There are thirty-one minutes left in the film, and I cannot bear to watch. Instead, I scroll through the remainder, seeing still image sequences that allow me to construct the story’s ending in abstract. I am afraid of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist.

What am I afraid of? I feel that I am being shown the truth about human/nature, and I long for a more childish ending.I feel viscerally that my own sense of mythical purity is in danger. I am protective of my capacity to decide whether or not to watch the ending. The film sent me signals that seemed toxic to my own self-management. The ur-spring of my conventional decency is threatened by some demigodish light or filmic honesty. I can only proceed in small doses.

I finish the film only by controlling the pause button. What a Beautiful Soul I am! …[sigh]

In the beginning of Antichrist, opera and slow motion caress a fragile audience. Because the audience doesn’t know how fragile (and ignorant) it will be shown to be, how intensely the film might penetrate our distant/dichotomous psyches, Von Trier takes care in the Prologue to establish an aesthetic and ethical relationship with audiences. The Prologue is shot in black and white, impeccably lit; but in hindsight, the scene is also a critique of the gentleness and childish myth-making role of consumerist cinema. Von Trier’s ironical palette in the Prologue is not without intense reverence and genuine appreciation — after all, he dedicates the film to Andrei Tarkovsky, for whom black and white cinema was a gold standard. Rather, Von Trier utilizes high symbols of film culture — opera and black and white cinematography —  as a technique for managing expectations of an ethico-aesthetic relationship between director and audience.

Von Trier goads the audience deeper and deeper into his portal, with utmost consideration for our nerves. In the hospital scene, however, the persistent camera zooms in on the murky turbulence of water inside a vase — a key moment. The flowers in the vase have been ripped from their place of belonging. However, as the camera zooms further and further, beyond the boundary of the glass vase, the audience is taken into the vase. From that vantage, any claim as to where the flowers belong is ambiguous, or undecidable. For me, the transition into the vase functions as a boundary-dissolving  philosophical statement, that the subject of this film is the hybrid realm of what I will call “human/nature.”

In this hybrid realm, boundaries separating diegetic world from actual world are ambiguous and permeable, as are boundaries separating fantasy from fact, power from submission, and human behavior from animal and ecosystem dynamics.

The grief process explored in Antichrist can only be adequately described through a systems analytic. There are hormonal aspects that seem gender specific, molecular aspects (pharmaceutical drugs), linguistic instruments (psychoanalysis), “oeconomical” contexts (hospital, home, cabin), and a deep ecological order that connects the psyche of the characters to animals, plants, and terrain. The question of whether or not the animals, plants, and terrain are actual or fantastic is part of an underdetermined film ontology.

As the film progresses, the increasing importance of the motif of gynocide in the Inquisition — where thousands of women were tortured and put to death for exemplifying the allegedly defiling characteristics of women — opens up questions about autuerian intent. What is Von Trier doing allowing this woman to become possessed? But wait, what kind of paternalistic view of film asks such a question? Like the torturous iconography adorning the cabin attic walls, the destruction of souls depicted in this cinematic world provokes a response from its victims and perpetrators alike. On this viewing, Von Trier shares in a powerful, on-going struggle among audiences and characters in the history of film. The auteur theory meets a systems analytic. Critical questions of the writer/director’s capacity for self-determination and portrayal of truth ensue: is Von Trier a tyrant? A misanthrope? A curmudgeon? Or is he taking great compassionate care to show us what deep shit we are in, as Zizek would say? On the latter reading, the auteur is a philosopher operating beyond good and evil, showing us some major problem or major task that must be taken seriously.

Antichrist is full of  horror and grief shared differentially among men and women. Here, in the midst of complex passion, human/nature as the Garden of Eden is nothing more than a children’s story that foregrounds such unspeakable cruelty, such a terrible fate! Who can deny that the proposition “Nature is Satan’s Church” seems true in the circumstances of inconsolable grief depicted in Antichrist? However, when Gainsbourgh’s character is possessed by the culminating truth of this proposition, the force of that conviction alters all the systemic relationships connecting bodies, ecosystems, and cosmic forces. Suddenly the distraught woman, once dominated by the disciplines of pharmaceuticals and psychoanalysis, begins negotiating with a deeper symbolic order, one that yields phenomena indistinguishable from demonic possession and satanic power over nature. Animals from the woods lay at her feet; she mutilates the body of her analyst; in a flashback the camera portrays her willfully choosing the death of her child.

