Antichrist has many of the qualities of previous Lars von Trier films and I have to use the ‘m’ word (‘misogyny’) immediately. It came up quickly in the Q & A at Edinburgh with its cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle – and continued to come up during the subsequent discussion, and it was clear that many in the audience rightly had issues with its politics. I can only offer my view below, as someone who has frequently ‘had problems’ with Von Trier’s representations of women – and I‘ve found that (two days on) I’ve not quite had the response I would have expected. I hope that my few thoughts might stimulate some discussion because I think it’s an interesting and brave film. The furore at its release is interesting as well, as it conforms to type. Without a comprehensive knowledge of the history of censorship, Antichrist falls into that category of film that creates a huge outcry, mainly from parts of the media that represent audiences who would never choose to go to see it and make it represent an evil that it simply does not equate to (Crash springs to mind as a worthy antecedent at the centre of a similar furore).
Antichrist is a powerful cinematic experience. The use of the image is tested to certain limits within a popular cinema context. Put this film in an art gallery, and you wouldn’t have the same kind of responses or issues. The fact that Von Trier chooses to work in a popular medium, deliberately with a view to changing the constitution and perception of that medium, means that his films can exist in a context that struggles to accommodate it. The particular challenge of his films is interesting when we are routinely able to ‘handle’ the unquestioned misogyny of mainstream cinema and extremes of representations of sex and violence that exist there. And it’s not that Von Trier’s film contains representations that are more realistic – as in the effects or results of violence or sexual obsession – the film is shot with his trademark attention to an ‘alienation effect’ to ensure that you are constantly aware that you are contemplating a work of art. And I mean ‘contemplating’ – Dod Mantle talked about the deliberate decision to slow the frame rate in order to allow the viewer to study the images being shown as you would contemplate a work of art in a gallery. Using high speed camera equipment (Phantom) some sequences were shot at 1,000 frames per second (compared to the usual 25). It is similarly relevant that Von Trier does overtly credit the influence of Tarkovsky on this film. The particular quality of an artwork is, I think, enhanced as it is completely shot on digital. Other filmic devices Dod Mantle discussed were the deliberate decision to abandon the 180 degree rule in the sequences at the family home (post tragedy), which creates a dynamic contrast against the more static sequences. This was very clear as you watched it – the disintegration and the disassociation taking place within the marriage. This does work incredibly effectively as well as the single framing that results for each of the protagonists, emphasising their painful, painful isolation in this grieving couple. In lesser hands, it could just appear chaotic and disorientating. In the context of this, the female genital mutilation is not (as has been portrayed in some responses) the central narrative focus, but occurs at a specific narrative moment and expresses a particular emotion of Gainsbourg’s character. Is it gratuitous? I read an article in last week’s Observer Film supplement that felt it was, and decried the film’s casual use of it, quoting Ousmane Sembène Moolaadé as a far more sensitive treatment of this issue. This seems to imply that the film lacked humanity in its representation of its subjects. But this seems a different kind of human expression – of intense misery, grief – of darkness and despair – recreated through visual symbolism in a highly-aestheticised piece of art. Inevitably, it will always be testing and challenging our ability to feel connection – empathy, sympathy – because of this self-consciousness but I do not think it necessarily ‘achieved’ alienation. Somehow, through the extreme events and high art aesthetic, those people and their emotions were real. The intensity of the chamber-piece style and the particular actors involved is, as in other Von Trier films, a vital factor in that communicating the emotions convincingly. Despite what he must put them through, you would guess Von Trier is an actors’ director – the aesthetics serve the performance and foreground it rather than detract.
So, back to the misogyny. The narrative does superficially present a story that warns of the atavistic and illogical and dangerous influence and acts of women. A bald telling of the plot details would make this clear (which obviously I won’t do). However, this film (more than others I have watched by Von Trier) does create a powerful balance between its apparent mistrust of women and the ineffectual nature of patriarchal behaviour. Dafoe’s character is clearly the logic and control of male patriarchal authority which the film consistently questions, even whilst representing female extremes. It is clear that these extremes are produced in the context of this kind of patriarchal control and the lighting and colour choices emphasise the theme. The institutional look of the apartment they inhabit (the bathroom especially with the utilitarian basin and toilet and bland hospital-style tiles) together with the greenish colour bias seem to emphasise this unbalanced pathology within the marriage. The role of nature (conceived as its own separate character) is also a central theme – through the evil that men do, a battle between instincts and logic and a questioning of our relationship to the ‘beasts of the field’ – all represented visually in a highly aestheticised and anti-naturalistic form.
The final, fine balance is achieved through the dominance of the role ascribed to Charlotte Gainsbourg (who won the acting award at Cannes) compared to Dafoe – her dominance of the screentime and her devastating performance is a strong argument for credible female empowerment in this dark and challenging story.