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von Trier’s Antichrist – Context

July 27, 2009

This weekend, I saw what I think is possibly the film of the year.  Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) is a triumph of style, content, and artistic politics.  It is such a complex and subtle film that I feel that I need more than one post to do it justice and so, this is the first in a series of posts about Antichrist.  The first intalment is about the correct way to approach the film as a work of art.

Film Poster

Film Poster

As with many of von Trier’s projects, Antichrist is a film surrounded by an epistemological haze.  A haze formed partly due to our stubborn refusal to let go of the idea that all the ideas a film contains are placed there intentionally, and that the placing of these ideas constitute some form of advocacy.  If there is one unifying theme to von Trier’s work it has been an attempt to make the maintenance of these beliefs as difficult as possible.

With the Dogme95 manifesto, von Trier argued that the director should not be credited and that the films should obey a series of stylistic commandments.  These commandments were said to be about purifying film by stripping away artifice and concentrating on what’s really there but in effect they served as a kind of stylistic template.  Dogme95 films were supposed to resemble each other and the removal of the director’s credit only emphasised this.

Title Screen for The Idiots

Title Screen for The Idiots

The idea that a film might well present an argument is already a treacherous one.  How does one distinguish between the attitudes of the characters and the ‘meaning’ of the film?  What would such a meaning say about that film’s writer and director?  With The Idiots (1998), von Trier started to deconstruct this idea by producing  a film whose ‘argument’ was entirely ambiguous from the start.  The film revolved around a woman joining a community of people who spent their time pretending to be mentally handicapped.  It is possible for three people to watch the film and for them to each walk away from it with completely different reactions;  One might be horrified at what are a load of jokes about disabled people, another might applaud the film’s brave critiquing of how society reacts to the disabled and a third might say that the film is a critique of our willingness to tolerate bigotry as long as it is cloaked in the trappings of satire and irony.  All three ‘meanings’ are equally valid responses to the film.  Von Trier then continued with this tactic by making Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005) and The Boss of it All (2006).  Films that present ideas that are incredibly distasteful whilst also remaining peculiarly neutral on how the audience is supposed to react to these ideas.

Antichrist is best understood as a new front in von Trier’s war on traditional relationships with film.  This at least would explain Peter Bradshaw’s bizarre rejection of the film on the grounds that it is a hoax.  Yes von Trier is a trickster but how exactly does making a film constitute a hoax?  A film might not actually exist or it might be mischaracterised by the PR surrounding it, but how does a 109 minute film costing $11 million dollars to make constitute a hoax?  Why should its status as a hoax make it a less interesting or worthwhile film?  Clearly the accusation is absurd.  This is a film in which von Trier set out to deliberately violate every single Dogme95 restriction in as violent and sensational a way as possible.  Not only does the film credit von Trier as its director but von Trier bragged about being “the biggest director in the world” whilst promoting the film.  Antichrist contains images of almost supernatural beauty that are achieved almost entirely through camera trickery and post-production effects.  It does not merely feature props and CGI, it has ridiculous talking animals and prosthetic genitals that spurt blood all over the place.  It is a film that sets out to fuck with you from the opening sequence right through to its final image (a hilarious dedication to the memory of Andrei Tarkovsky).

Attempts to write about the film have struggled (as have I) to get over the hype and the authorial positioning surrounding the film but Roger Ebert‘s attempt to frame the film as an exploration of a world in which all values and theological ideals are inverted is an interesting one, it might even go some way as to explain Christopher Hart‘s desire to see the film banned, despite not having seen it himself and despite claiming to be a broad-minded libertarian.  However, I think that Ebert’s characterisation gives the film too much cedit as a traditional work of intellectual advocacy.  In truth, Antichrist, is not in the business of describing the world or in making a case.  Instead it contains a multitude of different ideas all connected by virtue of being in the same film but whose juxtaposition is not indicative of any wider design, intent or argument.

2 Comments
  1. August 3, 2009 9:08 am

    Finally I can read your piece on Antichrist Jonathan because finally I have seen the supposedly ‘evil’ film. My full reaction is up at The Drift, but I think we are laregly in accordance. For me, the film was judged exactly as all films are judged, by how much in engaged me and enveloped me in its world. Indisputably it did.

    What I find starnge is how it has become to be treated as something other than a mere film. Art house cinema has already given us similarly extreme flavours before (Pasolini’s ‘Salo’ / Breillat’s ‘Romance’) which we can now own on DVD. Similarly, the misogyny and violence that prfligate everything from Hip Hop, 60’s rock n roll, not to mention mainstream Hollywood causes far less alarm. So I’m unsure why Antichrist has suddenly lit a fuse, especially among film critics. My instinct, and its something you pick up on, is the final dediaction to Tarkovsky. Indeed, in Bryan Appleyard’s ludicrous rant about the film in the Sunday Times, it was this that made him want to throw a brick through a window more than any other aspect. All of which Von Trier knows his targets far better than they know themselves, which is really what’s antogonising everyone so much, less the film’s content.

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  2. August 3, 2009 9:27 am

    Also, I think that von Trier does set out to deliberately muddy the waters in his interviews and I think that a lot of critics do rely upon the critical tools of auteur theory so a director who sets out to throw them off the set and send them down dark alleys evidently annoys them.

    Do you listen to R4’s The Film Programme? His interview for that was splendid as the interviewer was trying to voice her moral outrage and he just replied “could you spank me?”.

    I thought the dedication to Tarkovsky was absolutely superb. I can’t imagine a more effective way of antagonising film geeks :-)

    I was originally planning upon writing 2 more pieces about the film but I think I’ll wait until it comes out on DVD as there’s stuff in it I need to rewatch.

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