Antichrist

“And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh:
she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.
Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife:
and they shall be one flesh.”

.

Those who would call Antichrist “controversial” without offering a judgment of their own likely lack the ability to form an opinion they’re willing or able to defend. As for those who accuse the film’s director (Lars von Trier) of misogyny, at least they have the courage of their conviction, even if such a charge also belies a certain kind of laziness, latching onto the most convenient scapegoat for the discomfort elicited by the screen. Such a gesture not only replicates the violence of confusion at the heart of Antichrist’s story, it also fails to consider the trap within which the film’s protagonists are caught, the extremes to which they will go to relieve themselves of their torment, and the director’s intent in subjecting them – and us – to such pain.

In the end, the misogynist accusation can only be understood as a secular rite of (self) absolution, in which the stance of indignation is called upon to veil the far-reaching implications of the anger and mutilation put on display. For the nameless characters around whom the film revolves signal how the battle being waged is not particular to them: some might call it the war of the sexes; others would prefer the language of Good and Evil. In the end, the story’s the same. For it provides a visual – and visceral – display of the breakdown of the marital bond and the horror brought upon by this violation of their sacred union, in which the two that had become one are abruptly returned to a state of separation, alienated from the very meaning that had come to govern their lives.

We are not left unaided in the task of divining the purpose of this story. In one promotional image, the protagonists are portrayed as the blades constituting a pair of scissors, cleaved together and joined at the hip, even as she struggles under his gaze. Her closed eyes suggest a turn in their relationship, one in which she can no longer rely on his eyes as her mirror, for what is reflected there is more a measure of his imagination than anything else. Turning inward, she will seek another kind of validation, one independent of what he is able to provide. But with this shift, the pivot of their relationship will begin to resemble a prison, immobilized by what was designed to hold them together … until separated by death. The very emotional and sexual bond that had brought them together in celebration and delight will, quite cruelly, become the site of emotional and psychic torture, as a different kind of imperative comes to the fore. For what once brought them together in celebration and delight will give way to another force, just as beautiful and natural but which, because unrecognized, will take on another face.

The fact that the film’s title is drawn using a symbol to signify “woman” points to the ambiguity that lies at the center of this story: Are we to consider her the antichrist and, if so, what are we to make of such an appellation? This is the conundrum with which “He” will be faced, and it is the challenge that Antichrist puts to us. The limbs of the dead that surround the couple’s carnal embrace gesture towards the grapplings of the dispossessed and the forgotten, that which has been pushed aside in their union. It is the condition for their lovemaking as well as its aftermath, for they are the ghosts that “She” desperately has sought to escape when turning to him for comfort, and the nightmare that invariably returns.

He will be painfully oblivious to this, Her torment, for he is implicated in ways he couldn’t imagine. So, oblivious he will remain. Unless someone or something intervenes on their behalf …

The Fall

The haunting aria that opens and closes the film – Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” – is another element that helps give sense to the story laid out before us. In the Prologue, shot entirely in black and white and absent any sound save for the operatic strain that fills the frame, a series of slow-motion “stills” provide us with a glimpse of the couple caught-up in the throes of passion. Swept to the side are household objects, both sign and symbol of the mundane life they have shared. With time grinding to a halt, the security and certainty of domesticity falls into earth’s orbit, toppling to the ground below.

While their coupling may occupy the center of our attention, punctuated as it is by the naked face of their conjugation, it is merely a distraction from another event more momentous and already in progress. A tragedy, in fact. One that will define all that is to follow. The earth will claim another prize, one dear to the man and woman mesmerized by the pleasures of the flesh. A toppling of another sort, and one that will bring them to their knees. Cut between picture perfect snapshots of their entrancement, we are witness to what cannot be seen. It is the death of the product of their union. The unsteady steps of what had yet to find a place in this world, emerging from an artificial prison designed for safekeeping, crashing to the ground below. As the couple will learn, fortifications built to delay the inevitable will not hold, since the effort to establish an earthly presence cannot be stayed. Protective custody only serves to delay the imperative of time, crippling that which fully deserves to blossom and grow, however painful that process may turn out to be.

The fact that their child also falls to his death is almost incidental to this other Fall, one with beginnings that long preceded this moment in time. It is the rupture in the fabric that has held their lives together, mirrored and confirmed by the death of their son. Thanks to this echo of the larger tragedy that has loomed over them unheeded and unseen, they are now finally forced to confront what had been too difficult to bear.

