Antichrist is not an enjoyable experience, but it does make a small and permanent place in your brain afterward. Lars von Trier wrote the script in the middle of a profound depression, and I’d comfortably wager much of the audience response splits between those who’ve gone through depression or intense mourning and those who’ve yet to have the pleasure.
In the interpretation that makes sense to me, much of the film comes down to the struggle between the Lacanian/Zizekian Symbolic and the Real. The Real in this definition (as least what I’ve grasped of it) is impenetrable, only perceived as chaos. We experience it as traumatic kernels hiding within the symbolic order – think of a basic life definition, which this film plays with like a feral cat with a dead mouse: Man and Woman. Individuals with male genitalia are Men, defined by a set of attributes and (more importantly) their lack of another set of attributes that have been assigned to those with female genitalia, who are Women because they lack the male-assigned attributes.
These gendered definitions usually work well enough, as most people don’t encounter many others who don’t make the effort to fit them. But picture their discomfort and even disgust at meeting a male or female transvestite, or outright horror if they were to learn someone they were close to had been born of the opposite gender or hermaphroditic. Hello, traumatic kernel.
The general response – the psychologically healthy one, you could argue – to one of these kernels is to either reject them out of hand as something perverse and thus unworthy of attention, or to examine the sense of disquiet and eventually incorporate the disturbing thing into a more complicated definition of life’s essential truths. Neither approach gets a person closer to the Real, of course, but the Real is made of madness and should be avoided. That space is left blank on purpose, as the form tells us.
The fact that the laws of physics we experience on Earth seem to be consistent across as much of the universe as we’ve been able to observe convinces me that there’s probably some overarching logic or meaning to the universe (thank you, Carl Sagan). What that meaning might be, no human has any hope of grasping. It’s too big, and too impersonal, and frankly as terrifying as it is comforting. So, for my own sanity, I generally stop at ‘there’s some order out there.’
The film, like nearly all organised religions since a breed of sociopathic prehistoric apes lost some body hair, takes on reproduction and death, two forces in human existence that shred the boundaries between the relatively comfortable Symbolic order and the Real. It seems that whoever can take those living nightmares and trap them in a logical order will win the big prize, but no one’s claimed it yet. The Antichrist of the title, a couple’s very young son, escapes from his crib and falls to his death while his parents are distracted with passionate lovemaking, plunging the two of them into intolerable torment. Sex and Death, Freud’s chocolate and peanut butter, in beautiful slow-motion.
He seeks to escape his grief by focusing on that of his wife. He’s a medication-hating psychiatrist, the embodiment of order imposed upon the chaos of human experience. She’s younger and an academic, already half driven mad by her own intense study of witch hunts. Her grief is mostly insanity, directly staring into the Real, and her guilt doesn’t allow her to contextualise that ugliness back into the Symbolic’s order without some crushing punishment. She’s probably wise to accept her doctor’s deadening medication, providing the only reprieve possible, but accepts her husband’s judgement that he can fix her with words, instead.
Her state of mind was familiar to me. When I was a teenager, my only sibling committed suicide. Already struggling with many of the same issues that drove him to it, I was simultaneously thrust into a terrifying adult world in which anyone can die at any time and suddenly expected to live up to every family expectation in order to make up for his death – my resounding success in every area (and production of grandchildren) would make his suicide, and the inherent rebuke to their parenting, symbolically nullified.
By which I’m saying, people respond to grief with varying levels of insanity, and I believe the way that Death is removed from ordinary life in the modern world, something to be shoved aside and spoken of in hushed, almost ashamed tones, has only made those responses crazier.
He looks for ways to bring her away from the terror of loss and the absence of any mental safety by imposing a Symbolic order, represented by a pyramid of words – at the top will be her true fear, which he will force her to confront, and then, badda bing, she’ll be back in the orderly land with him. It’s quite likely he’s aware on some level that this is an impossible task, and hopes it’ll be a lifelong quest that keeps him safely in the role of carer, not grieving father.
She confesses her nightmares of their rustic cabin and the woods surrounding it, so he takes her there. Even as he sees the harshness she justifiably fears (a beautiful deer which turns to reveal a malformed, stillborn fawn still half-trapped inside, a fox consuming itself which informs him that “chaos reigns”), he insists more stridently on his sense of order, seeing her as the chaos she confronts.
