I don’t know if this has any relevance, but She and He, the nonparticular names of the couple in Danish writer-director Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, a student of witchcraft and her maddeningly rational spouse, a mental therapist, were also what names we were given for the fleeting interracial lovers, a French actress/anti-nuclear activist and a Japanese businessman, in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), written by Marguerite Düras. Or how about this: She is played in Trier’s film by Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose misfit, Janine Castang, in The Little Thief (Claude Miller, 1988), the film that put her on the map, bears the initials J. C., while He is played by Willem Dafoe, Martin Scorsese’s Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Either actor or each, or combinately both, play the title character in Trier’s film, which Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s Little Eyolf helped inspire—the one with the Pied-Piper Rat-Wife and the central death of a child while his parents, neglecting his care, are busy making love. Trier’s English-language film, which reverses his announced retirement, is from Denmark, Germany, France, Sweden, Italy and Poland. It won the best film Bodil Award for Trier, as well as the top prize from the Nordic Council, and Trier won three prizes at the Robert Festival: best film, direction, script.
The film consists of three segments—“Grief,” “Pain,” “Despair”—flanked by a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue is in black and white (though, mostly, gray and white, into which much seems to be disappearing) and is silent, except for the welling sorrow and solemn beauty on the soundtrack of “Lascia ch’io pianga,” an aria from Handel’s opera Rinaldo. She and He, in crosscut freeze frames, are responding to one another sexually in the shower, whose water, contesting the freeze frames, eerily descends in diffuse motion. The couple are now in bed, so absorbed in their sex that they neglect their young son in the next room. (Their ecstasy already looks like grief.) The boy falls out the window—it almost seems a deliberate act—to his death. Accepting no responsibility for this outcome (like the father in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, 1973), He tends to his guilt-racked wife; but, of course, He may be suppressing his own sense of guilt. We are now in “Grief,” and we hear sound, including spoken dialogue, and we see color. What we feel, if we are cinéastes like Lars von Trier, is loss—the loss of the innocence of the prologue, the loss of silent cinema. What delicate poignancy the opening movement of Antichrist achieves, haunted further by the use of lyrical slow motion.
In “Grief,” He begins his self-aggrandizing stint as She’s 24-hour-a-day therapist; he is as taken up by his role here as he was by their sex on that fateful day. From the start, He seems to be leading She to conclusions He has predetermined. “Let’s make a list of all the things you are afraid of,” He so literally, reasonably suggests; “Can’t I just be afraid without a definite object?” She more accurately, intuitively, philosophically counters and contests. As the film proceeds, with the couple’s retreat into their cabin in the woods, called Eden, increasingly it appears that He, perhaps unconsciously, aims to torture She, perhaps because, perhaps unconsciously, he blames her for their son’s death, and She thus increasingly battles him, to destroy him before he can destroy her. Trier’s film descends into a catalogue of disgusting visual horrors that are correlative to the couple’s mutual combat and course of destruction. I confess: the film became too much for me as I engaged the couple’s reciprocity. Is He fearful of She, that perhaps she might destroy him as she destroyed (in his view) their son, while at the same time he is fearful of himself for having these thoughts and motivation? Is the film all being done with psychic mirrors? “Chaos reigns,” after all, a talking fox at one point says, undercutting She’s conviction that she is finally cured of her grief—and we realize that the fox’s announcement applies, also, to the earlier shower scene, where “Chaos rains.” Another image has a crow pecking at the dead bodies of its young, correlative to He’s announcement that Nature is consuming them both “inside” and “out.” Perhaps the most violent moment arrives when She castrates her mate with a pounding block of wood. Up close, the camera doesn’t blink.
The epilogue restores the silence and black and white. (The Handel aria is also back.) This may be a happy ending.
Whether in monochrome or color, Anthony Dod Mantle’s contribution (best cinematography: European Film Awards, Bodil Awards, Robert Festival) is eerily lovely.
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