It discusses his the various elements that go into creating spectator identification through the brutalization of female characters. Mainly, it focuses on his latest film AntiChrist (2009) and how it is similar as well as departs from his traditional female roles in his other films.
Lars von Tirer, women, and chainsaws
Lars Von Trier has a reputation to have the women in his films imbue a sense of purity, and frailty that creates a sympathetic identification with spectators. Our emotions are set up for the spectator to feel the women’s pain, and in this case grief, as brutal trials and horrific acts are performed against them. However Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character in AntiChrist (2009) complicates his traditional female relationship to spectators as we not only identify with her, but we also watch her slowly descend into a violent psychotic rage confusing our once established identification with her. Trier calls upon spectator emotions of the unique characteristics found in the horror genre by constructing extreme depictions of fear, anxiety, and gratuitous violence. Gainsbourg’s role in AntiChrist is different from the women in his other films because although we think we are being placed to empathize with her victimhood we slowly discover her villain like qualities. The fusion of the horror genre and Trier’s long established motif of melodramatic sympathetic females creates a dilemma in the our relationship to Gainsbourg thus producing extreme visceral responses in spectatorship by the end.
The opening of the film sets a melancholic and eerie tone for the entire movie. Trier begins it with a shotgun blast of emotion to spectators rather than a subtle blow. We see Gainsbourg and Defoe intimately having sex in a striking slowed down 12 frames per second before seeing their helpless infant fall to his death. Rather than gradually developing a feeling of sympathy toward for Gainsbourg, like we saw with Bess in Breaking the Waves (1996) and Selma in Dancer in the Dark (2000) Trier cuts to the chase by forcing us to immediately identify with the couple. Using the premise “there is no greater loss then the loss of a child”, we have no choice but to feel for them. Gainsbourg’s eyes have a look of an orgasmic release as the child slips from the ledge. It is as if Trier wants to confuse audiences with extreme depictions of pleasure and pain. While the baby falls we can’t help but feel terrible before being forced to cut to the couple enjoying their intimacy. As spectators we are helpless in being able to intervene just as the couple seems to be oblivious to the world around them. The juxtaposition is meant to invoke a simultaneous range of emotions in the spectator. He sets up a universal identification with her in a way that you won’t be conflicted to feel anything but utter sorrow and compassion for ‘her’.
Defoe treats her as his own patient, a reoccurring motif from the Europa trilogy, and attempts to help her cope through her pain. Rather than avoiding her pain he suggests that she face it. This is ultimately his downfall. It is incredibly unethical in the medical profession to treat someone close to you because it is difficult to review the subject objectively. For victims of trauma things that are associated with the event can trigger intense emotions and impulsive behavior as a result of shock. This trauma is a method for Trier to incorporate his horror film like aesthetic. Unless someone is knowledgeable about the ethics of therapy one wouldn’t necessarily question Defoes role of helping his wife. Instead, just as my initial reaction was, it seems Trier wanted to have people fooled into thinking he was doing her good by treating her. We are constructed to feel an affinity for him at first. It appears that he has grieved and moved on but as we later find out it is through his therapy that he channels his grief. For her the only thing that seems to be remotely helpful for her anxiety is sex. It now becomes a temporary relief which progressively seems to become more destructive. Gainsbourg comes to resemble the ‘Madonna and the whore’ complex. Women in society are stereotypically given two roles to fill; the Madonna (sexless, selfless and God fearing) or a whore (sexual selfish). To be the Madonna, there is heavy guilt for selfish and sexual impulses at the expense of being virtuous. The Whore role shows the woman feeling oppressed and stigmatized through her impulses. Women are also guilty of participating these gender dynamics and can be their worst oppressors, as I feel ‘hers’ was in AntiChrist. She punishes herself by embracing her ‘evil’ in thinking she is no longer worthy of motherhood. We also struggle with her grief as spectators as it becomes harder to identify with her through her primal aggressive behavior. Through the first half of the film we see a reminiscent mode of melodrama Trier has been accustom to creating in the Goldenheart trilogy before switching to a style more evocative of the horror genre.
As early as Breaking the Waves, he wrote and directed films that showed the frailty of the human condition through women in different film genres. Waves is set up like a melodrama and it is through Bess that we are shown her exceptionally ‘good’ qualities through her utter devotion to her husband and God. Spectators are put in a position to love and empathize with her as life perpetually gets more rigorous. We get a similar female identification in his more documentary style film The Idiots (1998) where we are also made to feel passion for Karen who seems to be the only rational thinker out of the group. By the end our perspective of her is conflicted when we find out her reasons for spassing were a form of escapism because of terrible events from her past. Selma from Dancer In the Dark, is most emblematic for a disruption of spectatorship and a sudden change through chance. Throughout the Goldenheart trilogy it becomes virtually impossible to feel nothing for these women through they’re hardships and the universal emotions he constructs for us to feel. All of these roles through the Goldenheart trilogy show a progressive decline for the women. However the women do not break out of this mode of a pathetic character nor do they unsuspectingly break from it to alter their outcome until Dogeville (2003). Although separate from the trilogy, Dogeville (2003) seems to have the only female character that is similar to Gainsbourg in Antichrist. Grace follows a similar melodramatic mode of a submissive and weak to the point of rape and slavery. However unlike Selma, Karen, and Bess, Grace ultimately gets her revenge on the people who have wronged her to such extremes that we are positioned to feel happy through her brutal vindication. According to Bainbridge’s Authenticity and Artifice all of these films remain similar on the basis of self sacrifice claiming, “each film examines martyrdom implicit in pursuing an ideal of goodness to its extreme”. (pg.136) However what separates Grace from the rest of the trilogy is by the end it is less interested in making spectators feel sad but instead give a sense of retribution for her with an uneasy guilty pleasure for viewers. Gainsbourg is at odds with this idea because it becomes more difficult to place our emotions in her as the film progresses and through her cruelty and delusional behavior.
