Lars Von Trier’s film Antichrist is one of the most upsetting, horrifying and gruesome films I have ever seen. It is often repellent, frequently pornographic and nearly unwatchable in parts due to some extremely brutal depictions of bodily mutilation. There is almost nothing entertaining about the film. It is unpleasant to watch. It is bleak, and it is depressing.
And yet Antichrist is also masterfully crafted and psychologically deep. The repulsive and unsettling character of the film’s imagery and action hammers home a profoundly nihilistic message that is cosmic in scope, and which is depressing precisely because of its difficult truth. This message is that nature is vicious, and that humans, even though we want to forget it, are a part of nature. As a part of nature, the only thing that keeps us from tearing one another apart is our uncanny ability to repress and sublimate our deepest urges and drives. Without this ability, civilization would be impossible, and yet, ironically, it is because of repression that we are doomed to experience self-alienation and despair. We are a part of nature, but we must pretend that we are not if we hope to hold onto such things as human dignity, moral law and social order. In order to live with one another peacefully, we must deny who we really are.
“Supposing truth is a woman – what then?” writes Nietzsche in the Preface to Beyond Good and Evil, and in Antichrist Von Trier eagerly sets his talents to answering this question. The movie begins with a prologue, filmed in slow-motion black and white, and set to Handel’s “Let Me Weep.” In this prologue, the film’s two nameless protagonists, “He” (Willem Dafoe) and “She,” (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are having sex. In their passion, they are lost to the world around them; so much so that they are unaware that their young child has observed them (in what Freud referred to as the “primal scene”) and subsequently has fallen out of an open window to his death onto the sidewalk below. This opening sequence is shamelessly shocking in how it contrasts the innocence of a child with explicit shots of an erect penis thrusting into a vagina. The connection between the two is obvious – children are the product of sexual union between men and women – but still, we desire to obscure this truth. The child in the film has no knowledge of the primal sexuality of which he is the product, and we ourselves think it indecent to be reminded of this fact of nature. But that does not make it any less true. Nor does the horror we feel upon watching this child fall to his death make the reality of human mortality any less true. Everyone who is born is the product of physical lust and is destined to die. In this short, awful prologue then, Von Trier has compressed the entire trajectory of human existence.
The couple now falls into grief, and Chapter One of the film (Grief) begins. “He” is a therapist (or as a feminist sociology teacher of mine was fond of saying, “the-rapist”), and makes the poor decision to act in this capacity for his wife. “She” is a graduate student who has been working on, but has not finished, her thesis project dealing with the history of witchcraft and the persecution of women. In order to confront her grief, He compiles a list of things of which She is fearful. Near the top of this list is Eden, the name they have given to their cabin in the woods where She has done much of her writing. They decide to go back to Eden so that She can confront and overcome her most primal fear.
Eden and the forest are the embodiment of nature. The fear that She has of this setting is the fear that anyone has when forced to confront their authentic and true self. She is afraid that her real essence will be exposed, that the mask of civilization will drop away and that she will stand naked without a disguise. This is not just embarrassing; it is terrifying since it is a revelation not just to others, but also to one’s own self. It entails a confrontation with one’s own bestial nature. Consequently, She does not even want to walk through the woods in order to get to the cabin. Her feet burn as they touch the ground, even as her husband insists that it is all in her head. But her burning feet are merely an indication that nature is not a welcoming place to be. It is terrifying and uncivilized. It is a place where “chaos reigns.”
Chapter Two is titled “Pain (Chaos Reigns).” It is during this section of the film that He subjects She to a course of exposure therapy. She must walk on the ground, confront the woods and come to terms with her fear of nature. In Eden, as it turns out, all is not well. We come to find that nature is cruel and excessive in the suffering it demands. A deer is spied with a stillborn fawn hanging limp from its birth canal. A wounded, bloodied fox lies dying in the grass and barks “Chaos reigns!” The oak tree standing next to their cabin drops hundreds of acorns onto the roof, reminding them that in order for one tree to thrive, hundreds of acorns (its babies) must die. A baby chick falls from a nest, helpless and covered with ants, only to be snatched up and eaten alive by a passing bird of prey. This is nature, “red in tooth and claw.” As She tells her husband, “Nature is Satan’s church.”
With this exposure, her cure is initiated, and so is Chapter Three: Despair (Gynocide). It is during this part of the film that some of the most awful and appalling imagery appears. After announcing that her treatment has been successful, He comes to realize that the result is not what he had expected. Her defenses lowered, She comes into full contact with her inner nature, experiencing the sublime force and savagery of desire unleashed. She furiously copulates with her husband, and then masturbates madly before exploding in an uncontrolled rage because she fears that her husband will leave her. She crushes his testicles with a wooden beam, knocking him unconscious, rubs his penis until he ejaculates blood and drills a hole in his leg, to which she then attaches a heavy mill stone in order to keep him from leaving. She wanders away and He eventually regains consciousness, flees with difficulty and hides in a hole beneath a tree. (The hole, no doubt, represents a vagina, which in this film is both a danger and a lure to the male character. Throughout the film, the female lead is terrified of this particular tree hole; an indication that she fears her own nature.) While in the hole, He encounters a blackbird whose loud, cawing cries betray his hiding place, and so his wife finds him and drags him back to the cabin.
In the final Chapter: The Three Beggars, She, seemingly unable to endure the unrepressed intensity of her own boiling, primal, sexual rabidity, snips off her own clitoris with a pair of scissors. As She lays bleeding on the ground, He detaches the mill stone from his leg. When he looks over toward his wife’s prostrate form, the three animals, who are the the first three chapters’ namesakes, are laying next to her. Grief is a deer, pain is a fox and despair is a blackbird. He envisions them all as constellations in the night sky, reinforcing the idea that these are cosmic principles, laws of nature that are inscribed into the heavens. Nature is cruel and eternally filled with grief, pain and despair. He then strangles his wife to death and escapes the cabin.
The Epilogue depicts He climbing to the top of a hill and then seeing the three animals – “the three beggars” – ghostly but still present. As he looks upon them, He realizes that a multitude of faceless women are climbing the hill toward him. Nature is still in pursuit. He is not going to escape.
“Supposing truth is a woman – what then?” Lars Von Trier has answered Nietzsche’s question in this film. Nature is the truth, and in Antichrist woman is the embodiment of nature. She is beyond good and evil. “Mother Nature” is terrifying if left to her own devices. She requires the repression and sublimation of her forces in order to build civilization and to avoid the reign of chaos. “Thus man likes woman peaceful – but woman is essentially unpeaceful, like a cat, however well she may have trained herself to seem peaceful” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 131).
Lars Von Trier states that Antichrist is the most important film of his career. It was made when he was just emerging out of a deep depression so severe that he required hospitalization, and as a testament to his own grief, pain, and despair, the film is tremendously powerful. While many people, including critics and some of his leading ladies, accuse Von Trier of being sexist and misogynistic, such ad hominem attacks do nothing to undermine the profound depth and authenticity of this film. Von Trier confesses that he drew from his own dreams (and nightmares!) in order to make Antichrist, and it is in dreams, as Freud taught, that the unconscious forces of thanatos and libido make their most honest and unrepressed appearance. In this way, Von Trier is perhaps more naked in Antichrist than are his lead actors.