In continuing research into the contemporary culture of cruelty, I recently watched Lars Von Trier’s much hyped film Anti-Christ. In many ways Von Trier’s tale, which plays out the story of a couple struggling to come to terms with the death of their son, appears to be a study of a relationship in the process of melting down. However my view is that what the film really captures is a kind of natural history of humanity, filtered through biblical metaphor and sado-masochistic horror. I think that it is this back story that provides the existential meat which enthuses the explicit narrative of the film with so much of its power and makes it a profoundly unsettling viewing experience.
The prologue of the film shows the death of the couple’s son, an accident that occurs in the middle of their sex, highlighting the terrible symmetry of life and death, a theme which thinkers from Plato through Freud to Bataille have understood and returned to obsessively. Confronted with their loss, the two main characters struggle to cope. Chapter 1, Grief, shows Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character suffer psychological collapse, and her husband, played by Willem Dafoe, save himself by retreating into science, reason, and rationality. While Gainsbourg’s character, the child’s mother, grieves, confronting his death, Dafoe’s character seems to hide in his public role as therapist, taking refuge in her feelings of pain and loss, and never confronting his own feelings, which as we discover later on, may not actually exist.
This divergence in the way the two characters approach the problem of death is key because it enables Von Trier to turn them into representations of man and woman in general and tell a tragic story about the history of humanity through the concept of gender, taking in ideas of love, care, madness, and violence. The tragedy of this story, caught in the desperate depiction of man as a kind of Nietzschean demi-God, destined to rise above the world of nature, but totally unable to relate to those around him, is captured in the transformation of love into gynocide and the strange final scene, which shows Dafoe surrounded by a mass of faceless women and children who he is totally unable to relate to or recognise.
That the narrative of the film plays out in the woods, symbol of the Hobbesian state of nature where sex, death, and desire rule, and a site called Eden, referencing the biblical state of perfection and peace before the tragic fall of man, illustrates the wider context of the explicit content of the story. These two contextual frames, the human struggle to overcome nature in order to live in culture, and the biblical story of Adam, Eve, and the Devil who tempts Eve into sin are, of course, interrelated and entwined. But what are these two frames?
The biblical story of Adam and Eve depicts the fall of man from a state of perfection into nature, which is characterised by sex, death, desire, violence, and taboo and originates the drive to find some new form of peace, where humanity can finally overcome its own tortured nature. The Freudian story of civilization brackets out the original moment of perfection focusing instead on the drive to civilize nature, repress desire, and manage the eternal problem of the violent, savage, return of the repressed. In fusing these two stories together the film captures the drama of both, showing how Eden, the biblical state of perfection, always was the Hobbesian state of nature, the scene of horror, in the same way that the perfect Oedipal family, Father, Mother, Child, is always a traumatic triangle of sex, death, and violent struggle.
Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character seems to be acutely aware of the terrible symmetry of edenic perfection and the ultra violence of nature, a recognition captured in her choice of a phobic object, grass, that condenses her fear of the world. Gainsbourg’s mother is horrified by the feeling of grass under foot, terrified of Mother Earth who gives life, brings death, and is merciless in her application of the law of nature. Dafoe’s father figure seems to gain no understanding of the state of nature from the death of his son, but only later in moments which show similar scenes of death in nature, a deer still born, a fallen chick, consumed by a bird of prey, acorns falling, tapping relentlessly on the cabin, reminding Gainsbourg, Dafoe, the viewer of the terrible rhythm of nature, and the truth that life always gives way to death that brings new life and so on.
Gainsbourg’s character experiences nature in a memory of a child crying, a sound that fills the woods, and reflects her horror of the cycle of life and death characterised by grief, pain, and despair. These human responses to the relentless cycle of nature, a cycle which is entirely beyond our control, are offset by feelings of love, desire, and passion. It is the relationship between these two sets of emotions, love, desire, and passion, and grief, pain, and despair, which marks humanity down as a tragic species and leads Gainsbourg to tell Dafoe that nature is Satan’s Church. Satan’s Church, a place of desire, lust, and passion, and the drive to live, the drive to escape from the gravity of nature, offset by the crushing weight of death, and feelings of grief, pain, and despair at our inability to overcome our limit as earthbound creatures.
