Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Antichrist is a She?

Roger Ebert was among the many critics left baffled by Lars von Trier's Antichrist, but compared with, say, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, or Dogville, I didn't find this film as impenetrable as other Lars von Trier films. This is a difficult film to take, whether or not any sense can be made of it. Suffice to say that the horrors of the opening scenes are eventually surpassed, and that's saying a lot. [Spoilers below.]

On the thematic substance behind the infliction of emotional damage on the viewer, Roger Ebert has something of it, and he begins with the psychology of the main characters:

We must begin by assuming that He and She are already at psychological tipping points. She has been doing research on witchcraft, and it leads her to wonder if women are inherently evil. That may cause her to devalue herself. He is a controlling, dominant personality, who I believe is moved by the traumatic death to punish the woman who delivered his child into the world.

Their first stage, Grief, is legitimate. Their error is in trying to treat it instead of accepting it and living it through. Of course they blame themselves ... She mentally punishes herself. For reasons he may not be aware of, he is driven to deal with her guilt as a problem, lecturing her in calm, patient, detached psychobabble. Her grief is her fault, you see, and he will blame her for it.
A central question of the movie becomes how soon will 'He' turn against 'She,' and just how much should we hate Her, and by extension, all women. I think those who accuse the film of mysogyny are not far off, but I don't think it's quite as simple as that.

The woman's scholarly research on witchcraft, and the way the man's understanding of her guilt culminates in the discovery of the literal artifacts of that research, suggest a deeper story, one long pre-dating these characters. The 'He' character all but suggested the answer at one point: in the course of studying the history of witchcraft, the 'She' character came to believe what she read about women. There in the isolation of the cabin, with only her young son, the patter of acorns on the roof, and hostile wilderness, the manuscripts created a psychic momentum and constituted a just-so story that gave shape to the perception of her own human (not strictly feminine) flaws, follies, appetites, and shortcomings. Without necessarily realizing the transformation, she became the role she had studied -- a torturer, a sadist, a witch.

I think the film leaves this question very much open: whether individual human beings can break free of the limitations of their darkest stories. One immediate irony of this reading is, of course, how the film adds another dark narrative to the annals.


Reuben said...

Did you see this? It is pleasant.,14403/

Dale said...

Oh Reuben. Every time I visit The Onion I am reminded of how much more frequently I need to be visiting The Onion. Fantastic.