Lars von Trier is, beyond a doubt, one of the boldest directors of our time; he never balks at digging a hole in the soil of human emotion with the sole intention of getting well and dirty. Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) is a meditation on self-destruction, on one’s inner life being untameable, overbearing and suffocating. Antichrist (2009) is no different, treading the border between insanity and depression in its female protagonist as she struggles with guilt over her son’s death, and what this death might say about her as a mother, woman and human being.
If you haven’t watched the movie in question, I urge you to see it before reading the following as it will contain major plot spoilers.
I didn’t enjoy Antichrist at first viewing. Though sometimes beautiful to look at and with two actors delivering astounding performances, I still found the first half lacking in momentum, while the second half bordered on the ludicrous with its sudden and extreme bloodiness. Putting these first impressions of its use of plot, characters and horror tropes aside, I watched the movie a second time and came to a very different conclusion. Antichrist may be a tough pill to swallow, but its jagged edges are there for a reason.
Visually Antichrist has moments that are truly breathtaking, with the black and white extreme slow motion Prologue being a stand out. The sex between lead characters He and She is depicted, in this opening sequence, as both passionate and mechanical, while the wider and more open shots of their two-year old son Nic underline his innocence: he is small and alone in a big world, separated from his parents as they are lost in each other.
As a viewer, I experience a chilling terror as I watch the little boy climb onto the sill of an open window; as he falls I can almost see the immeasurable repercussions of his death, even before they begin to play out before me: the grief, the pain, the despair.
There is a clear thematic question to be posed of the gender representation used in Antichrist and how He could easily be the symbol for the patriarch while She is the psychologically bullied matriarch. She would then be the “hysterical woman” in her despair, while He is the rational and pragmatic man, keeping calm and distancing himself from the tidal waves of emotion she exhibits. However, leaving the possible social perceptions that the characters may represent, I would like to focus on the actual characters themselves.
Antichrist and She
There is a prevailing theme throughout Antichrist , portrayed without mercy for its male and female protagonists – the theme of fear. Fear haunts She in a way that is deeply internal and manifests through tremors and sleep-depravation in the beginning of the film, and it is this fear that is the driving force behind He’s attempts at analysing her, as He has the notion that if She only faces what she’s afraid of she will be healed. Of course, nothing is ever that simple and what He comes to understand is that this fear is She’s fear of herself. The explanation of this – for the audience – comes in the reveal that She watched Nic climb the chair, watched him fall, and chose to do nothing. However, her fear is not rooted in the act of doing nothing, but rather in her capability of doing nothing.
A year ago She went by herself to the family’s summer cottage Eden to write her thesis, bringing Nic with her. She immersed herself in the subject of female prosecution and witch hunts and, as she tells He when confronted with her thoughts on human nature, she came to the conclusion that women are inherently evil. Women do not control their own bodies, She states – nature does. Her cold view signals postnatal depression, underscoring the fact that her pregnancy, delivery and the very task of motherhood has been an explicitly traumatic experience for her. Her research into the history of female persecution began to feed an already fevered mind with information that somehow made strange sense of what was already hounding her: the fact that she wanted to harm her child.
Her new belief system told her that she is by nature evil, which in turn gave her an excuse for her emotions, even going so far as to grant her a perfectly good reason to harbour them. Her fear grew for this evil streak inside her and what repercussions it might carry. The moment she allowed Nic to die was sweet, as it confirmed what she had suspected all along, but it was also a moment of sheer horror as she discovered a side to herself that she had never before guessed was there.
Halfway through the film the couple discusses the autopsy of Nic, and He confronts her with the Polaroids of Nic wearing the wrong shoe on the wrong foot – signalling that he understands her neglect of their son existed even though he hasn’t witnessed it for himself first hand. This confrontation causes her to suffer a meltdown at the prospect of being left by He, but her attacks on him seem to be attacks on herself, stemming from the knowledge that He has every right to leave her. She wants to push him to punish her because there are two sides to her: the one of acceptance and the one of despair. She dresses herself in the role of the witch because that is the female figure bound to be judged and murdered by the male figure and, as she states early on in the film: she wants to die.
Her journey throughout the film is deeply psychological as she tries desperately to cope with her guilt and ultimately fails – accepting the excuse she has created for herself as she becomes one of the “sisters” and places the blame on the nature of her sex rather than her feeling a lack of love for her own child and letting him die in order to free herself of him.
Antichrist and He
The character of He is the mirror opposite of She. Ungoverned by emotion he takes the position of observer as his wife unravels; cementing himself as therapist first, husband and father a distant second. Even with the Three Beggars, He is the observer, distanced from them as they manifest outside of him, while She grapples with them from deep within.
He arrogantly assumes that he is equipped to heal She. This arrogance is his downfall as he ensures that She comes face to face with herself in the place that she fears the most – Eden. The reason She fears it the most: it is where she first discovered what she views as the truth about herself.
When He first brings her to Eden She has yet to acknowledge this truth as absolute, but thanks to him she not only acknowledges, but even embraces it. Not only does this truth mean that her weighted mind can find some sort of repose from the guilt, but also that the final outcome will be death. She waits for the Three Beggars and ultimately sees her own end, either of the body or of her spirit – the side to her now in despair over what she has done. . By accepting the truth about herself (she is inherently evil), all that once was She is buried somewhere deep down inside her and what is left is this new persona: the witch.
He’s journey is that of leaving behind his old belief system – that of rationality – and instead facing the reality of the situation he’s in. He must realize that the solution he has fixed to the problem will not suffice, he can’t talk She out of the state of mind she’s entered. His comment on how anxiety cannot make you do something that you would not normally do seems poetic in this context. Out of self-preservation he ultimately strangles She, and in doing so he gives free reign to the more primal parts of himself, the primal parts which he has tried to suppress in her and which he has, up until that moment, not recognised in himself.
Antichrist and Them
The sex throughout the film is unapologetic and graphic. He believes She uses it to distract herself, but the flashback, revealing that she saw Nic climb to his death, comes while in the middle of a sexual act. Sex is closely linked with the moment of their son’s death and, on an even deeper level, with She’s choice to do nothing to stop it. As such it’s not pleasure She seeks when more or less assaulting He throughout the film, but rather self-punishment. To feel the pain of that moment, whether conscious or subconscious, is the underlying motivation for her actions. Her crippling He with a blow to the crotch toward the end of the film feels reflective of how his penis might be viewed as the cause of all of her despair.
The way her darker side – shown through the flashes of close-ups of her face, neck, restless fingers – brings out the same side in He – as the close-ups are echoed of him just before he strangles her – is telling of how the evil She speaks of exists in both male and female nature. It is the nature of human beings to be capable of previously unthinkable acts when put into a corner. For him that corner is the threat of death. For her that corner was motherhood.
The ending feels inevitable and is the result of her fear of herself and what is inside her: she is wicked and the wicked burn. As He lights the pyre he has built for her she becomes yet another female body consumed by flames, tying in strongly with the witch theme. The difference is that while the witches who burned four hundred years ago were innocent of any wrongdoing, She actually committed a crime against nature itself in murdering her own child through her carelessness.
Antichrist emerges as a provoking comment on the violence that lives in all of us. It has its theological implications and the Three Beggars make for powerful symbols of the cruelty of nature and what the most hollowing of human emotions might do to anyone that must live through them. What stands out is its complex character portraits where light and dark battle for dominion. The title’s Antichrist is the opposite of goodness; it is the absence of God; it is the evil in humanity that prevails – for some meaning death, for others life.