Few films have stirred as much controversy in the past decade as Lars von Trier’s psycho-sexual horror Antichrist (it was only recently, and bizarrely, banned in France), and few appear to have been as misunderstood—as the director’s dishonourable “anti-award” from the 2009 Cannes ecumenical jury and the predictable, knee-jerk accusations of misogyny attested. It’s a brave soul who takes on unpacking Antichrist and its legion baggage, a task that British film critic Amy Simmons attempts in her new monograph on the film as part of Auteur Publishing’s Devil’s Advocates horror-movie series.1 While acknowledging the essentially inscrutable nature of von Trier’s opus, Simmons works through the film in studious depth, offering thoughtful, sometimes surprising readings of her subject without compromising its complexity. In this interview, Simmons talks more about the book and her experience seeing and writing about Antichrist, and recalls her exposure to the late, great Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession.
What was the impetus for you wanting to write about Antichrist?
I was primarily attracted to Antichrist’s often ambiguous expression of subconscious fears and obsessions that are filtered through the conventions of the horror genre. For me, these ambiguities are all part of the film’s disturbing potency, and ripe for analysis. At another level, I was intrigued by the complexities of Gainsbourg’s character, and von Trier shows her to be subtle, relentless and unforgiving, which are rare qualities in the limited spectrum of female film roles. He’s also one of the rare directors working today who can put you right inside the consciousness of drastically troubled characters. There’s also something theatrical in von Trier’s work that I’ve always admired. Mainly because he’s contriving situations, he’s staging events, and studying and reflecting on human nature through an often illusionary perspective. So I was drawn to how Antichrist invites people to participate in an illusion, which bears an otherworldliness anchored in a certain social realism.
As your book explores, Antichrist is a very complex film, and one that may deliberately resist interpretation. Given that, were you at all hesitant to try and unpack some of the meaning behind it?
At times. I was reluctant to get too into the nuts-and-bolts of the film, as I think over-analyzing such ambiguous material diminishes some of the mystery that the film works so hard to build up. Therefore I think to explore Antichrist, we need to abandon the literal in favour of a multiplicity of readings. So much of the film is about not serving up an answer, not providing a visually confirmed solution, and von Trier’s denial of this gesture puts spectators in a dubious position, where they have to navigate grey areas. For me, films that give you all the answers feel very tedious. It’s so much more fun to leave with a handful of questions and to answer them yourself.
I remember seeing Antichrist at a media screening in which a theatre of hardened, mostly male film critics squirmed and audibly flinched at the film’s more punishing moments. It was quite something. I’m curious as to your relationship to Antichrist: What was your first experience seeing it? How did you react initially?
For me, the slow motion, monochrome opening sequence of Antichrist, with its operatic score and sophisticated cinematography had me hooked from the start, and remains to this day one of my all-time favourite establishing shots. However, my visceral reactions to the film’s more grueling moments – such as the graphic and brutal scenes of genital mutilation – were certainly a challenge; and I regard myself as a hardened horror viewer. Nevertheless, I thought it was an astonishing film of rage and hopelessness; and about the legacy of humankind’s inhumanity unto itself. Simultaneously fearless, exquisitely shot, and layered with emotional bruises.
Did you revisit the film many times while writing the book?
Yes, and I felt it essential to do so, as the film is constantly asking us to explore senses beyond sight and sound, action more than words, and images more than dialogue. As such, von Trier refuses to allow us easy markers of narrative cause and effect, because, as experienced from the male character’s singular perspective, the world simply does not reveal itself in such a way. So in many ways, I had to stop thinking of Antichrist as a completed work, but as one that is completed endlessly at each viewing.
Did it change for you in any way over the course of watching and considering it?
Without question. As I discuss in the book; to understand Antichrist’s language we have to become a mental detective, with enough passion to scratch away at the surface in order to get to its veiled message. So, after a substantial amount of viewings, I noticed there was an unresolved tension in the film, between the difficulty of retrieving the past, the conflicting accounts surrounding the child’s death, and a sense that a true version of events has been obscured. As such, von Trier complicates the situation by offering competing readings that challenge the viewer to look beyond easy explanations, for the character’s behaviour and the film’s view of the universe. In this way, I felt that the film was attempting to translate ideas about human nature by integrating the results into a series of further questions.
One of the really interesting things I took away from the book was the observation that Antichrist shifts in perspective—which, as you note, is fundamental to the experience of the film, particularly when we watch the unraveling of He’s rational process. I hadn’t noticed that on the first couple of viewings. When did this reveal itself to you?
It wasn’t until the third or fourth viewing that I started to discover nuances to the male character that challenged my earlier assumptions in regards to his true motives. By refusing a privileged spectatorial position, I noticed that von Trier almost constantly focuses the film via the man’s deeply troubled subjectivity, where vague and contradictory pieces of information are presented, rendering him an untrustworthy site of identification and moral attachment. Intriguingly, towards the end of the film – when he begins to suspect his wife of child abuse – flashbacks appear only from his point-of-view, where he might well be constructing events, placing blame, and ridding himself of guilt. In this way, the film relates to what is perhaps the work’s main themes, the elusive, perhaps non-existent boundaries between illusion and imagination, perception and reality. Consequently, by leading us to share the male character’s point-of-view, this I felt was von Trier’s most strategic move, but also a trap that needed to be investigated.
