Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Von Trier's Antichrist: The rational masculine, the primal feminine

I saw Antichrist recently, and at the time, I told myself it was mostly just an obligatory gesture to the cinema scene. Like Enter the Void, it was so much discussed, inciting such controversy, that I figured I should at least give it a go so I wouldn't feel too out of the loop. I'm glad I saw it -- turns out the reason it stirred people up so much is that aside from the provocation, there's a lot there to think about. The foremost is the film's position in terms of gender politics, and though this is the conversation that's been most covered, I think it's far from exhausted.

It strikes me that so much of the discussion of Antichrist alleges that it's misogynist, which seems like a totally misplaced criticism to me... in fact, the type of criticism that could only come from someone already invested in the patriarchy to begin with. Antichrist is, in fact, a highly self-aware film about gender relations on a broad scale, and it demonstrates a certain tortured sensitivity that more traditionally "feminist" films may lack. To see how this works, however, you have to start by understanding where the film is coming from (giving it the "benefit of the doubt," as it were).

Antichrist is not about breaking down or disrupting essentialist assumptions. It's not about showing that women can do what is traditionally ascribed to men, nor about lubricating the slippery contact between physical sex and gender identity. Those are more traditional routes for feminist mass media to take -- Disney films and action movies showing that women can make effective warriors, art-house pictures breaking up our stereotypes of masculinity and offering criticism of the heteronormative order. Nay, indeed, Antichrist works within a symbolically essentialist universe, where masculinity and femininity are isolated and represented as embodied symbols ("He" and "She", respectively). In order to appreciate the film's statements, you have to accept this initial premise.

From there, the viewer can start to see some outlines of themes in Antichrist. The relationship between the masculine and the feminine is a paradoxical one, entailing both dependency and competition. Perhaps the most logical way to see Nic, the infant who dies in the film's prologue, is that he is the offspring that unites the masculine and feminine forces -- he is their cease-fire condition. His death creates an irresolvable break between masculinity and femininity, and in this break, we find the nature of each of them, engaged in a complex dialectic that evolves throughout the film. I know there are a lot of pseudo-academic terms there. The fact is, this movie condenses a ton of dynamics that theorists have taken great pains to unpack and investigate.

"She" is rage and depression, the explosive despair of losing everything and having no recourse or path to redemption. She is also the body, the orgasm, the blossoming subconscious. "He" is the rational order, mustering the power of language and reason to distance himself from the tragedy he's just witnessed. His first scene in Act I -- the ritual of the funeral, the patriarchal virtues of solemn silence and respect -- is interrupted by Her fainting, a break from reason that belongs uniquely to those who suffer. From that moment forward, He assumes her psychiatric treatment, attempting to circumscribe her pain within his perspective, his methods, his exposure therapy.

This is the patriarchal offensive. It's not beating or name-calling... it's the incessant attempt to flank her grief, to second-guess her instinctive reactions and control the source of her catastrophic emotions. Even when He says her pain is "natural," that she should work through it, he's attempting to put it in its place. And when He decides to take She to Eden, he is doing something bold and inadvisable -- he's taking her to the source, the veiled epicenter of her fear, frustration and self-loathing. He's taking on an offensive role against the feminine force that She represents. She has to "face it," armed with his composure, in order to tame it.

It's worth taking a moment to consider some of the mythological references in Antichrist. Obviously there's the various Christian signifiers -- Eden, the witch hunts, and the death of the only son. The other major reference here is a story called The Story of the Three Wonderful Beggars, and/or Vasilii the Unlucky, which is an old Russian-Serbian folk tale. You can read the whole thing here, in its Serbian form, which I think is the more useful of its major incarnations. From this, Antichrist draws a number of images -- the three beggars, the tree with something significant hidden in its roots, and crossing a bridge to reach what is essentially a cursed temple.

The three beggars in Antichrist seem to be symbols of a broken order, especially within the feminine. They are all self-destructive (or destructive of their young, which amounts to the same thing in this case). He and She are not approaching a peaceful, balanced feminine spirit... they're approaching the wooded symbol of a shattered, tortured, guilty soul, ready to lash out at whatever force is trying to control it. The beggars in the Serbian myth are an ambivalent force, acting to destroy power of the father in order to preserve the larger patriarchal chain leading from the father to the son. They are heralds of the Oedipal murder. This symbol functions similarly within Antichrist... though the son was part of the male lineage, a token of the patriarchy's continuation, the mother nonetheless loved it, and she mourns and rages for its loss.

This profoundly complex nature of the feminine spirit is thoroughly explored in Antichrist. She is the vengeful antagonist, inconsolable and violent, but she is also complicit. Indeed, She seems to feel herself to be incomplete, which is a consistent theme throughout patriarchal mythologies. The Freudian/Lacanian image of the female was of an entity that felt itself incomplete, lacking a phallus. In Antichrist, She becomes unhinged because her son, to whom she feels connected on a deep, organic level, is ripped from her, as if a part of her body is amputated. Her rage, pushed to its limit, is expressed as a fear of abandonment, and for a short time, She takes control from He, using the coercive power of a millstone and a fucking huge log. At this moment in the film, the moment when She presides over He's mangled body, the sexual order seems reversed through violence, if only for a moment.

The first reason I claim that this film could be read as feminist, rather than misogynist, is that Von Trier acknowledges the power and the validity of certain forces that he associates with the feminine: pure emotion, including rage, despair, and depression; unconditional love for a son, regarding him as a part of oneself, and the desperation that might be experienced upon the loss of something so irreplaceable. Von Trier seems to acknowledge the injustice of trying to rationalize those things, to fix them through inert spiritual/psychological engineering. I believe he understands these things because he's experienced depression, and he knows that from the abyss of despair, it can't just be explained away (whether as a mere medical condition, or with the platitude that "it will get better").

From that point, the film evolves into a story of the ascension of the patriarchy (a sign, to me, that it was meant to be read as a tragedy, like Orwell's 1984). Once She has dominated He and her rage has abated, She makes a desperate, fateful decision, essentially surrendering her power by neutering herself. This is another sign of the ambiguous nature of the feminine, which is emotionally uninhibited but prone to guilt and self-destruction. This event, depicted so provocatively in the film, is the reversal that allows He to destroy her, reestablishing the patriarchal hegemony.

You may see this as a happy ending or a tragic one (nothing in this film is really happy, per se), but you have to acknowledge, this is what everything was leading up to. In all of the references -- Christian mythology, Freudian theory, the Russian folk tale -- the male lineage has to be broken and reforged in order to circumscribe and control the violent, sexual, physically-potent Female figure, which always threatens to rupture the established order. Christ joins the Father, Vasilii replaces Marko, Oedipus murders Laius, and Nic dies so that He can confront and control She's unstable emotions. And in the end, the women are faceless, dressed conservatively, and gathering as He ascends to the top of the hill. The primal feminine has been dominated, and in Eden as in the Western world, order is restored once more.