Edinburgh Film Festival 2009: Antichrist

Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist, photo by Christian Geisnaes

Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist, photo by Christian Geisnaes

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.

5 comments

  1. Arthi V

    Well analysed. I haven’t watched this one but to look for n interpret all these meanings and symbolisms…liked it…tx…

  2. Arthi V

    Btw, you say 2 days on and you still haven got the response you exp for yourself. This is the first LVT film you’ve liked you mean?…Asking as I thought it started off tepidly and ended up making AC a work of art…
    Is such overt onscreen violence – on the self self n others required?

    • Rona

      I’m interested when you say tepidly – because I agree – but not sure if it’s for the same reasons. I felt that first section is beautifully shot but somehow distances us from the tragedy of that sequence. But it really made me think because the woman sitting next to me cried during that sequence. I really didn’t understand that – but made me wonder about this film might be capable of allowing all levels of emotional reaction to the content. That links to what you are saying in the post about it being a work of art – because we can all access it in different ways and find different meanings (as my immediate focus on the misogyny for example.

      You mention the screen violence – again I agree. I’m caught between finding it gratuitous and finding it important to express her disgust and her state of mind (if, indeed, what is happening is real). What did you think?

  3. venicelion

    I don’t really want to see this film, but I am intrigued by all the brouhaha about it and almost tempted to go and see it. If I do succumb, the energetic promotional campaigns will score another victory (or I will lose). In the UK we have seen a clear provocation of the tabloid press by the distributor and with the ‘silly season’ in British news reporting beginning, the tabloids, led by the Daily Mail have responded as suspected. A witty commentary on all of this is available on the Screen International blog by Fionnuala Halligan.

    Mark Kermode delivered an entertaining rant on Simon Mayo’s Radio 5 Live show which is available as a podcast. Kermode is an interesting character who manages to straddle popular entertainment and serious film criticism (though he is a little restricted in his coverage of art cinema). Horror is his speciality and he dealt well with Antichrist. Mayo is a very intelligent and highly skilled radio presenter and he tried to ‘balance’ the programme by suggesting that Kermode was spending too much time on a film that the popular audience would not want to see. I’ve got a lot of time for Mayo, but this seemed a step too far.

    Meanwhile on Cineuropa there is an interesting video interview with four European distributors (two speaking English – from Poland and the Netherlands – and two speaking French) about how they handled the release of Antichrist in their territories.

  4. nicklacey

    I’ve just watched the film on Blu-Ray (looked fantastic) and am sorry I missed it in the cinema. Rona’s comments are very interesting and I think the key to the film is its ambiguity (which, of course, unlocks nothing). The sex/violence can be seen to be necessary and exploitative; the film is misogynist and empowering of women.

    It could also be that I’m missing the subtext; for example, von Trier quotes Nietzsche in interview and I’m pretty ignorant of that guy.

    Even if it was simply an exercise in shocking audiences, it’s so well done that it’s worth seeing. It’s, however, more likely to have been therapy for von Trier who was suffering from depression when he was making it.

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