As the poster art above attests, Lars von Trier’s ANTICHRIST has been a sort of Rorschach test for film critics and cinephiles since its controversial premiere at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Everyone projects his or her own unconscious mental contents onto the film. It is a typically provocative von Trier work but yet seems to plumb dark depths beyond the writer-director’s own.
ANTICHRIST is a journey into the chaos of the irrational unconscious and away from the rational world of civilization. Two of its discontents, named only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), flee to their cabin in the woods (an archetypal place of chaos, ruled by the atavistic drives of Nature) to attempt to overcome her disabling depression and anxiety. Her emotional crisis has followed upon the couple’s loss of their only son in a tragic accident — or so it seems.
Dafoe’s cognitive-behavioral therapist character has assumed his wife’s care against the ethical shibboleth against treating one’s own family members. In the pyramid he has drawn of her fears (a graded hierarchy, in CBT lingo), Nature ranks near the top, but Satan eventually ranks higher. In this film, “Nature is Satan’s church.” But who is his son, the Antichrist? Some assume this is Dafoe’s character (perhaps because he is male), but the lettering of the word “Antichrist” on the film’s title card and its main theatrical poster belies this identification. It turns the terminal “t” into the symbol for woman.
Is this a misogynistic identification, as some critics have asserted? Does it identify female sexuality with evil? Von Trier has danced around this question. He did state that he wrote this film as a kind of therapeutic exercise during one of his recurring bouts of depression. In fact, ANTICHRIST is one of three films in what the director has called his “Depression Trilogy.” The second is “Melancholia” (2011); the third is “Nymphomaniac” (2013), which is so long that von Trier released it in two parts.
My view is that von Trier got in touch with the two primal drives — sex and death — that Freud theorized as the engines of the unconscious mind. Not only did he become more aware of these forces, but he also saw them as in conflict with each other. The logic and reason with which He structures his personal philosophy have no effect against these drives because he does not acknowledge their power. On the other hand, She has immersed herself in the irrational and insatiable unconscious through her graduate work on “gynocide” — the historical persecution of women accused of practicing witchcraft and other dark arts.
Looking closely at the film, He doesn’t stand a chance from the beginning. The figures of the Three Beggars are already present in the opening scene. They preside over both sex (the graphic and reportedly unsimulated lovemaking of He and She) and death (the fatal fall of their child from a window). In her grief, She descends into anxious depression. Arrogant rationality leads He to take over her treatment. There is coercion underneath his surface loving concern.
Little does He know that to go to the place that She fears most is also to enter into her unconscious mental world. They call it Eden, but it is a postlapsarian paradise where “chaos reigns” because it has been taken over by primal forces (symbolized by the Three Beggars in living form). It is as if She has externalized her mind to transform this place. Trapped within it, He gets his (perhaps well-deserved) comeuppance from She, which leads him to surrender by degrees to the malevolent influence of the surrounding environment. Although She punishes herself in now-infamous fashion, He outdoes her in primal violence.
In the end, there is no escape for either of them. Whatever von Trier’s attitude towards women and the relationship between them and men might be, it is clear that his opinion of human nature is that it is, in essence, evil — barely concealed beneath a civilized veneer.