Reviewing films by Lars von Trier is the world’s easiest task, as most of the critics reviewing Antichrist have now proven. Here’s the formula: state that von Trier is self-important, bold, a provocateur, a misogynist, depressed, a Catholic, a “bad boy,” a master at filmmaking, has never been to the United States, and that his films divide audiences. Take these, shuffle, and sprinkle across Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005), and now Antichrist (2009). (In this review, I will refrain from even mentioning those things.)
But then again, this is in large part von Trier’s fault for continuing to make films with the same structure: strong lead woman confronts a male-dominated establishment and loses—usually her life.
I am not sure I want to defend von Trier and the view of the world he presents, but I do want to defend the style in which he has been able to master audience response: In other words, the “provocateur” part. Like few filmmakers working today, von Trier’s films provoke. Crucially, they provoke discussion, that lauded liberal democratic principle. Some of the more astute reviewers of his work recognize this and while they may not look favorably on his films as films, they nonetheless highlight this dimension of his filmmaking abilities. Roger Ebert says it best at the end of his review of Manderlay: “the arguments afterward will be the real show. Many moviegoers are likely to like the film less than the discussions it drags them into.” The same could be said in reviews of his other films. (Indeed, my review of Dancer in the Dark several years ago, said the same kind of things.)
In other words, the film Saw and its sequels are every bit as sickening as Antichrist (Saw VI and Antichrist share the same general US release date: October 23), but most Saw viewers don’t spend much time discussing the intricacies of the plotline, the structure of the film (the question: “do I saw my own foot off or not?” basically amounts to 30 seconds of discussion), or, more importantly, the implications of the film for their own lives.
Further, we won’t find many reviews of Saw VI in “highbrow” publications like Artforum (whose October issue presents an excellent critique of Antichrist by Elizabeth Castelli). The New York Times barely gives more than a paragraph to some of the Saw films, Roger Ebert doesn’t mention them, and they aren’t found in Religion Dispatches, for that matter. Somehow, von Trier gives graphic horror (call it even, “torture porn”) a point of conversation. People are prone to discussion after Antichrist; not so much after Saw. The obvious reason for this is that von Trier has positioned himself as an “art house” director, and art house audiences love to talk.
But there’s more to it than this; it also owes a debt to von Trier’s fellow countryman, Søren Kierkegaard, whose “indirect method” of writing aimed to provoke his readers into finding the “truth” for themselves. Kierkegaard continually expressed his debt to the Socratic method of asking provoking questions so that the individual would discover the answers her/himself. This, Kierkegaard liked to express, is called the maieutic (Greek: “birth giving”) approach, and oftentimes requires the author/artist to take on a pseudonym in order to get readers to think differently about what is presented to them.
Socrates, like Kierkegaard, likened himself to a “midwife” in terms of assisting in the giving of knowledge. A midwife doesn’t give birth, but enables the delivery of birth. Socrates and Kierkegaard, likewise, never aimed to give birth themselves. Truth cannot be spoken directly, it is not a “thing” which can be given from one person to another in propositional language, but can only be birthed by an individual, aided by others. To encourage and promote someone else to gain knowledge is a tricky thing that relies on good questions and good stories. The reader/viewer must feel the questions within themselves, and then seek to find answers that are relevant within. This is not as individualistic as we moderns might want to believe, as we are always guided by forces cultural, religious, and economic.
And it is why we humans need myths and stories: to narrate meaning to us, to provide us with glimpses of truth in fleshed-out form. It is like staring at stars at night, and how we cannot see the distant ones when we stare at them directly but only when we squint and look slightly off, indirectly. Answers are not direct, A to Z, multiple choice, true or false, but embedded in stories, seen sideways, slightly ajar. Squabbles over whether “Adam and Eve” really existed or not, an attempt at a directed historical stare, miss the point of the story. We are all somehow Adam and Eve. That is the truth. To see indirectly is to realize that the truth is “within.”
Von Trier plays with this indirect method within Antichrist, as “He” (the unnamed character played by Willem Dafoe) plays his role as therapist, attempting to get “She” (played wonderfully by Charlotte Gainsbourg) to come to the truth within herself. He plays the rational/masculine role, while she plays the emotional/irrational/feminine role. And thus the Socratic method travels the years to become the psychoanalytic one as well. But this gets irrupted.
Significantly, within the film, the term “within” is what He refuses to say, in spite of the film audience quite clearly mouthing the words in a crucial scene when She is trying to figure out where the fear comes from. He tells her it is not “out there” (meaning, in the forest, or the garden around the cabin), “It’s… it’s…” and he hesitates. It’s “here” he says, but he doesn’t say, as we all expect him to, “it’s within.” But we know that’s what is meant.
Fear, like truth, is within.
This pivotal scene in Antichrist is not unlike the stance of von Trier himself in relation to the film.
We, the audience, are given a clue to the meaning of Antichrist in von Trier’s widely-recited exclamation at a recent press conference at Cannes after a screening of Antichrist: “I am the best film director in the world.” This tells us he loves to provoke, that he loves fabulous stories (about himself, about others), and most certainly that he has a messed up view of himself. Yet, what almost all critics have failed to include was what followed that line. The full quote went like this: “I am the best film director in the world. I’m not sure if God is the best God in the world.” In one sentence arrogance and provocation, in the other protest, questioning. This “He”—this therapist, this filmmaker, this Creator God—is a bastard.
In the end, Antichrist is a condemnation of the world, of nature, of human nature, and of the God who puts a man and a woman together in a garden called Eden. It is a reversed creation myth, anti-cosmic, anti-Christic. And here it is another nineteenth-century philosopher who stands behind von Trier: Friedrich Nietzsche and his 1895 book Anti-Christ, and its condemnation of the Christian God that is so against nature. Von Trier may think himself godlike (which decent filmmaker or artist hasn’t been enthralled and/or plagued by this thought?), but he means to condemn the God that creates in the way He has.
I’ll have more to say about Antichrist next week on RD’s pages; and not once will I mention his provocative, depressed, misogynist nature.