Saturday, June 9, 2012
The World Has Gone Black Before My Eyes
Lars Von Trier's Antichrist has been sitting in my head since I first saw it three years ago while I wondered around trying to figure out what to do with it. Widely mocked and reviled in 2009, though not by everybody, Von Trier's genuinely shocking and unnerving horror film has struggled to shrug off its tiresome reputation as controversial so that it can be approached on its own terms, for better or worse, or both. Probably both. In any case, I liked Antichrist a great deal in 2009, and then promptly ran away from it, not happy with much of what I was reading about the film but singularly unwilling -- I claimed to myself, modestly, that it was more like I was unable, but I also didn't try very hard -- to offer up any kind of productive retort. Well, I was never proud of that reaction, so I watched the film again tonight, and so now I, like...I don't fucking know, man.
Well, that's not entirely true. The best, and easiest, way for me to approach Antichrist is as a horror film. It's a horror film about grief, a not entirely unheard of realm for the genre, but certainly not that common. The story is broken up into chapters bearing titles like "Grief," "Pain," plus other, less literal ones, and features also a prologue and epilogue, filmed, unlike the rest of the movie, in black and white, and each set to Handel's aria "Let Me Weep," a title which itself could also function as a plea from Charlotte Gainsbourg's character to her husband, played by Willem Dafoe. The prologue shows Gainsbourg and Dafoe (unnamed in the film, referred in the credits as simply "She" and "He," a bit of on-the-nose branding for which Von Trier took some heat, though I think it's worth reminding those unhappy with the choice that this is only in the closing credits, and perhaps shouldn't be held against the body of the film) having sex, oblivious to the fact that their infant son Nick has climbed from his crib, climbed into an open window that has been blown open during a snowstorm, and fallen to his death. Apart from the beauty of the imagery, this prologue is notable for including a close-up shot of graphic sex, doubled by a pair of porn actors. It's the first, and least, of several moments throughout Antichrist that earned hoots of outrage (something like that) from several critics and general audience members, and it manages to, on first viewing, seem entirely gratuitous, and to remain that way on second viewing, but to also be very clearly relevant as the film goes along.
When we return to Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Gainsbourg is shattered by grief and Dafoe, a therapist by profession, is trying to lift her out of it. He appears to have shunted aside his own intense mourning for the sake of his wife, but Dafoe's character, when Antichrist is written about, tends to take a beating from critics. He's perceived as arrogant, and at one point Gainsbourg charges him with this directly, and perhaps he is, but he's also superhumanly patient with his wife whose grief can loose itself with astonishing cruelty. Early on, she tells Dafoe that the previous summer, which she spent with Nick at a cabin secluded in the woods, he was a distant husband and father, and that since this turned out to be the last summer of Nick's life, his choice turned out to be really kind of too bad. Further, Gainsbourg asserts, Dafoe is indifferent to their son's death, a claim which an earlier shot of Dafoe at the funeral would seem to belie. Anyway, I'm quite willing to admit that Dafoe's character might be a bit full of himself, and that by the time the end credits roll it's hard to not think, the results being what they turn out to be, that there must be better therapists out there. But I wonder about the idea that Dafoe is somehow uncaring, although taking his side at this point can't help but turn problematic as the film eventually opens up to its subject.
Which is. When Gainsbourg was in the cabin during the last summer of her son's life, her goal was to work on her thesis. The bulk of the film involves Dafoe taking her back to the cabin in the woods, which she now, following Nick's death, claims to be afraid of. Among the things that happen in the cabin is that Dafoe finds the work she left behind -- abandoned, really, because she says Dafoe made her feel that her subject was stupid. The thesis was to be about misogyny throughout history, and the aspect of human nature that allows some to commit acts of evil against women. But Gainsbourg has come to believe that women are inherently evil, and that the misogyny she was studying was justified. Somehow. Dafoe himself tries, with some element of desperation, to argue her out of this, but even he begins to wonder -- and even the audience wonders, or is meant to wonder, or is provoked to wonder (that one, probably) -- if she might be on to something when he is reading the autopsy report on their son, and sees that the pathologist noted a deformity in his son's feet, something that is not connected to the accident, but is mentioned in passing. Inspired by this revelation, which he didn't know anything about (and why not?), Dafoe then notices in various pictures of Nick that his son was wearing his shoes on the wrong feet. He sees this over and over, and asks Gainsbourg about it. She chalks it up to a thoughtless day, but these photos are from various days during her trip with Nick the summer before. Von Trier even treats us to a flashback (but from whose perspective? Are we seeing what happened, or what Dafoe has assumed must have happened?) of Gainsbourg putting Nick's shoes on incorrectly, and the poor boy crying out in pain as his flesh and muscles and bones are forced into unnatural angles. Over a period of many, many months, we can assume.
But when we see Dafoe pondering the autopsy report, this, too, is a flashback. He's in the cabin at the time, but at least some of his conversations with her must be colored by this knowledge. But which conversations? Practically every one of Dafoe's reactions to something extreme, before Antichrist really approaches the concept of extremity with its eyes wide open, is unusual in its distance. His wife's early cruelty is absorbed by his role as a professional therapist, which, fair enough, but Antichrist is a horror film not just of the psychological variety, but of the supernatural variety as well, and it is Dafoe who is confronted by an eviscerated fox who speaks to him, saying "Chaos reigns." His reaction to this is something less than what you might expect. This experience is also absorbed, somewhere, somehow. It could be that he's simply taking the fox's rebuke to heart, given that his own attempts to rationally chart out his wife's progress and psychology through her grief aren't panning out exactly as he was positive they would, and plus here's this fox talking to him, basically proving the point it's making at the exact time it's making it. Dafoe's own reserve is maybe based half in professionalism -- Gainsbourg's his wife, but also, as he points out again and again, his patient -- and half in the guilt that is driving his wife mad.