It is on the basis of a recognition of this tragic condition that the film progresses, showing how Gainsbourg’s recovery, her acceptance of nature, coincides with Dafoe’s collapse, and his struggle with the reality of life, death, and the ultimate futility of the disciplinary enterprise of civilization. Two events confirm this truth for Dafoe’s character. First, he meets a fox in the woods. The fox tells him that ‘chaos reigns’ and in doing so explains that all attempts at understanding and disciplining nature are fated to fail. Second, he revisits the autopsy report into his son’s death that shows a deformity in the child’s feet possibly caused by his mother confusing left and right and mixing his shoes up.
Although this tells us that there is a poor fit between culture and nature, with the former deforming the latter, and that the relationship between love and loss, grief, and pain turns off the failure of this relationship, Dafoe’s character makes a leap to a gendered value judgment. For Dafoe’s character, the classic father of psychoanalysis, representative of culture, what the autopsy report says is that the painful bind between love and loss is caused by the inability of human civilization to properly control nature, and that his other half is somehow implicated in this problematic, as a representative of nature, a flawed agent of culture.
It is at this point in the narrative that the relationship between Dafoe and Gainsbourg’s characters turns violent, with the former viewing the latter’s research into male violence and gynocide, and the latter announcing her masochist belief that women enjoy punishment and discipline. Dafoe’s character disagrees, but what follows depicts the classic psychoanalytic relationship between man and woman, where man represents culture and the desire to escape the world, and woman reflects the gravitational force of nature that seeks to pull him back down to earth. As Dafoe’s character seeks to dominate Gainsbourg’s character through the tools of culture, language and abstract knowledge, so Gainsbourg’s character seeks to control Dafoe’s character through ultra violence, tough love meant to ground him, and prevent him from ever ‘leaving her behind’. This tough love is, of course, paralleled by the infamous scene of genital self-mutilation, which represents Gainsbourg’s desperate attempt to realign herself with the world of culture, and thus her husband, who she has already sought to tie back to nature by driving a grindstone into his leg.
The final scene of the film shows the tragic failure of the couple’s relationship, torn apart by the death of their son, and their recognition of the truth of Jacques Lacan’s statement, ‘there is no such thing as a sexual relationship’. It is the main characters’ inability to accept the truth of this statement from the French psychoanalyst, which means that in any sexual relationship, or perhaps any relationship, each party is sustained by a different fantasy or perspective and that ultimately there is no symmetry, connection, or relationship between these fantasies, that pushes them towards sexual violence, because it is in their moment of loss, grief, pain, and despair that they need each other most.
It is here, in the recognition that now, when she needs him most, he is most distant, that the struggle between man and woman, culture and nature, becomes terminal, and she announces that ‘when the three beggars arrive someone must die’. Since grief, pain, and despair are on the scene, and the sado-masochistic relationship between culture and nature has reached the point of no return, we know that either she will stab him to death, thus ensuring that he will remain with her forever or he will kill her, abandoning her back to nature from where she came. The final moments of the film show the outcome. Dafoe’s character strangles Gainsbourg’s character and he wanders out into the woods to be confronted by a mass of faceless women and children who he cannot recognise or identify with and who speak of his profound alienation from his family, nature, and ultimately his own emotions.
In the late 1880s the great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a book called Anti-Christ in order to announce his belief that some men are born to challenge nature, challenge God, and make their own way in the world. In other works, the figure of the Anti-Christ was represented by the famous Ubermensch or superman who was similarly capable of rising above the world. Like the superman who lived apart from society, Nietzsche was famously never married, had one brief sexual relationship, and remains one of history’s great individualists. Indeed, the Anti-Christ is thought of have been written when Nietzsche was stricken by syphilis, half mad, and totally caught up his own myth. What does this have to do with the cinematic Anti-Christ? I think that Lars Von Trier’s film tells of the other side of Nietzsche’s book. Where Nietzsche celebrates the life of the Anti-Christ, I think that Von Trier’s film is profoundly sociological in that it lays bare the horror of male, or what psychoanalysts might call, phallic individualism and shows what this approach to the world does to man’s relationships with women, children, and ultimately himself.