Written & Directed by Lars von Trierwith Willem Dafoe as He & Charlotte Gainsbourg as She
Certain things can prepare you for Antichrist, the latest combine of semiotic challenges prepared by Lars von Trier, the self-proclaimed "greatest filmmaker in the world." Don't expect much help from the mainstream media, or even from those of your peers raised on the dumbed-down language of television and Hollywood blockbusters. For me, the tell tale caveat appeared in an article that made much of the Danish auteur stating that he had started out making a "horror" film. While unsuccessful, von Trier's films defy categorization according to traditional genres—including the rubric of "art film." The idea that he would create a "horror" flick merely underscores the banality of the popular press furnished by its bleating herd of insipid, subhuman and mentally challenged troglodytes paid to write for them. Until my thirteenth summer, my two brothers and I passed the better part of the season with our many relatives—grandparents, great uncles and aunts, cousins, damn near everyone (or so it seemed)—spread out around Tampa. Much escapes my memory of that long gone world, erased by time in the same way that the scourge of crack effaced those humble, familial neighborhoods, but the heartfelt depth of my people's religious mythography remains indelibly etched there by a number of rich anecdotes. One such story occurred mid-afternoon, while my younger brother and I played happily and noisily with three cousins in the home built by my mother's brother. In those days, a savage, drenching tempest would seize hold of the region each day at three o'clock—you could set your watch by its arrival. Heavy with the humid heat of the flat bay shore on one side and the sunken swamps to the east, great thunderclaps and jagged talons of lightning punctuated downpours the like of which we rarely witnessed in our distant New England woods. For whatever reason, we had never spent time with these cousins at that hour, and so the two of us found it awfully odd that our cousins noiselessly shushed us—fingers before puckered lips—stared us down with hairy eyeballs and gave us the silent treatment. This went on until the storm ended with a sudden, snapping crackling popping and KA-BOOM!!!ing display of whitening lightning and stentorian thunder that shook the little house and drained the blood from each of our little chocolate faces. "You see?" admonished Alain, once he determined that the terrifying squall had carried its severity sufficiently inland east. "See what?" I wondered, half-fearing what he said then. "You don't talk during the thunder. You just listen." To my insistence that he reveal why not, he clarified, "That's God talking." The influence of the gods on our atmosphere, whether a light spring rainfall or blood cascading from the sky (as recorded by Bishop Gregory of Tours in his 7th century tome, History of the Frankish Kings) goes back to ancient times. Zeus hurled thunderbolts over Athens, Jupiter menaced Rome, Thor's hammer lit the Norse skies, Xango hurled lightning over West Africa's Yorubaland, the Hindu kept prudish Shiva's electric touch at bay by adorning their shrines with erotic statuary. The rise of the Christian Church transferred control of the weather to the one God whose emissaries derived their authority from the papacy, so that whosoever offended the righteous would feel his wrath. Conversely, such reasoning attributed inconvenient weather to the agency of witches, servants of the archenemy, "the prince of the power of the air." St. Jerome saw the air full of devils, as did medieval saints and reformers through the centuries, from St. Giles to John Wesley, St. Augustine, Bede, St. Thomas Aquinas describes them in his Summa, Albert the Great, the "seraphic doctor" and Franciscan concurred, St. Bonaventura, Dante, the Carmelite Matthias Farinator of Vienna, Luther, as well as his staunch opponent John Eck, Delrio—who cites the aforementioned fathers of the Church, including Clement—the Italian monk Guacci in his anecdotal Compendium Maleficarum, the popes—such as Pope Gregory XIII, whose widely used exorcism inspired others like that of Italian priest Locatelli, entitled Exorcisms Most Powerful and Efficacious for the Dispelling of Aerial Tempests, Whether Raised by Demons At Their Own Instance or At the Beck of Some Servant of the Devil—the whole of Christendom's learned leadership saw diabolically inspired witchery in everything from spring flooding to hailstones. Antichrist, the latest feature film by Lars von Trier, draws on this horrifying chapter in human history to tell the tale of a couple—sublimely portrayed by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg—whose firsthand experience of the natural world is conveyed by the full-screen image of his erect member and her dark sex enjoying a bit of the old in-out, in-out in glorious black and white. Moaning her pleasure with abandon, his head buried in her flesh, neither notices their only child escape from his crib as he makes his way to the window ledge. Down, plummets the child, losing his balance and his life. So ends what von Trier titles the prologue. Chapter 1, Grief, ensues. Unhappy with the meds her shrink has prescribed his wife, Dafoe (He) votes himself her therapist and fires the other. Despite his claim that "No therapist can know as much about you as I do," She is able to remind her husband "You never took interest in me, 'til now that I'm your patient." When He asks her to spell out her accusation, She cites her retreat last summer to Eden, their