The guilt Gainsbourg feels is only in part of the variety that any parent would likely feel, rationally or not, under the circumstances, but also mainly and specifically from her own sexual desire, which led to the physical act, which left her and Dafoe insensible and therefore oblivious to their son's walk to doom. It's interesting that we're not shown who instigates the sex. Based on Gainsbourg's breakdown, and the source of it, it might be safe to assume she did. Not that it would matter in the least, as far as how she should feel about it, as opposed to what she does, but it's left an open question in any event. For his part, Dafoe refuses to blame her, and reminds her that he was there, too. She perhaps comes around to his point of view when the film follows Gainsbourg into madness and shows her final attempt to (violently) have sex with her husband descend into hell. The couple have sex often in the film, against Dafoe's better therapeutic judgment, because Dafoe says that he can appreciate that she finds it to be a distraction. For more reasons than just that one, "distraction" is probably the word Gainsbourg is prepared to forever associate with sex, and so she finally decides to blame sex itself, maybe, and she grabs a log and smashes her husband's erect penis, shocking him into unconsciousness. More follows, which I won't get into, but it's interesting to me that in all the hubbub that kicked up around Antichrist and its very graphic nature, the subsequent self-mutilation of her own genitals is the one always pointed to, when by my count two separate, and opposite, pairs of genitalia are pretty badly mistreated. I found one no less horrifying than the other but what happens to Dafoe is somehow not a step too far, but what Gainsbourg does to herself is. If Antichrist is misogynistic, as it's often charged with being, and with some reason, it maybe clears the path to judgment if you limit your disgust to the mistreatment of just the one gender.
Oh, but there's more, much more to try and reconcile. Because as I said early on, and then seem to have promptly forgotten about, Antichrist is a horror film, and it signals this, well before the violence, in a number of ways both subtle and not. As always with horror films, one of the questions is, what is the source of the horror? So for instance in relation to Dracula, the answer to that question would be Dracula the Vampire. In Antichrist, what is it? Until the chips are really down, the only character who expresses fear is Gainsbourg. Her fear, she claims, is of the woods where the cabin is located (an area called Eden, which is, yes, a bit much, but which is also very easily and very profitably gotten over). Later and more directly, Gainsbourg says that "nature is Satan's church." Many people reacted to this line with something akin to "Pffff! No it's not!" but I myself am unclear why such a line should not appear in a horror film of this type, which is the kind that is about nature and ancient evil and is called Antichrist. Plus, hey, she might be right. When the two are hiking to the cabin early in the film, once they reach the patch of land that is technically called Eden, Gainsbourg says that the ground is burning. Dafoe assumes this is part of her temporary psychosis, but when she takes off her boot and sock she does, indeed, have blisters. But maybe that's just from hiking. And indeed, later stabs at therapy seems to remove this particular danger, so maybe Dafoe is right. Which is a thing that would be easier to accept if later both Dafoe and myself didn't see, with our own eyes, that fox say "Chaos reigns." And so all I can think about is that in horror movies when something unholy attempts to step onto holy ground, or is touched by some kind of holy object, the unholy thing burns. Of course, if I'm onto anything here, and if nature is Satan's church, which there are eventually decent reasons to at least consider being the case, this would make Gainsbourg holy. The church of the unholy must burn the holy. I think that's the essential idea behind Hell.
This leads me now, again, to consider the source of the horror, and to consider how far back it goes. Gainsbourg was (possibly?) (intentionally?) torturing her son by making him wear his shoes wrong well before we, the audience, witness anything going wrong in the lives of this family. Yet we're told that Gainsbourg experienced a severe and radical rethinking of her thesis on misogyny (titled "Gynocide", by the way), and she did this in the cabin, in Eden, a place that, when she's away from it, she's afraid to return to. Dafoe is shocked to hear that his wife has come to accept misogyny as just, which of course means that, at least to his eyes, this is entirely unlike her. Now, of course, we're given reasons to believe that Dafoe doesn't know quite as much about his wife as he's so very confident he does, but I don't think too many people would regard a woman's moving from a feminist chronicler of historical misogyny to one who believes that maybe ancient witch-burners might have kind of had a point as part of the natural drift of personality. And it is at around this same time that she began to put Nick's shoes on backwards. And it is at this point that Antichrist becomes a film about demonic possession. Very literally, as literally as The Exorcist. Gainsbourg has been targeted, and her eventual self-hatred, and her guilt, and perhaps even her decision to have the kind of sex that obliterates all other thoughts or considerations or obligations that would allow her to forget for a while that she even had a child, is all part of the lingering, somewhat weakened by distance, power of Satan's church. Which is not nature as a whole, but Eden. The film's epilogue shows Dafoe encountering a flood of faceless women walking into Eden, the victims, it would appear, of the same ancient evil.
Under these circumstances, perhaps Nick's death was inevitable. What happened afterwards, though, was perhaps not, had Dafoe thought of some other form of therapy than to drag her back to the place that terrified her the most. It might have done them both a world of good if he'd simply let her weep.