Thursday, September 10, 2009

Antichrist (2009 - dir. Lars von Trier)

Premiering at Cannes a few months ago, this film is about to be screened at the upcoming Toronto Film Festival. It promises to be, what one might call, an event. Being somewhat familiar with the reputation garnered by this film, it was with serious trepidation that I sat down in my comfortable chair to watch it. How I ended up with a copy to watch before it's official release will remain a well-guarded secret.

All of these preliminaries fade into oblivion in the face of the profundity of this film. I don't particularly consider myself a fan of von Trier and have been less than moved by his previous work. And then, he goes and creates a film that, for me, can only be considered equivalent to the finest of Kubrick...the all-time master. Quite simply, Antichrist probes the marrow of human nature, and the concept of "nature" itself, as profoundly as an artist ever has. It is a magnificent achievement.

He and She are making love. In their toddler's room, a window is blown open by the winter wind. Their son leaves his bed to explore. He walks out his window, into the snow, stories below his bedroom. Weeks later, She is still consumed by grief. And He, a therapist, pretentiously believes that he can remove all the guilt and remorse through clever clinical discourse. She remains unmoved by such trivial attempts at healing and agrees to go to the couple's cabin in the forest ("Eden"), a place where He has concluded lies the source of her despair. What transpires can only be described as an impotent attempt by He to throw a net of rationality over the chthonic forces of nature....embodied by She.

Darwin was haunted by the elemental forces of nature. This awareness was probably responsible for his eventual adoption of an atheistic/agnostic worldview. This is perhaps best captured by his consideration of the apparent brutality of nature in service of the survival and reproduction of individual organisms...such as the ichneumonid wasp:
"I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice." Cannibalistic spiders, praying mantis, infanticidal lions and monkeys, female fish whose "mates" are little more than sacrificial males whose main function is that of an attached appendage contributing sperm. Nature not only doesn't provide moral lessons for humanity; it provides a brutal backdrop from which to gain the proper perspective in understanding our species.

Antichrist pushes our collective faces into the moss and detritus of "uncognized" nature. An early image in the film is a slow zoom into a vase holding the flowers brought to She by He. Rather than showing the bright blooms and, by extension, the expression of buoyant "get well soon" wishes, von Trier zooms in on the flower stems, immersed in their fetid water, swirling with dead plant tissue and microorganisms which form the core of these expressions of condolence. This image is the red carpet leading to the remainder of von Trier's vision.

In reproductive fitness terms, females "cost more" than males; eggs are a more valuable commodity than sperm due to their relative rarity. Consequently, in the absence of parental investment, males of most species are, what might be considered, "expendable." In the film, it is after the couple's son has passed that He becomes unnecessary. The viciousness of the sexual conflict that transpires in Eden is the playing out of the (mostly unconscious) conflict that underlies male/female relations, not only in humans, but in many other species. Males are a cheap contributor to the powerful movements of nature that are dominated by female fertility, gestation, growth, and development of offspring. It's enough to overwhelm a male...a male who wants to set things right....a male who wants his partner to return to sanity...a male who wants to control natural chaos. A male like He.

The final, majestic scene of Antichrist shows a throng of faceless women ascending through the undergrowth, up a hill towards He as he stands alone in the primeval forest. Reproduction can only happen through the female. Male reproductive fitness is constrained by those things that constrain female reproductive fitness. The currency of nature is female. In this final scene, the reality of nature, female and male, is exposed as surely as the transcendence of the Starchild is exposed in the final frame of Kubrick's 2001.

In the marketing campaign for Antichrist, the last "t" in the title is presented as the universal symbol for female (a "t" with a circle on top). Thoughtless critics have used this, together with a prissy reading of the film, as evidence of the director's supposed misogyny. If I had one tenth of the artistic vision von Trier has in this film, I would be ten times as offended by this critical sophistry. It is a tribute to him that he has let his prodigious achievement speak for itself.

Antichrist (2009) - Trailer

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