Women’s roles in horror films often use this model of a succession of terrible acts that lead to a reprisal for them by the end. The idea of the ‘Final Girl’, coined by Carol Clover in Men Women and Chainsaws, embodies this idea saying “Every narrative and cinematic device is deployed to draw us into her perceptions-her pain and humiliation,” and later “her grim satisfaction when she annihilates her assailant.”(pg152) This is clearly reminiscent of Grace, but is not so easily applied to Gainsbourg. Although we are made to reconcile the bad things that have happened to her justifying her actions for ourselves because of the severity of her humiliation and dehumanization, she gradually becomes more psychotic and begins resemble a villain we’d expect to see in a horror film through her rage. It also complicates this idea because she ultimately dies (or sacrificed) and does not killer her ‘assailant’ Defoe. Similarly a growing distrust of her and the director begins to permeate due to rapid directions we seem to follow her in. Clover claims “the gravity of these films lies more in the reaction (the revenge) than the act of (rape).”(pg154) Perhaps Trier wanted to create a reversal, where spectators are meant to identify with ‘her’ revenge through brutally mutilating/castrating her ‘assailants’ genitals (Defoe), and becoming a martyr through her clitoral mutilations and death. Suddenly motifs from the horror genre such as intense dream states, unnerving diegetic/non-diegetic sounds, and a drab atmospheric tone take AntiChrist into uncharted territory.
In Alison Pierses’s article The Impossibility of Vision, she discusses Carl Dreyer’s technique of creating unease claiming, “The film as a whole has a decidedly uncanny and surreal air, where reality and the supernatural collide in a dream-like state.”(pg.167) Trier constructs a similar atmosphere of a struggle between rational and unexplainable. For example in Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) we do not get any explanation for the noises outside that our protagonist hears. For AntiChrist, nature starts to embody this irrational character of its own. Through strange cut aways and suggestive dialogue spectators are led to believe that nature is somehow going jump out and affect the outcome. Creating tension through the irrational and unexplainable is just a couple of the many ways in which horror films tend to generate suspense. There is also use of unexplainable off screen sound that adds to this idea of ‘the fantastic’ and also adds another layer of instilling fear of nature. Just as Gainsbourg feels vulnerable in the woods, we tend to feel vulnerable as viewers due to the irrational and mysterious sounds. At one point she recalls a time before her child’s death where she was deep in study at Eden to be unexpectedly awakened to hear crying. As she looks about through the forest she eventually finds her child in the tool shed playing while a baby continues to moan. This disturbing portrayal of an eerie use of sound creates a sense of distraught and distrust of what we see on screen to what we hear because we cannot match its source.
Although violence in Trier’s films isn’t uncommon, perhaps the most important way he borrows from the horror genre is through combining mutilation, perversity, and brutality. Suddenly the film uses its built up anxieties to change what we thought was originally the outside force of evil in the woods and creates the villain as Gainsbourg. We see her in an erratic and impulsive way knock Defoe onto the ground before fondling him. All our previous emotions invested in her are confronted with the polar opposite emotion of discomfort and distrust through her actions. Her sickness has reached its peak when she buries him alive only to then later show her with a look of regret by her uncontrollable rage. She feels so victimized by the cruel hands of fate and her husband that she sacrifices her thought to be cause of impulses by cutting off her clitoris. Her ridicule and humiliation from all the forces against her enables an even more visceral disturbing response then his other films through repulsive representations of castration.
However by showing the viewer that she recognizes her sickness it leaves a window for one to still feel sympathy for her because this force seems truly uncontrollable. Gainsbourg becomes a martyr for all the terrible events life has invariably thrown at her. Although Defoe appears to be the person who triumphs in the end by putting her out of her misery, it is largely because of him that her grief turned into madness. Regardless of her actions we are still positioned to sympathize with her, which remains consistent through all of Trier’s women. Even after she has been killed her vindication is seen through the unease of Defoe starting his new journey of grief, and the guilt of unwillingly bringing himself to kill. The film as a whole answers the question Trier posed in The Five Obstructions saying, “I have to punish you somehow. How do therapists punish?”. He shows us vivid depictions of violence redolent of the horror film and illustrates her descent from illness to villain while still maintaining previous sentiments spectators had invested prior to her rage. She remains a victim from beginning to end. Just as Gainsbourg went through a wide range of emotions, Trier’s AntiChrist is carefully crafted to have the audience feel them with ‘her’ in an extreme visceral way.
Work Cited Page:
Bainbridge, Caroline. The Cinema of Lars von Trier: Authenticity and Artifice. New York: Wallflower Press 2007.
Clover, Carol. Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Pierse, Alison. The Impossibility of Vision: Vampirism, Formlessness and horror in Vampyr. University of Hull: Intellect Ltd, 2008.
Von Trier, Antichrist. Dvd /Criterion Collection interviews. Zentropa Entertainment, 2009.