She will fall into a deep despair since, unbeknownst to her husband, She had already glimpsed this awful fate. He will do his level best to come to her aid, although it will become clear that his efforts, however well-meaning, bring no relief. Her “condition,” in fact, will only appear to worsen, as if He were scraping a wound unable to heal. Only then will Handel’s aria take on its full significance:

Let me weep over my cruel fate,
And sigh for my lost freedom.
May sorrow break the chains of anguish,
If only for pity’s sake.

It will be unclear whose freedom has been lost and who has come to be imprisoned since the grief of one will bleed into the other. However, as a therapist, He will take it upon himself to cure her, seemingly blind to the nature of Her fractured existence and deaf to the wisdom of children’s tales (“all the King’s horses and all the King’s men …”). For healing, if it is to occur, will require turning to an authority other than the Sovereign to whom he pays tribute, particularly since the sorrow will be ushered in by her hand. In the end, it is Her cruel fate to recognize the nature of their bondage to one another … and to find the courage to break it.

Stale-mate

Roger Ebert has said that Antichrist lacks symbolism and, in a sense, he’s right. The director makes an almost pedantic use of “The Three Beggars” as the primary organizing device for the film: each is given a name – Pain, Grief, Despair – and each is accorded a “chapter” in the film’s story. Were this insufficient to the task of identifying the film’s narrative thrust, two chapters are given subtitles (“chaos reigns” and “gynocide”), just as The Three Beggars, which we first encounter as simple figurines, are later given animal form. Flesh incarnate.

But what are we to make of these animated beings?

One clue is that they had been the object of Her obsession. An unfinished thesis examining the medieval slaughter of women accused of witchery, also called Gynocide, now sits abandoned in the attic of their country cabin – like a neglected child – because he was unable to generate enthusiasm for what she found compelling. So it is a strange but telling twist of fate when it will be Him to whom the Three Beggars will later appear, amidst the grief and confusion brought on by her return to what had been abandoned. A different experience of time and space will begin to intrude on his world, as the unfathomable begins to unsettle the certainties he had taken for granted.

But, quick to dismiss whatever might exceed logical explanation, these surreal sightings will only be permitted to exist on the margins of consciousness as his attention is turned, instead, to the task of leading his wife out of the emotional labyrinth from which she seems unable to escape. Yet, despite his best of intentions, she will call his efforts at “help” arrogant, tainted by an unwillingness to recognize that there may be matters that lie beyond his grasp. Nonetheless, and perhaps in honor of the love that still binds them, she will tolerate the exercises to which she will be subject, interventions designed to persuade her to see the world as He does. The Impossibility within which She is caught, however, will not allow such easy compliance and will instead give rise to stormy protest, and violent swings between the desperate urge for copulation and the impulse to lash out in anger.

In the midst of this – Her anguish – She will turn to the language of Good and Evil, openly wondering whether it’s Woman’s fate to become evil. Understandably, this will push her husband, champion of rational supremacy, to the edge of exasperation.

He: I’m not going to continue with this if you refuse to listen to me! (pause)
Good and Evil, they have nothing to do with therapy. Do you know how many innocent women were killed in the sixteenth century alone just for being women? l’m sure you do. Many, (and) not because they were evil.
She: I know. lt’s just that sometimes I forget.
He: The evil you talk about is an obsession. Obsessions never materialize, it’s a scientific fact. Anxieties can’t trick you into doing things you wouldn’t do otherwise. It’s like hypnotism. You can’t be hypnotized into doing something you wouldn’t normally do, something against your nature. Do you understand me?
She: Yes, I think so.
He: You think so? Well, you don’t have to understand me. Just trust me.

He will not understand her “obsession.” He will, in fact, remain steadfast in his faith that has been torn of any and all reference to the world of the spirit, ever vigilant against that which would appear to invoke forces exceeding the laws of his mechanical universe. He will, in other words, remain oblivious to how this embrace of Reason requires, even valorizes, her infantilization, just as it presumes His cerebral ascendancy. (She might as well call him Daddy.) In making her his therapeutic project, She will be reduced to an object in world shorn of mystery, a puzzle to be solved and a problem to be fixed. Never will it cross his mind that He is also part of the equation – that the Devil growing in her finds its strength in direct proportion to what He would arrogate to himself – and that this unrecognized mutuality contributes to the deadlock in which they find themselves. At least as much anything that she might be bringing to the table.

