my hand as I sliced vegetables for dinner, I felt weirdly detached. My skin bristled and my body felt vulnerable and exposed – which (I can confirm) is not the way I normally feel. And when I walked through the garden, with its greenery and its delicious scents, I was unnerved. In my mind, I was thinking about all the things one thinks about during a busy day, but my body felt heavy, burdened.

More importantly, however, is how I felt in the moment of spectatorial engagement. On a conscious level, I would not say that I ever identified with the character of SHE. The situation as it develops is too implausible, her character and relationship too underdeveloped, and her body, as lit and photographed by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, too alien.

In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami offers the following thought: People say that only they themselves can understand the pain they are feeling. But is this true? I for one do not believe that it is. If, before our eyes, we see someone who is truly suffering, we do sometimes feel his suffering and pain as our own. Murakami describes this as the power of empathy – and, I would add, the power of affect.

For in watching the chapter entitled GRIEF, with its manifold time-images, I was able to feel her suffering as though it was my own, and to understand its power on a deeper, more meaningful level. From affect comes empathy, and from empathy, understanding. And so it seems to me a shame that the brutality of Antichrist kept it out of major theatres, and kept a large portion of the population from ever experiencing its great beauty and power.

Which brings me back to my earlier statement about shaking off expectations as to what constitutes proper spectatorial practices. For though the film as a whole may infuriate, confound, and disgust, in its parts, its affective properties may engender greater empathy in the viewer, and therefore, understanding. But in order for that to occur, we have to shake ourselves free from this all-or-nothing approach to engaging with texts that holds us back from what might otherwise be a valuable film-going experience.

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