In a key moment, she tells him that the acorns constantly raining down on the tin roof make her unbearably sad, because an oak tree only needs one of these in a hundred years to germinate in order to propagate itself. The abundance of acorns, except for that one in a billion, exist solely to be consumed by other life, by the other ones in a billion that were able to go from potential to actual. It’s obvious she sees her son, and herself, as those extraneous acorns. In my experience, the only way to get through this state of mind – which is not inaccurate, just impossible to sustain while retaining sanity – is to stay away from sharp things while looking at the chaos until it loses all meaning, until the inadequate descriptive words allow the Symbolic to mercifully creep up over it.
Her husband, instead, tells her that’s the dumbest thing he’s ever heard, and tries to make her accept nature by walking in the tall grass outside the cabin. His desperate need to save his shattered wife and unacknowledged bruised ego (after all, as the older and more educated partner, he’s right, she should listen and accept his view) merge into a disastrous effort to force order onto grief, even as he loses his own grip.
Unfortunately, it soon comes out that she had started to lose her sanity several months before their son’s death, in that cabin, confronting the Real more distantly: the hysteria that drove entire communities to torture and murder their own neighbors. She began with the assertion that it was “gynocide,” the killing of women, the attempt to destroy subversive femininity via the symbolic murder of these real women and leave behind only the cowed and controlled. In isolation, with only her pre-verbal son and these images for company, her view began to shift – if these men were evil, because humanity is at its dark heart a nasty brutal thing, are not woman, as human beings, equally evil? In that sense, didn’t those tortured women deserve death, as things equally evil to the men putting them to death?
Thus we get our second example of why it’s a Very Bad Thing to try to contextualise the harsh chaos of the Real into a neat philosophical context. Logic is just as brutal, in its own way, as nature.
For instance, it might be logical to move from this discussion of the sad but sane-ish chapters to the brutal one Antichrist is infamous for by defining the maiming and murder as the abandonment of the Symbolic order for the immediate physical experience, a closer approximation of the Real. I’d argue, however, that the torture and murder only go deeper into the Symbolic order, to the depths of the human soul that believe in sacrifice to appease forces beyond their control.
Destroying part, perhaps the best part, of what a person valued was a way to let destructive chaos into the small area of imposed order in the hopes that this would fill some cosmic chaos quota, and leave the rest of the life untouched. When this impulse provokes more psychopathic impulses, like the torture or ritual murder of a chosen victim, the meaning behind it was more direct, simply an attempt to provoke a reaction from the indifferent beyond by violating the consciously and unconsciously held rules: look what we’ve done, respond to us, even if it’s to fry us all with lightening. Don’t withhold meaning any longer.
This new level begins as she seems to have turned a corner, begun to reconstruct a sense of life and her place in it that keeps the terror of reality at bay. He turns spiteful, from lack of control over this breakthrough and from the fear that he’ll now have to face his own grief, and viciously attacks her with words. This escalates quickly, from forced sexual intercourse (her on him, as many of their sexual encounters have been throughout the grieving process) to torture, to attempted murder and actual murder. They visit horrors on each other, and hers in particular spiral as each act, so terrible and transgressive it must force a response from the powers that be and end her torment, provokes nothing. No punishment and thus no meaning falls from the sky or crawls up from the earth.
In the end, all reproductive possibilities brutally destroyed in both, there is only survival. The final scene, his vision of a crowd of faceless women streaming past him to Eden, has been decried as misogyny, of admittance that she was right, that women are evil and will return to a primal horror that lives in their base souls if men push too close. Putting aside the question of big-E Evil, I think it’s more interesting that this is his vision, women like his wife who he can not only not save but now not even comprehend simple facial expressions.
He’s a man who’s dedicated his life to penetrating the human psyche, a grief-stricken father who felt confident he could not only understand but fix his wife’s internal workings. Here, he emerges as a broken person who has walked into and – barely – out of his own and his wife’s hearts of darkness. The truly crushing realisation: he has gained no understanding of deeper truths, only new grief, and has lost the ordered structure that gave life any meaning at all.