Falling From Grace

The female Christ figures of Lars von Trier's films
by Joshua Land  posted October 2, 2009
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Antichrist is not Lars von Trier’s best film, but the director is perhaps not wrong in saying it’s his most important; indeed, not least in its status as a naked provocation, it may be his quintessential work. The movie was the sensation of this year’s Cannes festival, where Variety’s Todd McCarthy summed up the general consensus by calling Antichrist a “big fat art-film fart,” suggesting that von Trier was “deliberately courting critical abuse.” The film (which screens at the New York Film Festival Oct. 2 and 3 and opens in the U.S. later this month) reignited two persistent complaints among von Trier’s legions of detractors: 1) that he’s a pretentious fraud whose work is little more than an elaborate hoax and 2) that he’s a misogynist whose fantastical storylines are mere excuses to torment women onscreen.

Von Trier’s dedication of Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky drew catcalls in Cannes, but while it’s hard to imagine the director of The Sacrifice making a film that features hardcore sex, graphic torture, or a fox solemnly informing the audience that “chaos reigns,” the dedication is worth taking seriously as more than a sardonic punchline. Like Tarkovsky, Von Trier has created his own cosmology over a series of films that are, among other things, spiritual melodramas—in Von Trier’s case, often featuring some variety of female Christ figure. Yes, the director’s heroes are often beaten, tortured, or worse, but they’re also repositories of faith, hope, and love that contrast sharply, and favorably, with the cold rationalism of his male characters and the power structures they inhabit.

This current of the director’s work began in earnest with Breaking the Waves (1996), which tells the story of Bess (Emily Watson), a devout young woman who belongs to a fundamentalist church in the Hebrides of Scotland and becomes convinced that her prayers to God to bring her husband, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), home from his job on a seagoing oil rig have caused his debilitating accident. Now paralyzed, Jan tells Bess to go out and take other lovers and then return to tell him about her experiences. Convinced that he will die unless she obeys, Bess follows his instructions, embarking on a sexually degrading odyssey that eventually leads to her excommunication and death—along with Jan’s miraculous recovery. The film ends with the ringing of bells mysteriously suspended in the sky.

It all sounds ludicrous on paper—and many insisted it was no less so on celluloid—but Bess, as realized by Watson in an astonishing performance, burns a hole in the screen and demands to be taken seriously. Bess is a classic Christ figure, sacrificing herself for the good of another, but she’s neither a passive victim nor a madwoman. Even her audible dialogues with God, in which Bess speaks both her own part and his, are not insane ravings but serious attempts to work out moments of emotional and spiritual crisis in the context of her faith, which the film treats as a given.

Breaking the Waves becomes, first and foremost, the story of a woman’s inward spiritual journey, and one’s tolerance for the outward humiliation endured by Bess (and Watson)—including a sequence in which she abruptly strips off her clothes in a mortifying attempt to seduce one of Jan’s doctors, several misadventures involving a pair of bright red vinyl shorts, and a stoning at the hands of a diabolical group of kids—depends on how seriously one is willing to take this notion. Bess’s childlike faith—in God and in her own redemptive mission—becomes the central fact of the film’s story, around which its whole reality becomes arranged. Looked at this way, the miraculous finale grows organically out of what’s come before. The bells are not merely a vague cosmic tribute to Bess but, in the spirit of the miracle that closes Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (a major source of inspiration), an affirmation of her passionate faith over the legalistic orthodoxy of the church that cast her out.

There’s a tendency to interpret such grand gestures, along with von Trier’s stabs of dark humor and moments of jokey self-reflexivity, as cinematic air quotes, evidence that the director doesn’t take his work seriously. But such bits—in Breaking the Waves, an early shot of Bess smiling directly into the camera and the naming of the subject of an unrepentant sinner’s funeral after crew member and future von Trier cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle—can more charitably be interpreted as efforts to prevent heavy metaphysical material from weighing down his films or melodrama from devolving into unwitting comedy. Defensive or not, it's an understandable reaction to the burden of several decades of European art cinema. The director’s characteristic chapter headings and formidable arsenal of visual distancing devices serve a similar purpose, highlighting the allegorical and nonrealistic elements of his screenplays and calling attention to issues of form.

Von Trier’s formal gambits arguably got the better of him in Dancer in the Dark (2000), a fractured musical that repeats a number of elements from Breaking the Waves—most salient, the female Christ figure, this time a factory worker named Selma in 1950s America trying to save enough money for an operation to save her young son from going blind. Seemingly designed to push the melodramatic mode to its breaking point, Dancer hangs on a series of improbable events, relying for its considerable emotional power on von Trier’s visual pyrotechnics and the sui generis performance of Björk (per J. Hoberman, “an automatic alienation effect”) as Selma. Lacking the overtly religious subtext of Breaking the Waves and saddled with the unappealing, blotchy look characteristic of the dark ages of digital-video technology, the film gradually becomes oppressive to watch, not least because of the relentless abuse heaped on Selma. Not for the last time, it was as if von Trier had read the criticisms of his earlier work and sought to make a film to match.

Far more successful, and far more pessimistic in its underpinnings, is the follow-up, Dogville (2003), in which von Trier's Christ figure finally breaks down under the weight of the world’s sins, clearing the way from some Old Testament-style justice. This time, the heroine, Grace (Nicole Kidman), is a fugitive who finds shelter in the small town of Dogville. In return she agrees to work for the townspeople, who exploit her good nature to the point of rape and imprisonment. Yet when Grace’s gangster father shows up at the end of the film, she pleads with him, in a scene that plays in several registers, to withhold his wrath from the townspeople, until—in a remarkable moment that may be the key pivot point of Von Trier’s filmography—she abruptly changes her mind, leading to the destruction of the town and all its inhabitants. Grace has reached her limit.

