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by Sarah Dawson / 02.07.2010

I read somewhere a description of Lars von Trier as the Marquis de Sade of the film world. Not hard to believe after his outright humiliation of Nicole Kidman in Dogville. But if indeed he revels in the pain of others for the sake of it, I wonder how much of a kick he would have got out of watching me for the last three weeks trying to pen some kind of coherent review of his latest film, Antichrist.

I think he’d have been laughing his head off. I first saw it at the Durban International Film Festival this time last year, and was rendered wordless for literally two weeks. But one would think an entire year would be enough time to process the experience and deliver a reasonably digestible opinion of the film.

No. It’s not.

I can’t write this review with any comfort, not only because I’m fairly certain that I was truly psychologically traumatised by a cinematic experience that felt like an actual physical assault on my person, and that reviewing it requires unearthing this necessarily repressed material, but also that the publication of a review of this film bears certain ethical complexities:

On the one hand (though it might be a result of some repetition compulsion) I am compelled to tell you that you really must go see it. It’s an absolutely masterful work. On the other, I can’t help but feel the responsibility of knowing that there is simply nothing about the experience of seeing Antichrist that is going to leave your soul anything but significantly diminished. So I am sorry.

It’s been met with significant critical controversy. It’s been accused of indulgent artsiness, misogyny, tedium and all sorts of other things. But I think for the large part, the objections are just angry viewers’ ways of attempting to chastise von Trier for subjecting them to two hours of severe emotional discomfort. But however pissed off people may feel when the film’s over, it’s a total fucking masterpiece.

You don’t have to worry much about the “spoilers” to come, because firstly, not many events actually take place in the film, and secondly, like watching someone leap off a building, or catch their arm in a circular saw, there is no spoiling the horror by knowing what’s about to happen.

The film opens with an aria by Handel, in an astoundingly delicate black and white scene in which a child falls to his death from a window, while the parents, He (Willem Defoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsboroug), bump their skinny uglies in the next room. She is utterly broken by the death, and He, a psychotherapist by profession, counsels her through her grief, while shedding not a single tear of his own. While She is hysterical, his care for her is measured, clinical and ultimately cold. He takes her to their cabin in the forest – Eden – as part of her therapy. The summer before, she and her son had spent some time there alone as she worked on her thesis about the historical abuse of women as the embodiment of evil. Increasingly, we become aware of the underlying fear and hostility She carries for males in her life, and of the unusual relationship she had with her son. After what feels like hours of agonising, tedious psychological to-ing and fro-ing, all hell breaks loose, and She unleashes a shitstorm of furious violence against her husband, culminating in full-frontal genital mutilation and death.

The pathological polarisation of their experience of grief between the two is gendered. He and She are not nameless, but rather named by their physical and historical masculinity and femininity. He represents mankinds’s attempt at containing the fearfully untameable through reason. He tries to rationalise and structure her raw, hysterical maternal grief by breaking it into phases in the obsessively pedantic way in which the medicalising of human emotional experiences does in a culture possessed by cool masculine rationality. But ultimately, in the words of the film’s talking fox, “chaos reigns”.

The film could be interpreted fairly simplistically as a freudian psychoanalytical tale of the male and female gender as representative of ego and id respectively, which would make it nothing really new. But despite its symbolic tone, it doesn’t seem to be meant to be viewed with such distance or removed reflexivity. It’s not allegorical. Despite its biblical and historical references, He and She are still meant to be felt as real, unique characters, with real experiences, just like you, me or Lars. Rather, the presence of symbols is to infuse the story with history, to give it universal context, to paint it as an isolated but inevitable culmination of, the suppression of femininity (not just the oppression of women) throughout human history, to which we are all vulnerable. Its like the watching real-time, real-world consequence of what is threatened by myth.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a bit “wanky”. In fact you’d probably be right. It was written from von Trier’s hospital bed as an attempt to help himself recover from a bout of severe depression.

But I battle with the sentiment that an artist’s use of his medium for self-examination is something by which to be angered, as many viewers have. Is the chance to be party to the experiences of another, so that we can make more sense of our own, not one of the fundamental reasons we watch film? It seems that much of the controversy around the film has been characterised by outraged tutting and how-dare-hes. But why should it not be considered an opportunity rather than an intrusion?

If von Trier, who grew up in a nudist colony, has mommy issues, so be it. (He is known to frequently call his mother publicly by the titles of “bitch” and “whore”.) If he wants to make film about it, why shouldn’t he? And why would that be less interesting than anything else? If the film erupted out of pathology, then that’s what it is. Humans could do with more reflection on the significance of their pathologies, rather than always trying to reason them away – a danger quite well illustrated the character of He.

Indeed the film is very hard to verbally rationalise, its difficult and somewhat intentionally abusive to the audience. It is pretty much drenched bodily fluids. But it’s also quite cathartic. Like Defoe’s character’s ejaculation of blood after his wife smacks him in the genitals with a log, its violent and painful, but also relieving.

We cannot be prepared for the complex emotional ordeal this film delivers. It is utterly agonising, and often quite bewildering. Gainsboroug’s character ultimately embraces the evil for which women have been condemned and punished for millennia, as if being required to suffer its punishment must be proof of its truth. Or perhaps it’s a truth that is justly earned – making it an evil that has been actualised by masculine fear itself. Her death is relieving not only because the threat of a raving, dangerous mad-woman is neutralised, but also because she is released from this condemnation. In the strange final scene, He leaves the forest, pursued slowly by hundreds of women who emerge from the undergrowth. The emotional moment is simultaneously comforting and threatening. Will they mother him, or will they swallow him up in a sea of vengeance for their sister?

Perhaps then, the genius of the film is also what makes it intrinsically a failure. It depends on a the audience surpassing the limits of the psyche’s ability to reflect on itself and to understand its own suffering. Where Lars wants to take us, many of us simply cannot go. But the film goes there anyway, leaving us behind, watching from an uncomfortable distance. The moments of filmically uninhibited mutilation are numbing rather than evocative – our bodies simply cannot inhabit the physical pain of characters, and we cannot identify with it other than to flinch in the reflex unwillingness not to do so. Ultimatley, most viewers are likely to find the film either totally inaccessible or repugnant or both, because we simply can’t bear it.

So basically, at the end of all of this, the short story is that you absolutely have to go and see this film, but you are guaranteed to neither enjoy it nor understand it. And that’s about as coherent a argument I’m able to make.

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