Antichrist: The What, Why and How
Posted on December 10, 2009
This isn’t a film review. I’m not sure how I’d go about reviewing Antichrist, to be honest, but beyond that I’m more interested in the writing than the overall cinematic product. More specifically, I’m interested in the psychology tied up in the story and the depths von Trier plundered with the characters in order to achieve what it was he wanted.
Watching the film (with a cinema full of nervous, giggling males and, at one point, swearing and retching) I kept thinking to myself, ‘what, why and how.’
On some level, I do think all writers ask themselves, when they’re working on a project, what am I trying to say, why am I trying to say it, and how am I trying to say it? I think the why is of lesser concern, because for the most part, those who create works of fiction are not necessarily driven by justifiable needs – in the beginning – perhaps later, as the piece develops, why they felt the need to create it emerges. But certainly the what and the how weighs heavily as you make your way deeper and deeper into a creative piece, particularly if the story is deliberately driven by themes and concepts. And I think the what, why and how applies both to the little things – pieces of dialogue, imagery, descriptions – and to the broader themes of the story. It’s a matter of giving your readers/viewers an experience in a particular way, using certain tools that tell the story, raise the questions, confirm the familiar and induce the emotional response.
Antichrist is, to my mind, thematically driven. The notion of motherhood/female pleasure/guilt and sin and how it works within womanhood is played out through the stages of grieving … which could be where Antichrist sort of lost me, because the two concepts are so rich and layered in and of themselves, that pairing the two together in order to explore each other is somewhat brain-combusting and needlessly cluttered.
Antichrist essentially follows a couple who, following the death of their toddler (who climbs out a window and falls to his death whilst they are having sex) retreat to a cabin in the woods, Eden, in order to confront the mother’s greatest fears and repair the gaping wound grief has made. The husband, a therapist, attempts to ascertain the mother’s greatest fear, which she is unable to identify beyond Eden, where she spent a summer with her young son working on a thesis on Gynocide. She (and her name is simply She) unravels in the most violent way as He makes discoveries of her thesis notes which gets him closer to what she most fears; herself. Her gender, her believed inherent evil, her ability to watch her son climb to his death as she has sex – which she performs voraciously and violently throughout the film in either a nod to female sexuality and what function it performs, a part of her psychological unraveling or the guilt inherent in female please, or perhaps more specifically, in balancing motherhood with one’s primal pleasure based desires.
Von Trier allegedly wrote Antichrist as he was coming out of a bout of depression. Consequently the film offers glimpses into an element of humanity that is scary simply because it is within all of us. And I think that’s what he was driving at when creating the true horror of the film. He asks his audience to take a glimpse into the darkest parts of his imagination, the nature of his fears. And the nature of his fears seem to be what we are capable of when pushed – what can fester inside of us, skewing our world view until we have no concept of restraint or rationality. Things are truly scary not when they are simply gory or violent or frightening – but when we realize tha the ability to do these things resides, somewhere, in all of us. And beyond this, he taps into the historically and psychologically linked concepts of female sexuality and guilt, which can be felt on some level by most women – sex/pleasure/guilt/sin/femaleness have become tangled up in each other as a result of social conditioning for thousands of years. Von Trier’s guilt ridden female protagonist, who comes to, I think, understand gynocide and fear her gender and herself for their inherent evil capacity, seems to be an extreme symbol of these primal, intertwined threads. Freud would have a field day.
I think, also, with some writers, another question they must, at some point, ask themselves is, how far am I willing to go, and this is particularly true of writers like von Trier who push. I don’t want to say ‘push boundaries’ because that’s such a boring expression, so I’m just going to say push. And in pushing so far, is this telling the story any more successfully?
I still don’t quite know what to make of Antichrist. I think it had the potential to do so much more. And perhaps, with time and distance and some stewing, I’ll come to see precisely what drove von Trier to tell this story the way he did. But for now I’m trying to decide whether he did the sticky, primal themes justice or not.