Sunday, 2 August 2009

Chaos Reigns: Lars von Trier - Antichrist

Twenty-five years after the video nasties act, Lars von Trier's latest film, Antichrist, has shown conclusively that, now at least, the British Board of Film Classification (responsible for drawing up the notorious 1983 list of over 70 banned horror films) is now a more liberal and enlightened judge than the entire critical and juridical establishment of the Cannes film festival. While the BBFC sees Antichrist's more explicit images as "exceptionally justified, in this context, by the manner in which they illustrate the film's themes and the nature of the couple's relationship," the critics and jurors at Cannes found themselves frothing at the mouth in the style of the hapless victims of Lamberto Bava's Demoni, "The film must be stopped!" It may be instructive, in this context, to compare the film to another film by a Danish director from eighty-five years earlier, Benjamin Christensen's Häxan (occasionally subtitled "Witchcraft Through the Ages"). Häxan traverses very similar territory, comparing the treatment of women during the witch trials of early modern Europe to the modern day treatment of women in the psychiatric clinic, and asking, have we really come so far? Like von Trier's film, Häxan is split into chapters and a prologue and freely mixes fantasy and 'reality' (even calling itself a "documentary") without clearly distinguishing between the two. Perhaps von Trier's most astonishing acheivement with Antichrist is to have effectively replayed a scene from Häxan, in which a convent of nuns are seen in the grip of a wild collective hysteria, not in the film itself, but at the Cannes festival, swapping impressionable young nuns for supposedly mature and respectable elder statesmen of the film industry. More recently, I have seen reports on the web of critics who, having booed and jeered with the pack at Cannes, have now seen the film again, and found themselves forced to admit that it really is quite a brilliant film, and wondering quite what came over them at that initial screening. Also, like Häxan, in which the part of the devil is played by Christensen himself, one should be in no doubt as to who the 'antichrist' of the title is - as the sequence of credits makes almost comically clear it is von Trier (perhaps we could even compare the now notorious interview in which von Trier repeatedly attempts to insert the words "is the greatest director in the world" into Willem Dafoe's answers, to a scene in Häxan in which young witches are seen kissing the devil's backside).

Since seeing the film in Paris a few weeks ago, I have become strangely obsessed with reading critical reports on the film, if only because so many of them seem to thoroughly misguided. Christopher Hart's Daily Mail piece, in which he repeatedly calls for the films censorship despite admitting he hasn't seen it, is almost too true to form for the Mail, scarcely even a newspaper, more a comic for Nazis. Even stranger in some ways, was Sean O'Hagan's assertion in The Guardian that the film contains a "critique of psychoanalysis." presumably because at one point Gainsbourg's character says, "Modern psychology has no place for dreams. Freud is dead, right?" Can such an experienced journalist really be so stupid to confuse a line spoken by one of a film's characters with the controlling idea of the film? Especially when everything we see directly contradicts the line? The assertion that "Freud is dead," in a film so full of resurrections and disinterments, is clearly meant to be ironic, and if "modern psychology has no place for dreams" then that is, no doubt, modern psychology's problem, for this film is totally suffused with dream images, and Dafoe's character's complaint of bad dreams is an omen the couple ignore most foolishly. In fact, this film is an attack on the phallogocentrism of 'modern' cognitive behavioural therapy (such is the occupation of Dafoe's character) and psychoanalytic theory is its chief weapon in this attack.

There seems to be a real desire to strike out at von Trier, the arch-provocateur, in a fashion somewhat akin to the tendency of the thick kid in the class to beating up their most openly verbose and intellectually precocious classmates. The insistence on the part of Ads Without Products that the film represents an idealised, Europeanised vision of America because 'real' Americans don't have log cabins in the woods, far from the road, is particularly odd. For if this log cabin reminds us of anything it is nothing in European culture but, of course, Jacques Renault's log cabin (also in the woods of the Pacific Northwest) in Twin Peaks (I also seem to remember that a certain Henry David Thoreau had a little log cabin, far from the road, out by Walden Pond, and James M. Cain inserts just such a cabin into the middle third of Mildred Pierce - but no doubt Cain, Thoreau and Lynch aren't really real Americans either). This is far from the only Lynchian touch in Antichrist (the precise use of close-ups to render familiar objects and body parts strange and uncanny being the most obvious) and no doubt the reference is not accidental. And then there is the gallimaufry of accusations of misogyny, almost entirely from male critics (the one exception - at least as far as I'm aware - being Julie Bindel, who curses the film for the apparent absence of rationale and logos, the very object of the film's critique). Calling this intense and patiently researched analysis of anti-feminism (what other film have you ever heard of feature a credit for "research on misogyny") a misogynist film is of a kind to the recent accusation that comic Richard Herring's current show about racism (entitled "Hitler Moustache") is in fact racist. Is it racist for a white comic to to tackle racism in his show? No, I don't think so. Victims, as Alain Badiou says in his book on St. Paul, have no privileged access to the truth. As Rifa Bhunoo points out, dismissing Herring's show as racist is a means of sidestepping debate, acting as though the issue is no longer relevant or unworthy of serious attention. There is a kind of Boris Johnson logic at work here - cancelling an anti-racism free festival in London on the grounds that London does not have a racism problem and therefore to have such a festival is only inciting racial tension. The horror of these male critics at Antichrist is the horror of castration - the very fear that, according to psychoanalysis, animates man's fear of women. It is for this reason, I believe, that the BBFC had no issues with the film's more graphic moments. The British censor understood that the theme of the film, its subject (but certainly not its intent) was misogyny, and an intensive and in depth exploration of a long history of violence towards women, like Häxan, from the witch trials to the therapautic clinic, and as such to skip or gloss over the fear of castration and the reality of cliterodectomy (emphasized by their structural mirror image: the healthy, thrusting organs of the opening scene) would be almost more offensive than their inclusion.