More transparently allegorical than its predecessors, Dogville takes place on a bare soundstage, with the actors accompanied only by minimal props and décor, along with John Hurt’s ironical narration. Featuring a Fourth of July celebration and a closing montage of Jacob Riis photographs sarcastically set to David Bowie’s “Young Americans,” it was the director’s most overtly political film to date (since surpassed by the quasi-sequel Manderlay, which repeats many of Dogville’s formal and narrative devices to lesser effect). But it’s also Von Trier’s most trenchant portrayal of human evil. The key development, at least prior to the film’s apocalyptic conclusion, is the introduction of a Judas figure in the person of the self-styled philosopher Tom (Paul Bettany), whose ultimate betrayal of Grace for convoluted and selfish reasons seems to be the last straw in provoking the climactic bloodbath. (“Some things you have to do yourself,” Grace remarks after dispatching him with a pistol.) Unlike in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, where the misery inflicted on von Trier’s Christ figures was largely the function of corrupt institutions, evil in Dogville is insidious and pervasive, something endemic to humanity that can be eradicated only through annihilation.

Antichrist explores this darker vision more fully, resulting in the most extreme imagery of von Trier’s career. In contrast to the visual austerity of Dogville, Antichrist confronts the viewer with gore, pornography, shock inserts, talking animals, and other fantastical imagery, as well as variations in film stock and camera style. Eagerly embracing kitsch and inviting ridicule at every turn, von Trier takes a sledgehammer approach that’s almost physically disorienting, weakening our psychological defenses against the relentless corporal and moral violence onscreen.

The film begins with its central couple, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe and identified only as “She” and “He” in the film’s credits, in the throes of prelapsarian bliss, making love passionately as, unbeknownst to them, their young son falls out a window to his death. Scored to Handel but otherwise silent, this black-and-white sequence, to be echoed by another at the film’s end, is the most self-consciously beautiful from Von Trier in nearly two decades; here, the visual lushness represents an ideal state that can never be recovered.

Following the child’s death, the couple retreats to a cabin in the woods (named “Eden”) where the woman had tried and failed the previous year to complete her doctoral thesis, which apparently dealt with the torture and mistreatment of women through history. The Dafoe character, a therapist, treats his wife as just another patient, leading her through various “exercises” to help her process her grief. (His ineffectiveness is mocked in a recurring bit of black comedy that finds him earnestly updating a pyramid-shaped chart of his wife’s psyche.) But the Gainsbourg character rejects his intercessions (those concerned about spoilers are advised to skip to the next paragraph), and in a climactic rampage, we see her masturbating frantically while lying nude on the bare ground, hitting her husband’s genitals with a blunt object and causing him to ejaculate blood, and drilling a metal rod through his leg. She then turns the violence on herself and, in the coup de grace, slices off her own clitoris in an extreme close-up before the Dafoe character recovers enough to strangle her to death.

McCarthy may well have been onto something in his Variety review with his comment about the director’s deliberate courting of critical abuse. If Dogville, whatever its brilliance, was on some level a one-finger salute to critics of Dancer in the Dark who’d excoriated the director’s anti-Americanism and his adamant refusal to visit the United States, then Antichrist can be seen as a similarly acerbic response to accusations of misogyny. Von Trier goes on the offensive from the first frames, pointedly juxtaposing the words “Lars von Trier” and “Antichrist” in the opening titles. Having tipped his cap to his enfant terrible persona, the director delivers a film apparently calibrated to bait his critics at every turn. Not only is Gainsbourg subjected to onscreen degradations far beyond those suffered by Watson, Björk, and Kidman, but the entire plot is driven by a misogynist philosophy articulated by the female protagonist, a schema that goes something like women=nature=evil. It’s far too simplistic an equation to be taken seriously, no more a reflection of von Trier’s personal views than the bells at the end of Breaking the Waves, and particularly in conjunction with the over-the-top sexual violence and the degradation inflicted on Gainsbourg, seems like a parody of his critics’ complaints.

If the end of Breaking the Waves evokes Ordet, then the Dreyer film most relevant to Antichrist is Day of Wrath. Set in 17th-century Denmark, Day of Wrath ends with its central character, a young woman named Anne, confessing to having murdered her husband with the aid of the devil. Since the film to this point has danced carefully around the question of the reality of witchcraft, keeping the viewer in suspense as to whether it's a realist historical drama or a metaphysical horror flick, it’s easy to trip over the ending, reading it as a neat resolution to this question and missing how Anne’s confession represents her psychological surrender to the imperatives of a patriarchal society with no tolerance for nuance. The Gainsbourg character’s misogyny functions similarly in Antichrist, as a stumbling block for the audience and a pat explanation of emotional turmoil for the character. Immersed in the knowledge of good and evil, she’s a saint of despair who’s unable to believe anything but the worst about her own nature—the mirror image of the prototypical von Trier Christ figure.

And it is nature, inescapable nature—human and otherwise—that’s increasingly the focus of von Trier’s work. Essentially a two-character piece, Antichrist eschews sociology and politics almost totally in favor of pure existential horror. Blunter and more abstract even than Dogville, the film has been given a title that perfectly describes the world depicted onscreen: a place upon which God has turned his back, where humanity is shrouded in Calvinist depravity and “nature is Satan’s playground.” It’s not the most congenial worldview, but the director delivers it with conviction in this bold, brutal, and uncompromising film. Von Trier has spoken in interviews of how the making of Antichrist helped lift him out of a bout of depression, but the finished product feels less like therapy than exorcism. 


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IFC Films
Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist
Photo Gallery: Falling From Grace


Joshua Land is a freelance writer and a founding co-editor of the online literary journal Essays & Fictions. He is currently studying applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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Author's Website: Pop Tones