The roar of falling acorns will fill the air, a storm of the inchoate that threatens to overrun the enclosed world in which they find themselves, on the edge of annihilation, each caught in the sights of the other. For both have latched onto the fatal flaw they see in the other, tarnishing the image of the beloved that is the premise of their union. Yet, despite this stalemate, it is He who has triumphed, for He is the one who dominates, imperiously dictating acceptable terms of speech and the conditions for their intimacy. For this he can be forgiven, since he is only playing by the rules that had already been established and which seemed to have been working just fine.

And yet, in this battle of wills, the tables will be turned, and Evil will show her face in no uncertain terms. So that, finally, even He will be forced recognize its truth.

Eden

It has been said that “Woman is the symptom of Man” and the locked-horns to which we are witness would seem as good an illustration of this as anything else. Some have taken offense at this pronouncement, not fully realizing how it speaks more of Him than her. For it is a question of the meaning that She acquires in his eyes. Whether it be Madonna or Whore, it matters little, since it is symptomatic of Him, of his very being. Significantly, and as a consequence, it also raises the question of the plight of a woman who would seek to live outside the confines of His imagination. This is the ugly truth – and knowledge – elided by the objectivity He worships, and one not infrequently seen to be the work of the Devil.

The man, He, will finally rouse, as if from a deep slumber … and awaken to a nightmare. He will discover that he has been beaten and abused, drained of his life’s blood. Or so it would seem. He will also find that the pain emanating from below comes from a millstone that has been bolted there, as if the crude jokes about marriage have, quite literally, acquired material form. The pivot-point of their attachment now transformed into a foreign object fastened to him. And like those who would crumble under the demands of the matrimonial oath, He will also come to be overwhelmed by a desperate and compelling need to escape.

Her screams will pierce the air. Shouting for him. Shouting at him. When unheeded, desperate cries bemoaning her abandonment will give way to a ferocity one dare not wish unleashed upon another. He will scramble to distance himself from this fury, dragging that which weighs him down, frantically hoping to evade what would seem to be his fate. He will find temporary refuge in what can only be described as a Den but, much to his dismay, even as her muffled cries penetrate the walls of this subterranean cell, He will come face to face with the Third Beggar. In the throes of death, thrashing about noisily, yet unable or unwilling to die.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “symptom” speaks to this state of having fallen together, for the couple at the center of Antichsit has reached this pit of despair by virtue of the stalled marriage that has kept them bound together, attached to – yet repelled by – the other, only able to draw comfort from mute grapplings under cover of night. Like Him, She will struggle to find a way out of this impasse, vacillating between the impulse to give in to the visceral call for vengeance and the attempt to rescue him from his voluntary entombment. Between a certain kind of feral savageness and the self-obliterating love of a modern-day Pietà.

Earlier, in the midst of the rainstorm of acorns falling from the sky, She had given voice to a disturbing insight, one that preceded this horror and which, in many ways, can be understood as having instigated it.

“Oak trees grow to be hundreds of years old. They only have to produce one single tree every hundred years in order to perpetuate. It may sound banal to you but it was a big thing for me to realize that when I was out here with (our son).

“The acorns fell on the roof then, too.
Kept falling … and falling … and dying … and dying.

“And I understood that everything that used to be beautiful about Eden was perhaps hideous. Now I could hear what I couldn’t hear before: the cry of all the things that are to die.”

Because he doesn’t understand, he will dismiss what She has sought to explain. (“That’s all very touching, if it was a children’s book. Acorns don’t cry. You know that as well as I do.”) But she has found the courage to sustain her convictions, even in the face of His contempt. She also remains willing to bear responsibility – even if misplaced – for the fate of their marriage, as well as that of their son. Later, she will mutilate her body, just as she will provoke him, both a measure of her revulsion for what they have come to be and hatred for her complicity in its becoming. Yearning for release from the chains of anguish.

Momentarily, and just as She had predicted, the Three Beggars return to Him, appearing under a light not to be confused with the star that guided another set of three. This time, they are aligned with Her inert body, seemingly pointing to the sole cause of His pain and suffering, as if the confusion elicited by his previous sightings was finally resolving itself into an unambiguous sign of what must come next. For in those earlier visions, Pain appeared in the guise of a stillborn child, Grief as the unseen labor of self-disembowelment, and Despair as the torture of a death without release.

