Home > Film Reviews, Psychology, Science > In which I am disturbed by Antichrist

In which I am disturbed by Antichrist

Last night, my friend Max and I emerged relatively unscathed from a showing of Lars von Trier’s latest picture, Antichrist. You have heard correctly: it is horrendously violent, it is viciously misogynist (and knows it), and does indeed contain a disemboweled, undead fox risibly informing Willem Dafoe that, if it wasn’t obvious by that point in this disorienting, confounding ‘WTF’ of a movie, ‘chaos reigns’. Unexpectedly, none of this necessarily makes it a bad film. I’ll explain.

Dafoe plays a psychotherapist who attempts to cure his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who would be a dead cert to win the ‘saddest Patti Smith lookalike in a movie’ competition, if it existed) of her ‘atypical grief’ after their son plummets to his death from a window ledge while they get jiggy to the ‘lascia ch’io pianga’ aria from Handel’s Rinaldo. The hypnotically beautiful opening scene in which this death takes place is arguably the finest moment in the entire movie. The cure for grief is to happen by exposing her to all her fears, one of which is a cabin deep in the woods where she spent time with her late son. So far, so horror-cliché. Off they go into the woods, and from that moment on, everything goes wrong, and starts to break those horror conventions.

I’m going to sidestep the major thematic thrust of the film, already discussed in other reviews (done most thought-provokingly here) to discuss the points the movie makes about my subject, psychology. Von Trier notoriously suffered from depression while writing Antichrist, and much of the script seems to be focused on proving Dafoe’s therapist character wrong.  He just can’t get anything right, especially his statement that ‘obsessions never materialise – it’s a scientific fact’. In actual fact, one of  main obsessions of the movie – the theme of the ‘Three Beggars’ (Grief, Despair, and Pain), definitely does turn up, in the form of statuettes, woodland animals, and eventually constellations. The ‘gynocide’ thesis that Gainsbourg’s character is writing becomes nauseatingly real towards the end of the movie, after which we only see a thoroughly confused Dafoe wandering the woods wondering how the hell he can have been so disastrously, crashingly wrong about everything.

Well, maybe he can explain it all away by saying he dreamed it. He mentions this to his pre-murderous rage wife at one point, to which she replies ‘dreams are of no interest to modern psychology. Freud is dead’. A line which one can imagine coming straight from the lips of von Trier’s therapist as he tried to explain his terrifying nightmares, but one which is in actual fact only half right. Freud’s ideas about dreams are, of course, as dead as the man himself (and we’re far better off for it). But psychologists and neuroscientists haven’t stopped studying dreams. There’s a good deal of evidence that the purpose of dreams in particular and sleep in general is memory consolidation, a kind of ‘tidying up’ of the day’s memories while most cognitive systems are at rest.¹ On the other hand, nobody’s really sure of exactly how this happens, though there are some hypotheses to do with various hormones and neurotransmitters².

Which brings us back to Antichrist. Memories, whether consolidated or not, come rushing back to haunt our two increasingly confused-looking characters. Revealing what these are would spoil the film, but this is the main outlet of the misogyny in the film – Gainsbourg’s character isn’t just evil in the timeline of the film, she has always been that way. Von Trier doesn’t even grant Gainsbourg the privilege of being in control of her actions – women’s nature is, simply, evil, despite how much Dafoe’s character argues against this. 

So, von Trier’s vicarious vengeance (if indeed that’s what it is) on the ‘arrogant bastard’ psychotherapist doesn’t end with him being wrong about the human mind. It becomes all the more unsettling as Dafoe is tortured and mutilated by his wife in a series of beautifully-shot but still hard-to-look-at moments. As the relationship between the two falls apart, so does the very environment they occupy; by the end, the forest looks as if it’s been ripped up in some kind of psychically-controlled earthquake. Is this von Trier telling us that women are so evil it’s actually against nature itself? Maybe. It’s not just the violence that leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Amongst the many, sometimes rather nebulous, themes of Antichrist, one may well find a depressive lashing out at his therapist. Indeed, the shocking violence visited upon women, nature, and the self in the course of the movie can be seen as part of von Trier’s blind rage against anything in his way. And perhaps most shockingly of all, in amongst all these ‘controversial’ elements, the film does manage to make some interesting points about depression and psychotherapy.

Or maybe it’s just a load of pretentious wank. Whatever.

——-
1.  Payne, J. D., & Nadel, L.  (2004) Sleep, dreams, and memory consolidation: The role of the stress hormone cortisol. Learning and Memory 11: 671-678.
2. Frank, M. G., &  Benington, J. H. (2006) The Role of Sleep in Memory Consolidation and Brain Plasticity: Dream or Reality? The Neuroscientist 12: 477.

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  1. RK
    August 3, 2009 at 10:48 am

    Nice review Stu! I’m still not sure I dare to watch the film though, I mean anything that Max finds disturbing is too rich for my blood, I think! Did you see this month’s Psychologist? It’s a dream special, talk about good timing!

    • Stuart Ritchie
      August 3, 2009 at 2:14 pm

      Ah, that’s something I should do now I’ve been paid! Actually, er, join the BPS…

  2. Laura Swinton
    October 19, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    it’s a chuffing awesome film… some dude walked out of the cinema during the first scene just cause there was a bit of upclose penetration… clearly he hadn’t heard about the cliterectomy. Or mayber he had, but it was the actual sex he couldn’t deal with.

    in terms of the reviews, all the misogyny bullcrap distracts from the actual thrust of the film. Which is self loathing and depression. One of the two main characters is female. She hates herself. She projects that hate. yeah so her self loathing turns into misogyny, … don’t mean the film itself is misogynistic though. During the film the She has flashbacks where she sees the child fall and could have prevented this, but if you re-watch the film, this actually isn’t the case. And He ends up killing She… so who really is the “evil” one? While worthwhile, the gender reading of the film kinda distracts from the wider picture I think…

    Wasn’t the film written during a period of depression… isn’t Von Trier identifying with Gainsbourg’s character rather than Defoe’s…? Just a thought.

    Bizarrely, apart from the obvious ‘look away now’ moments I didn’t think the film was that disturbing. But maybe i am just a bit wrong in the brain.

    Hehe anyway awesome blog! good to meet you at Alex’s on Sat!

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