Friday, 7 August 2009

Leave me to weep - the music of Antichrist

The presence, amongst Antichrist's end credits of "Research on Music" (amongst, similarly, "Research on Misogyny", "Research on Anxiety", "Research on Horror", none of which are mentioned on IMDB), a phrase so different in its implications from the usual, "Soundtrack Coordinator," might give us pause. Especially when we consider that there is only one credited piece of music in the entire film, Handel's aria, "Lascia Ch'io Panga" sung by Almirena in Handel's opera, Rinaldo. This piece of music, we can fairly safely assume, has been chosen with some care. The most obvious connection is on the level of narrative. This particular aria, whose lyrics translate as 'Leave me to weep over my cruel fate, and that I yearn for [or sigh for] freedom,' is sung by a character trapped by a sorceress in an enchanted garden (c.f 'Eden'), begging to be left alone to her self-pity than be rescued by the king of Jerusalem. That most of the male parts, in the original performance of Rinaldo, were taken by castrati, and that this particular aria is most famous to movie-goers from featuring in a film, Farinelli, about a castrato, may have also appealed to Lars von Trier's thematic interests for the film.
It is interesting to note von Trier's insistence, throughout the interview process for this film, that he has been making the same film over and over again throughout his career. For if there were one tune that followed Handel throughout his career, it is this one. Starting life as an instrumental sarabande, a 'dance asiatique', in Handel's first opera, Almira, premiered in 1705 (and is it not the case that Handel's relationship with Asia is not unlike von Trier's with America - a vast exoticised other, known only through traveller's tales and the artifacts of its culture, wrenched from their original context?). In 1707, a lyric version was included in his first oratorio, Il trionfo del Tempo et del Disinganno ('The Triumph of Time and Disillusion'). Sometimes known as La Bellezza ravveduta nel trionfo del Tempo e Disinganno (‘Beauty reformed in the triumph of Time and Enlightenment’), this extended dramatic cantata concerns a four part dialogue, written by cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, between 'Beauty', 'Pleasure', 'Time' and 'Disillusion'. The lyrics to our tune, here Pleasure's lament to the forces of reason and temperance,
"Lascia la spina,
cogli la rosa.
Tu vai cercando
il tuo dolor."
translate as "Leave the thorn, pluck the rose, you go seeking your own pain." This piece was then revised twice: first, in 1937, as Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Verita, and then, in an English translation, The Triumph of Time and Truth, becoming his final work in 1757. Though significant changes were made to the score and its arrangement at each juncture, the sarabande remained. One thing about each of these renditions of this tune, except for that in Rinaldo (i.e. as 'Lascia Ch'io Panga'), is that is always preceded by a faster variation of itself ("Dangerously precarious and slightly frantic," according to Wilfred Mellors) in order to emphasize the very slowness of the sarabande. As though such were necessary! The first thing you notice about this piece of music is its extraordinary, unnatural slowness, like wading through oil - the perfect complement to the super slow-motion of Antichrist's opening scene. 
Of course, whether Almira is in fact the true ur-text of our tune is something of a moot point. Much as von Trier has been pulled up over Antichrist's various borrowings from classic horror films - the isolated log cabin from Evil Dead and Twin Peaks, Willem Dafoe as Final Girl, etc. - so concerns over Handel's 'borrowings' have given sleepless nights to a few Handel scholars, worried that their idol may turn out to be "a wholly unoriginal composer". 'He takes other men's pebbles and polishes them into diamonds' said William Boyce, and so Lars von Trier has taken his thematic tropes from the video nasties and made of them something that is not itself quite a horror film - much as we might argue that Handel's oratorios were not quite oratorios but rather a means of pursuing his true love, opera, via other means once it had fallen out of favour.