« St. Nick's Day | Main | Just when you thought you've caught up... »

December 7, 2009

Zoophobia (more on Antichrist)


One more note before I change subjects (and, as in the previous post, spoilers will follow)!

The earliest press releases for Antichrist revealed that Von Trier was making a horror film; a subsequent statement signaled the completion of casting, with four animals joining Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe as the principal performers. A deer, two crows and a fox, representing grief, pain and despair - the lynchpins of Von Trier's realization of evil. They're the latest in a longstanding tradition of using animals as narrative signifiers. From the three horses in Michael Clayton to the tiger shark in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (an encounter Wes Anderson repeats in The Fantastic Mr. Fox with a wolf in place of the shark and a fox in place of the human) to the image of a horse falling over the edge of a ship that all on its lonesome made the American remake of The Ring far more terrifying than its predecessor to the taxidermied whale in Bela Tarr's Werkmeister Harmonies to the flocks of birds the beginning of Lance Hammer's Ballast and the end of Rahmin Bahrani's Chop Shop; animals have an uncanny representational ability, functioning both as the unbridled id and as a primeval omen, a reminder that there is something out there bigger than us, something which will remain long after we're gone (hence, the sense of victory in the slaughter of the oxen in Apocalypse Now - a temporary triumph over inevitability).

In Antichrist, Von Trier establishes nature as a malevolent force, and then exploits it for all its worth. During Dafoe and Gainsbourg's initial hike to the cabin, she falters, protesting that "the ground is burning." She takes off her shoes, revealing a mess of red blisters. Of course there are blisters - she's hiking - but the infernal connotation has already been drawn. "Nature is Satan's church," Gainsbourg utters late in the film, stating what has by now been made obvious. There's no need for supernatural when evil seems to well up from earth itself. The rain of acorns that pitter-patter ceaselessly on the tin roof of the cabin; the swollen ticks that Dafoe discovers on his hand; the trees that fall in the middle of the night with, their low, timbrous ruptures echoing through the desolate wind. Nothing here is out of the ordinary, but in concert with the psychological progression of the narrative, it is explicitly antagonistic, and never more tacitly then when it comes in animal form - first, with Dafoe's glimpse of the mother deer whose dead fawn hangs half-born from her backside; then, with the crow, whose featherless baby falls from its nest, is set upon by ants and then plucked up and eaten by its mother; and, finally, by the dessicate fox, who Dafoe happens upon in the process of devouring itself (the first in a series of inversions, or deformations).

These Three Beggars, as they are identified in Gainsbourg's character's research, are - to the extent of my knowledge - mythological entities of Von Trier's own creation. Various triads can be invoked - the three faces of drama, the Three Wise Men of the Nativity, the three-headed Lucifer of Dante's Inferno. When they reappear at the climax of the film, however, they occupy an even more portentous role. We've already seen Dafoe bludgeon the crow to death when he discovered it burrowed in the fox's hole (the second inversion). Now, laying on the floor of his cabin, he witnesses the entrance of deer and fox - and he and we anticipate the arrival of fowl through the open door and window. Instead, a muffled caw and the flutter of wings sounds out from below, growing louder and louder. Dafoe finally breaks open the floorboards and the crow emerges - in effect, a reincarnation, a Christological inversion that fulfills the potential of the film's title, and the initial promise of the film itself. Horror, indeed.

Posted by David Lowery at December 7, 2009 7:31 PM