secluded cabin in the Northwest woods, where She brought along their son and went to work on her thesis. Her confession that the paper remains unfinished surprises him. "You called it glib and it was," she concludes. If nothing else, one can hardly accuse the film of that flaw. Assuming the mantel of healer, He refuses his wife's sexual hunger, stating, "Never screw your therapist, no matter how much your therapist may like it." Instead, He insists on breathing exercises to calm her aching libido, tries to get her to list her fears. When she identifies "the woods," it follows that they head for Eden, but not before She bites He while He yet again rejects her sexual assault. As Chapter I ends on the image of a stillborn fawn dangling from the uterus of a fleeing doe, Chapter II: Pain begins. Hallucinations plague both of them—the absence of sound; her soles burn; their son crying; acorns raining from the sky around He—and She warns him that he shouldn't have come. "Nature is Satan's church," She grins. Antichrist is ultimately as simple as the difference between Jung and Freud. "We must halt the black tide of occultism," the teacher warned his wayward student. But Jung went on to formulate a psychological practice steeped in the ancient lore of their contemporaries—from Blavatsky and Huysmans to Steiner and Randolph (Paschal Beverly, not A. Phillip)—who all drew upon the archetypes handed down from cultures far and wide. To Jung, fear of the Mother concerned primordial origin more than biological immediacy (although such fear resonates from the birth process, clearly reflected by the stillborn deer). Antichrist exposes the destruction of matriarchal cultures by the patriarchy as unfinished business; the potential for a reversal persists, and the snuffing of a particular flame will scarcely stem the tide. The by focused on the film's violence in our mainstream press merely manifests deep-seated guilt stemming from centuries of violence perpetrated against women and nature in the name of reason, order and even family. Gainsbourg's character has recorded her thesis notes under the title "Gynocide," foreshadowing her complicity in the fate she meets. But as manifestation of the triple goddess—her firstborn dead, her will to procreate thwarted by her chosen mate—she unleashes a Fury's wrath. The Pater triumphs, but his victory rings hollow, a pyrrhic victory, symbolic of a bygone—or fast disappearing—age. He has no kingdom. Empty-handed as the three beggars at the close of the Yeats poem von Trier uses as an axial element, He stands crippled and homeless, hubris unraveled, a loose end. Ever the poet, von Trier's script trades in the talkiness of Dogville and Manderlay—prolix that served the depression and antebellum periods of those films well—for the weighty silences and pointed dialogue of couples isolated by the routine distance of professional marriage in the electric age. Visually, everything shimmers with a kind of resilient, electrified patina; each object is a silver-trimmed cloud. Though evocative of the high contrasts of Eraserhead or Stranger Than Paradise, Antichrist has a more duotone palate. Instead of a chiaroscuro scheme, he subtly pairs silvery whites with browns, then yellows, shifting slowly to reds to blues, and black again; a kind of rainbow sepia tinged with moments of full color brilliance that the soundtrack flirts in an out of. Music crescendos and cuts as the disheveled and animatronic fox intones a la Jack Torrance, "Chaos Reigns!" Without space for a beat, we hear the heavy rain before seeing it a moment later. The clatter of acorns on the metal roof dares one to listen for a rhythm—just as Dafoe's unnerved eyes tell us He does—but there is none. Returning Sound and Image to the realism of Breaking the Waves, viewers attempt to situate the tale in the realm of the real. But von Trier, because he knows film is a purely symbolic form—not the Truth, but a record of our search for some taste thereof—in the same way that the philosopher is not wise, but a lover of wisdom—he may just be the greatest filmmaker in the world, as he told the press last May at Cannes. Finally, the plethora of deeply personal and visceral reactions to Antichrist indicates its deeply personal place in von Trier's oeuvre. When a long-suffered critic like the Voice's Hoberman writes that there are two castration scenes in the film, although there are none, one can only conclude that the tale has struck a chord in the deepest recesses of its audience's psyche. Indeed, Jung held that archetypes of the mother abound in our subconscious, and Freud held that man's greatest fear is castration by this same mother. Scores of men are howling misogyny, while women remain silent, even baffled, and not so quick to judgment. It reminds me of reactions to the poem I read at Jello Biafra's CBGB Anti-Censorship Benefit. The way to a woman's heart, it begins, is with a knife. A couple of guys jumped onstage, screaming about its inappropriateness, effectively censoring the piece. A dozen women in the front row demanded I go on. They knew that what the two guys screaming misogyny really feared was my exposing the dark side men don't share in mixed company. Von Trier's Antichrist serves up two or three thousand years of man's inhumanity to woman in a couple of hours. It may be a bitter pill, but it's not a pill you can swallow without hoping it cures. And if it doesn't do the trick, you might find yourself wondering just what will, and how you can help speed the healing before the sickness spreads, corrupting more than it already has.