Home Video of the Week: An Evening with ‘Antichrist’: Psyche Gurgitation and the Palpable Shadow


A significant number of life journeys require periods of darkness, so please shelve your need for thaumaturgy for a night. Instead, witness Antichrist (2009), in which director Lars von Trier structurally manifests the darkness of the human psyche as an existential and natural environment.

Antichrist won an “anti” award for its perceived misogyny, and it deals exclusively with pain, despair, grief, anima (the unconscious of the male and his feminine inner personality), and animus (the unconscious of the female and her masculine inner personality) – terms that all fall under what Carl Jung called the “shadow” archetype of the human psyche. Because of the film’s exploration of this territory, it can neither be neat nor politically correct, so it leaves enough violence within it and between it and the viewer and culture before it becomes too neat and norm-based. Antichrist, as a result, never misses the subconscious and unconscious – its points of provocation – and the affect image (that is, the a priori pattern of the human psyche) of the co-occurrence of erotic stimulation and the death processes.

There is no redemption in the plot of Antichrist, unless you see the ending as a release of a mass of anima feelings. But the film is redemptive in its intentions, pristine, striking visual images, and the seriousness of emotional depth behind its genesis. It’s more akin to a vehicle that will take you to the gates of William Blake’s vision of “soft Beulah’s night” – what Milton Klonsky describes as the erotic, creative unconscious, which is fundamentally chaotic and a self-consuming, self-regenerating place that folds in upon itself to release itself.

My advice? Allow Antichrist to fold you in upon yourself.

Von Trier wrote Antichrist as he was emerging from a serious bought of depression, and the film’s emotional effect can transfer to you if you engage with the film with a semi- or non-conceptual mindset, not simply as a critic or passive observer. Just because the film uses sensationalism and provocation doesn’t mean that that’s where its substance and function end; although, you can get stuck on this stuff when you watch it. However, when an artwork mediates between “inner forms” and “external forms,” it will be subject to the same hits and misses that people communicating subjective experiences are prone to. There are many levels of translation involved.

Antichrist is dedicated to the Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. Apparently, von Trier required the film’s two lead actors, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, to watch Tarkovsky’s film The Mirror (1975) before shooting. The Mirror and Antichrist are similar because they are both deeply autobiographical and symbolic visions of the lives of Tarkovsky and von Trier respectively.

There are obvious visual allusions to Tarkovsky throughout Antichrist, with apparently parallel functions: to indicate emotional transference or emotional shift, either from person to person or person to inner-self. Tarkovsky is famous for making films that flow mostly based on emotional rather than linear progression – metamorphosis versus cause-effect action. The progression of plot in Tarkovsky’s work is mostly just there to allow emotional states to become real and to give tenuous, functional form to formless emotion that’s not entirely externalized (as opposed to verbalized). Indeed, visual language (more akin to communication within the self) can be highly exploited for its associative powers.

With Antichrist, as in many of Tarkovsky’s films, the “literal” events in front of you are, scene-by-scene and often shot-by-shot, meditative images – or paintings – that morph into others. Tarkovsky is a master at this morphing technique, and we see von Trier’s nods to it throughout Antichrist in images that simply catch us and stick: copulation among the roots of a tree with dead bodies intertwined, a woman dissolving into the grass, an ethereal woman crossing a bridge in slow motion, He (Dafoe) staring at us with acorns falling around him.

Okay.

I’m not saying that you should get into your shadow every night and engage with images that manipulate the chaotic, creative unconscious. But, if one night, you really want to see what lurks beneath the skin of ego, watch Antichrist.

However, not everyone needs something like Antichrist to assist with emotional processing; and it simply won’t resonate with everyone. Some of us might be too sensitive: we’ll shut down when watching the film. That’s fine. Many of us are too smart (or hip) or too well conditioned for Antichrist. Many of us are too smart (or hip) or too well conditioned to look at a Russian icon and get anything out of it. I am too, depending on the night. And Intellects build the best walls, especially when our inner pain, grief, and despair are at stake – and culture will cherish our wit and swing it around in its own wind like a kite and celebrate it, where it moves along so well, so distant, and so flat.

And meanwhile we can continue to suppress the creative, feminine archetypes and the violence within ourselves, because it’s so obviously right in front of us that von Trier hates the feminine, right? It’s not me or us…it’s that guy…

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