These are powers that are conventionally kept in check by rationality and conventional institutions of moral order or civilized conduct. What Antichrist depicts is the unleashing of these primordial historical forces at the extremes of the normal, i.e. in conditions of extreme grief over the accidental death of a child.

These are deep, volatile issues to be depicting on film, to say the least. It is no wonder that Von Trier provokes such strong reactions from audiences!

Despite the trust I have as a viewer, at this point, that my creative mind is fabricating a visceral experience of horror from the un-reality of the film’s diegetic world, I also have an utterly convinced sense of Antichrist as parrhesia.

“For, as we shall see, the commitment involved in parrhesia is linked to a certain social situation, to a difference of status between the speaker and his audience, to the fact that the parrhesiastes says something which is dangerous to himself and thus involves a risk, and so on.” (Michel Foucalt, Discourse and Truth lecture 1, see link above)

Von Trier makes a statement with Antichrist: I myself am of this and that opinion about human/nature; I believe we are uncovering the truth about human/nature. Importantly, the revelation of this truth places everyone at risk — the director, the characters, the actors, audiences, et cetera. Antichrist seems to assault the present moment with a weighty sense of fearful volatility and uncertain directionality. It seems to speak beyond itself, to a domain of world history whose outcome is not looking good.

“That’s all very touching…if it was a children’s book.” …

But it’s not a children’s book, says Von Trier. I could have made a children’s book version of my opinion, but the only place for that version is in the Prologue. The Prologue appropriates the fearful and mysterious Power of manifestation for an audience of children; but it does so in a transparent style that hints at the fearless speech to follow.  The strategies of film-making and culture-formation devised to edify consumerists are not appropriate for conveying my impressions. I am concerned with the big questions of philosophical history: how can mankind be saved, if such a question can even be asked, given the mysterious complexity of human/nature that continues to elude adequate portrayal in film?

If my view of Von Trier’s attitudes is somewhat accurate, then Antichrist is a prolegomenon framing any utopian strategies for the long-term salvation of human/nature. It is also a very serious discussion of the difficulty of reconciling demands of consumerism in film with the artistic demand to develop new idioms in a more divine/philosophical register.

When the main characters make the following exchange, I view Antichrist as a parrhesiastic documentation of a crisis moment in the philosophy of film.

“Your grief has entered a new phase….Anxiety.”

“Will it get worse?” …

“Yes.”

In the context of the religious symbolism that structures much of the film, the only Garden of Eden of any importance to film as a medium is the one that might exist in the future once these tensions between consumerism and development of more realistic idioms advances. The grief of the characters is thus also a sublimation of the limited identity of the consumerist audience.  The grief of the characters penetrates the dichotomous separation of audience from auteur — an invitation to appreciate the tension between consumerism and development of new idioms in film. In the meantime of this grieving process there is a choice for the auteur/ensemble and audiences between stories for children and divinely volatile stories that speak meaningfully to humans who pretend to be consumerist demigods.

It is the very urgency of the historical situation of mankind that prompts Von Trier to point out our fragility. If audiences cannot watch Antichrist and cope with its content, is there any indication that global citizens have the capacity to witness history and improve its outcome through collective action? What language of images could even begin to coalesce a new cultural imagination that strengthens and reconstitutes the Darwinian consciousness? While cinema has often been treated as a site of political activism, I find Von Trier’s approach to be something like a prolegomenon to any such role for cinema given the true ferocity, atrocity, and fragility of human/nature.

I could not watch the last thirty-one minutes of Lars Von Trier’s devastating diegetic world. Not at first. I took it in small doses, a few minutes at a time. I suppose the ending of Von Trier’s film seemed toxic to my system when viewed in real-time. It is precisely this perceived toxicity that made me appreciate the Prologue, with its slow motion and black and white cinematography. I did, however, finish the film. Two thumbs up.

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