No longer recognized as his beloved, She has finally, and quite symptomatically, become that which defies reason, defiling his faith in the secular Sovereign. With this transformation, he has finally come face-to-face with Evil, confronting that which “exceeds due measure (and) oversteps proper limits” (OED). He has come to recognize the other face of Eden, the heart of darkness visible only to the initiated. But rather than taking responsibility for his stubborn blindness, as She had already done, the apparition of Beggars will prompt him to channel his anger and confusion in defense of a self that still refuses nature’s promise of rebirth.

Perhaps it was fated to be this way since they had already reached the point of no return. Perhaps his act of desperation provides her with the release from Eden’s hideousness for which she desperately yearned. And perhaps her provocations sought to elicit precisely this, for his benefit as much as for hers. Be that as it may, Nature will still have Her way with him. As colors fade and the world of black-and-white reappears, Handel’s aria will once again fill the frame. In the immediate aftermath of this massive confrontation, and before He can catch his breath, the ghosts of the dead will be resurrected. His visions of the Three Beggars replaced by another sight, as the spirits of the forgotten and repressed return, walking towards him.
.

Addendum: On the Possibility of Redemption

“For in the day that thou eatest
[of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil] …
thou shalt surely die.”

There are two ways to interpret the end of this story, including the violence that ushers in the closing scene, neither of which conforms to what the film’s detractors would have us believe. Both revolve around the abrupt shift that accompanies his Awakening from what would appear to be a deep slumber. All that precedes this moment are mere hauntings, suggestions that all is not as it seems, the visions of the Three Beggars being the most prominent among these. All that follows is stylized in its brutal excessiveness, a reflection of the torment that has overtaken both protagonists in their struggle against the void of meaninglessness.

The heightened emotion, reflected in the exaggerated violence, is a measure of what they dare not lose – still cleaved one to the other – as well as the momentous task that summons them, something that can be achieved only after liberating themselves from what has bound them together. Despite her desperate desire to cling to Him and the love that defined their past, it is Her task to instigate this separation, thereby giving birth to what has yet to be born, a prelude to what has yet to come.

Unto the woman [the Lord God] said,
I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception;
in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children;
and thy desire shall be to thy husband,
and he shall rule over thee.

He will also resist the inevitable, unable to muster the courage to face the reality of their separation, something which he can only experience as his personal loss. But if She is to become the giver of new life, it is His job to follow, even as it involves a different kind of labor particular to His condition: coming to terms with his previous arrogation of the Keeper of Knowledge, aspiring to the exalted position of airy omniscience.

And unto Adam [the Lord God] said …
cursed is the ground for thy sake;
Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee;

and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,
till thou return unto the ground;
for out of it wast thou taken:
for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

As for the death brought about by His hand, it can either be seen as a sign of his continued obliviousness to Her torment and, as a consequence, a defense of the elevated status he occupies in his own eyes, an attack on the one who would dare challenge His authority and, adding insult to injury, willfully desecrate His love for her. (How else are we to understand the battery of women at their lovers’ hands? Or, which amounts to the same thing, under the lashing of tongues?) Alternatively, and more generously, this final act can be seen as a recognition that She – the Woman who is His symptom – must be “killed” since, absent this annihilation, she will have no place to exist other than as the object of his worship.

The director does not tell us how we are to interpret this end. Perhaps his refusal to direct us to its “correct” meaning is a deliberate choice. Perhaps, too, it is because these are the two routes to salvation that are available to Man: one driven by the savage force of vengeance, the other fueled by the painful recognition that his image of Her must be extinguished. In the case of the former, he will come to be haunted by that which has the power to exceed death; in the case of the latter, he will finally see what was obscured by His imagination. Only then will the bodies of the forgotten and repressed finally gain release from their buried existence.

In order to achieve this end, She transforms into the One that would oppose Him, no longer presented as his loving partner and ally, willingly taking on the guise of Evil. Yet, it is this opposition that gives way to life renewed.

And Adam called his wife’s name Eve;
because she was the mother of all living.

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~ by mistified on October 31, 2009.

3 Responses to “Antichrist”

  1. One reviewer said: grief (the 1st) was re: the deer with the stillborn; pain (the 2nd) was re: the fox eating its entrails; and despair (the 3rd) was re: the raven/crow not dying.

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