nikki moore

von trier & heidegger on authenticity in Anti-christ

In philosophy as biography on October 3, 2009 at 3:09 pm

Picture 9

lars von trier’s latest movie debuts in new york this weekend.  after seeing it in copenhagen this summer i admit that it took me at least 3 nights of intentionally thinking out each part of the film before falling asleep to feel safely free of potential nightmares.  yes i am impressionable, but this movie had me curling up and even screaming out loud in the small danish theatre where it was screening.

terror aside…

or precisely inside…  {spoilers ahead}

the movie begins with a shower scene.  willem dafoe and charolette gainsbourg’s characters are having sex as the camera pans between their bodies, the bathroom and, upstairs, the movements of their son as he climbs out of his crib, opens the baby gate and crawls his way up onto a table and steps out of their high-rise home’s window, falling to his death on the snow covered street below.

overcome with grief, She (the wife and mother played by gainsbourg) is hospitalized until He (father, husband and analyst dafoe) has her removed, un-drugged and begins analysis with her to help her work through what he sees as a natural response to her son’s death.  this analysis plays out like a horrifying version of show and tell, as She speaks her fears and then must experience them in order to work through and over come them.

and here enters Martin Heidegger.  (while i can’t find anything on the web to back this up, but in a class last year on Being and Time,  Simon Critchley mentioned that Von Trier did thesis work on Heidegger before taking his theoretical questions into film to further investigate them.) as She works through first her fear of the forest, particularly the forest around eden – their summer cabin, then to her fear of nature and finally to her fear of human nature as it appears in herself, she is working through the call, issued in the face of death to a recognition of her own finitude, her own leaning out into the void, in other words, an incredible singularity that heidegger calls authenticity.  (as against the inauthentic ‘They’ who are known only as nondescript Others, the uncalled, the state of everyday being-there).  but as von Trier works out, if what She is called to is authenticity, then god forbid we ever strive for that state.  in a downward spiral through different stages of pure hell, He, as analyst, leads She into a world of chaos, of nature unhinged where fantasy and fiction are distinctions long lost.  and it is this very loss that She long ago lost sight of:  as the movie progresses the audience learns that She had lived in eden with her son, alone, for the summer before his death as she worked on a master’s thesis about the burning, hanging and torture of witches.  when He finds her thesis pages in the attic and links the misogyny She was studying to her own self-fear and loathing back through this project to She’s relationship with their son, all hell truly does break lose.  looking at polaroids from She’s time with their son, He quickly notices that the little boys shoes are on the wrong feet in all three pictures.  flashbacks suggest that the little boy suffered in more ways than one as She began to test herself against the witches she was studying, leading her to believe that if she could continue to hurt, torture and finally possibly kill her son, women ‘by nature’ may in fact be as evil as they are/were portrayed, that women as witches (all of them)  may in fact have deserved to die.  as the opening shower scene replays, the audience now sees the baby monitor intentionally silenced, the child gate opening as She knew all along that it could, and the chair and table more intentionally placed for the little boy’s walk out through a wide open winter window.

throughout the last half of the film, the mother comes off as a demon and a witch, who, true to form, was finally burned by the husband she tortured and tried to kill.  yet the cry of misogyny is, i think, too easy.  reversing Heidegger’s work on authenticity in a brilliantly vivid and heinous tour de force, Anti-Christ could be seen to imply that it is in fact culture that has written woman as the devil.  She became not the perpetrator, but primarily the victim of at least a 1000 years of history that wrote woman and nature together as the devil’s right hand… which should prompt us to look not at woman/nature (a distinction we would decidedly want to trouble, nonetheless) but at man/culture who, embodied by the calm self-confident He thought himself equipped to analyze, the psycholanalyze, to lead and to rescue She/woman from the very thing he continued to offer her: salvation in knowing, in understanding, in truth by experience and overcoming, in authenticity.  (if there is any misogyny then in Anti-Christ, it is in continuing to see She as a victim of a history she was not able to recognize and overcome.  but that’s a second tier analysis.  and i’ve  hardly written us through the first layers as it is…)  the point being that death did not call She to something that transcends the everyday They of inauthenticity.  death called being to chaos.  utter chaos, that borders on the devastatingly horrific, and unwinds any and all categorical distinctions between reality and fiction.

  1. (i’m not a native english speaker so forgive my english) After reading your article I was wondering whether being able to theoretize the movie into a great (by any means) work of art doesn’t paradoxically render it palpable and destroys its value. Isn’t ‘being able to appreciate’ and ‘being influenced by’ necessarily contradictory notions? When people where nervously laughing during the famous “fox – chaos reigns” scene, I thought: these are the people REALLY disturbed by the movie. But then again aren’t horror movies the ones that really come close to eliminating this opposition by introducing FEAR and, as a consequence, a masochistic dimension of pleasure, enjoyment that is, at the same time, traumatic?
    Anyway, thanks for the article that tries to grasp the overlooked dimensions of the movie that really moved me (I was also struck with fear and couldn’t go to sleep peacefully). But to fully grasp the movie one should I think, also include the spontaneity approach von Trier was talking about in interviews and also the Nature (and is it necessarily man/nature?)

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