by Rob White
From Film Quarterly Autumn 2009, Vol. 63, No. 1
Antichrist (Lars von Trier)
Eric Rohmer’s films are undervalued. Certain objections recur in the sparse English-language commentary: repetitive, socially conservative, cerebral, uneventful, religiously inclined, reliant on the arcane twists and turns of well-heeled conversation, visually unimaginative. The director’s own remarks compound the difficulty. Interviewed by Graham Petrie for this magazine (summer 1971), Rohmer said: “my films are more like reading than like watching a spectacle, they are made more to be read like a book than seen like something on the stage.”
In their reassessment, Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit do not overlook Rohmer’s visuals, noticing moments which “break discourse” and leave language behind. Consider their commentary on A Summer’s Tale. Gaspard and Margot are philosophizing during a coastal stroll. “My only problem with a group,” he says, “is not how to communicate but how to be.” She moves out of shot, scoffing a little. He carries on—“I’m transparent, invisible; I see others, they don’t see me”—glancing up and down, hands in pockets. Rohmer splits the couple and so Gaspard’s feeling of separation is visualized. Behind him the tide is low, the horizon is hazy, a gentle breeze shakes the vegetation. If this were a painting, it might be said that he stands “against” a background of ferns, sea, and sky. That is, however, an antagonistic way of describing what Bersani and Dutoit call “a moment of being with nature,” in which Gaspard is “integrated, without seeming to be aware of it, into the huge seascape behind him.” In a way, the shot emphasizes isolation, even ostracism. Yet it also shows that he belongs to a wider world in which language and society do not matter very much.
Rohmerian talk is often cruel. In The Green Ray, Delphine is mocked and cajoled. She is even castigated for reticence: “Express! We want you to express yourself!” (“I’m willing to be aggressive to help my friends,” explains the speaker, Béatrice.) It is true that Delphine is rather vague. During a holiday meal, her defense of vegetarianism is shambolic and contradictory—she says lettuce is like a friend and conversely “very far removed … much more remote from me than meat”—and later this muddle prompts a spiteful rejoinder from a companion: “You’re a plant!”
Delphine withdraws, preferring to play with the children. Later she walks alone, touching the foliage as she follows a country path. There is no speech here, though the fierce wind picks up noisily. She sat and wept after Béatrice’s lecture and now she weeps again among swaying trees. Why? Perhaps she remembers the jibes. Or perhaps, indifferent as she is to discussion and debate, she peculiarly lacks the protection of language and sociability—and so cannot defend against a demonstration of what Bersani and Dutoit call, in relation to a strikingly similar event in Boyfriends and Girlfriends, “a universe that owes nothing to human talk about human feelings.” We contemplate “a lostness outside of talk,” like the solitude which is more benignly evident in A Summer’s Tale. Bersani and Dutoit move past the impasse in Rohmer criticism by offering what can be called an ecological analysis, in which the way characters are visibly situated in natural environments is just as important as psychology or topics of conversation.
Conversation is crueller still in Antichrist. After the death of Nic, their toddler son, a therapist and his partner go to Eden, a cabin in the woods, to improvise treatment. (Man and woman are never named; they are simply “He” and “She” in the credits.) He believes they can dispel the trauma underpinning her grief through crazy, exhausting therapy involving role-playing, gnostic debate (she is a researcher into witchcraft and “gynocide”), and compulsive sex. Extreme violence ensues.
This Eden is a grotesque kind of paradise. A clearing near the cabin looks like it has been hit by a comet; a blasted tree stump shows no signs of life. There are weird animals: a deer with a protruding stillborn baby, an eviscerated fox, an unkillable bird. Less eye-catching occurrences add to the impression of a world gone terribly wrong. As the man investigates the woman’s troubling attic archive, we cut to branches breaking off a sturdy tree. The rainstorm outside cannot satisfactorily account for the fractures; it is as if some demon were protesting the intrusion. What rules this horrible place? “Nature is Satan’s church,” the woman murmurs. It is one of many portentous statements in Antichrist and, though spoken without conviction, it seems plausible. More interesting is the possibility that magic is at work—that she has actually learned witchcraft and is capable of casting an alarm-system spell on those branches.
This is, however, also a film that draws attention to its own technology. Anthony Dod Mantle’s marvelous cinematography utilizes a variety of lighting effects, color palettes, and digital manipulations. Antichrist begins and ends in slow-motion black-and-white; sometimes the woods look like a bleached-out hell of razor wire while at others they are verdant and twinkling; videogame aesthetics vie with Old Master iconography. Changeability and artificiality define the machine-made look of the film’s environment; its monsters owe their existence to CGI and animatronics (“animals in this motion picture were handled by professionals and/or computerized”).
Important to Antichrist‘s intricate, symmetrical structure is a series of encounters between the man and the marred creatures, notably the fox. The couple is walking through dense bracken. As in A Summer’s Tale, the woman wanders offscreen. He moves toward rustling ferns and the wind gusts—as in The Green Ray—just before he sees the animal, which chews at its stomach wound and then … speaks: “Chaos reigns.” It should be a horrifying moment, but at more than one screening I attended, the audience laughed, surely indicating the fundamental unscariness of anthropomorphism, even when it is accompanied by autophagia. Antichrist is arguably least shocking when its macabre world is humanized. (See also the woman’s screaming face flashed up over blurry landscape outside a train window; the shot in which she turns green; the stump’s “strange kind of personality”; his role-play as “Mr. Nature”; arms entangled with tree roots during one of the last sex scenes.)
There is one sequence, an encounter the woman has with nature, which is different. She reminisces about an earlier stay at Eden and a flashback begins: while she is making a scrapbook of witch pictures she hears crying, rushes out, discovers Nic playing happily, continues frantically to search. In close-up she looks upward and, after a tilt which masks a cut, the image is a forest panorama. The sourceless cry continues. Does all of nature now have this plaintive voice? But no: before the shot dissolves to the back of the woman’s head, the crying subsides completely. Nothing now intrudes on the sight of countless, mindless trees stretching out forever under a bright sky.
Once silent, is this a tranquil or a frightening shot? And where is the wilderness supposed to be, for it is certainly not anywhere in the woman’s line of sight? It is—to use Delphine’s word—the most remote image in Antichrist. There is no visible human presence. No emotion, no language. After the enigmatic cry has ended and we can only see the forest and the sky, we are for an instant as close as we ever get, amid all the pomp and histrionics of Antichrist, to the intensity and strangeness of Delphine’s lonely sorrow at being in a world which is radically unlike its thinking, talking inhabitants.