I’m guessing one of the aspects that makes Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character so problematic for a lot of audiences is that she’s complex—as you say, she’s not one of von Trier’s prior virtuous heroines, but a writhing mass of contradictions; a real person. It makes certain people very uncomfortable. But your book raises some interesting points: Is she obliterating/transcending gender (literally in the scissor scene) altogether?
I read the ‘scissor’ scene as a form of resistance, protest and escape. Unquestionably, what the film does make clear in the final stages, is the fact that the woman has buckled under the terrifying weight of a world she doesn’t fit into, internalised all the negative and hateful messages of a patriarchal culture and arrived at a place of self-loathing. Hence, when she can no longer bear the miscarriage of pain and guilt that history has bestowed on her, symbolically and physically she seeks to erase the source of all difference. In this respect, I would say that Antichrist is essentially more interested in the relationship between self and body in a wider philosophical sense. Likewise, I thought it was commendable that von Trier steadfastly refrains from making any crude moral judgement about the woman’s dilemma and actions, suggesting that there’s no easy solution or justification for the alarming psychosis she represents.
At the time it was released, Antichrist felt inseparable from the controversy surrounding Lars von Trier’s behaviour at Cannes and beyond. Do you think he shoots himself in the foot sometimes with his (admittedly effective) promotional antics? Does his persona provide an obstacle for people appreciating and understanding his films on a deeper level?
Although his public persona is so often seen as objectionable, I think, especially for fans of von Trier, his frequently controversial behavior is to be expected, considering his fondness for pranking and provocation manifests itself throughout the director’s work, both on and off set. However, through years of button-pushing in the public arena, his antics have certainly left many viewers innately suspicious of everything he says and does, and for this unfortunate reason, I feel that critical responses to his work all too frequently degenerate into personal attacks.
Toward the end of the book you talk about Lars von Trier putting a film out there he might not necessarily believe in, and having to defend it. Have you found yourself in a similar kind of position with respect to Antichrist? The film’s got some pretty vehement detractors—have you had to defend it in a particularly heated argument?
Throughout my research I came into contact with some intensely negative feedback from certain people who were appalled by Antichrist’s sexual and violent content, and utterly bewildered by the fact that I was writing a book about it. So I’ve had my fair share of detractors. Thankfully, there still seems to be plenty of fans and critics out there who continue to defend the film.
I’m assuming you’ve seen both Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. How do you feel they relate, if at all, to Antichrist? Do they illuminate their predecessor? Has von Trier expended this particular cycle of his filmmaking (which comes across, to me anyway, very much like an extended therapy session)?
I think whereas von Trier’s earlier female characters were so often the embodiment of sacrifice, suffering, and the battle with patriarchy, von Trier has recently offered a galvanizing first taste of rebellion and imaginative freedom in his later protagonists, as represented by ‘She’ in Antichrist, ‘Justine’ in Melancholia (Kirsten Dunst) and now ‘Joe’ (Gainsbourg) in Nymphomaniac. However, whereas female sexuality is attached to extreme guilt and anxiety in Antichrist, for Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, von Trier plunges us into a contextually richer terrain, where female desire and despair is complicated not only by love, but also by a deep need for autonomy, and pride. In Melancholia, the depressive ‘Justine,’ – who happily awaits the end of the world – is the only character in the film who remains in the most control. She not only derails patriarchy and convention by sabotaging her own wedding, but comes out on top in the face of disaster. Finally in Nymphomaniac, Joe rejects the idea of ‘sex addiction,’ in an all-female support group, and proudly declares herself a ‘nymphomaniac.’ It is what she is; not a disease or disorder. So in this light, I certainly see these women as active participants in, and liberated beneficiaries of von Trier’s work.
Does Antichrist feel like more or less of an enigma now that you’ve explored it in such detail? Are you glad that you did?
For me, Antichrist is about the utter mystery of life, where reality is constantly shifting and blurring. Nothing makes sense; relationships don’t make sense; our minds doesn’t make sense – and connections between the present and the past become confused. So yes, I think Antichrist comes alive through its enigmatic style and tone; leaving mental and emotional space for all to engage with it in radically different ways. Because without it, the film wouldn’t have been able to adequately express the utter strangeness of our contemporary reality.
As we get older and see so many films, it becomes harder to be surprised or viscerally engaged. Antichrist definitely breaks through that kind of jaded perspective. What were your first personal experiences of being shocked, provoked or challenged on a similar level as a filmgoer or critic?
Certainly one of the films that affected me on a similar psychological level to Antichrist was Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession. For me, both films share much thematic ground, where the dominant horror seems to be about the impossibility of containing a seemingly infectious madness that consumes the central couple. As I mention in the book, perhaps one of the most unique and fascinating aspects of each film is that rather than creating terror as an engine to drive the plot, Żuławski and von Trier drown their respective films in a tidal wave of female rage and destructive grief, which arises as a result of their husband’s clinical detachment. Truly, if horror stories are often secretly love stories, or at least utilise romantic elements, then in these two films the heterosexual relationship serves as its own source of horror.
Amy Simmons’ Antichrist is available to purchase.