ANTICHRIST, Lars von Trier, 2009

7.-opening
Grief, Pain, Despair – Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and the Nature of Evil

It’s somewhat hard to watch, show, and certainly write about a film named by various reviewers as “the best movie I can never recommend”, an “art-film fart” and “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world”.

Lars von Trier, a Danish director who also boasts responsibility for the first hardcore porn movie made by a mainstream production company, directed this film as a form of therapy, and this is somewhat how it should be viewed. The film is, however many critics respond to it, a work of art; a claim that had to be justified by Culliton in her work, Ethics, Aesthetics and Lars von Trier’s ‘Antichrist’ as Art. One of the items the film raises, no doubt on purpose, is the line between art and revulsion. The most natural, or perhaps the “easiest” and “accepted” response to the movie, as Culliton writes, is one of revulsion and the declaration that it is not art. This view is generally however one sparked from abhorrence, morally, about what is contained in the film. I should not want to be swayed into taking the easiest route by popular opinion however, and neither does Culliton. She uses the work of José Ortega y Gasset to support her view that one must work through the abhorrence to find the art:

The new art obviously addresses itself not to everybody…but to a specially gifted minority. Hence  the indignation it arouses in the masses. When a man dislikes a work of art, but understands it, he feels superior to it…But when his dislike is due to his failure to understand, he feels vaguely humiliated…Through its mere presence, the art of the young compels the average citizen to realize that he is just this–the average citizen… Accustomed to ruling supreme, the masses feel that the new art, which is the art of a privileged aristocracy of finer senses, endangers their rights as men. Whenever the new Muses present themselves, the masses bristle. (1)

So the chances are that you are likely to find this film morally abhorrent. This is a given. However the film acts as a challenge to us. We must overcome our ethics in order to realise the film as a work of art. If we disagree with the film being a work of art, we must ask ourselves the question of whether we believe the aesthetic and the moral to be inseparable. If you are not utterly convinced that they are, then press ahead. If you do, you are not going to appreciate this film, so you may as well not proceed with viewing it.

The title alone has a lot to do with the message conveyed by the film (a message often deemed a necessary component of a work of art). The term “antichrist” is often taken to mean a simple (or not so simple) spawn of Satan, mainly due to popular culture, however this is not what von Trier is getting at. Lars claims to have had a book of Nietzsche’s by his bedside since age 12, and if this is true, it certainly helps us understand the title better. Thomsen, in an essay on the event of violence and the use by von Trier of haptic imagery (a concept I shall explain later), writes how in the title imagery of Antichrist, the last t is replaced by the sign for Female. (2) This is a clue as to the film’s message. It also relates to the Nietzschean term “Anti-christ” in the book of the same name, meaning rather anti-Christian. Hence, one might propose that the film is both anti-Christian, and anti-nature, or rather in the Nietzschean sense a reversal of what is considered natural (but is in fact something completely natural), and in this sense anti-Satan (for one line in the film characterises Nature as “Satan’s church”). If woman too is nature, then she is Satan’s church. However,  Thomsen writes, Nietzsche’s antichrist is conferred with all the properties of Dionysus, and is thus opposed to order embodied in the Apollonian. For Nietzsche, Dionysus is the embodiment of the antichrist and is characterised as female, and so the theme continues.

In a discussion on the philosophy of the film in film quarterly, Nina Power, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University, discusses what von Trier’s film has to say about women. (3) The film grapples with ideas of the tension between woman and man, and of the wild, Dionysian nature behind woman. “She”, the female character in the film, is in the process of writing a dissertation on the evil committed against women. Von Trier alerts us to the Nietzschean quote, “When a woman has scholarly inclinations, then something is usually wrong with her sexuality”. Midway through, she states that women do not have control over their bodies, and that in fact nature does. She is seen to be internalising her research in the film, and this can be seen as Lars von Trier commenting on the state of society today and the internalisation and acceptance of the suffering of women. To reinforce this idea the film challenges our general conceptions of nature and the natural. Nature is turned on its head, and yet remains true, in a Nietzschean, Dionysian sense, to itself. We are presented with an image of an eagle eating its young, reflecting actions of “She” in the film, and it revolts us, and yet is at the same time natural. Von Trier’s use of Haptic imagery in this sense is entirely appropriate. Haptic imagery relates to the use of the graphic to convey sensory illusions and is used by von Trier, with an interesting employment of rotoscoping, to instil in us an uneasiness about nature. Haptic imagery is in a sense an embodiment of the Dionysian, and possibly of evil. It takes advantage of us and assaults our senses. Thomsen writes on how the texture of the imagery sits on the borderline of the psychic and demonic and relates its use with the Deleuzian concept of the “power of the false”. Von Trier misuses the camera and the medium of cinema – instead of his art revealing truth, to borrow and probably misuse a Heideggerian phrase, von Trier uses cinema to confuse, revile and bamboozle us by turning our preconceived ideas about nature and “what feels right” against us.

In this sense the film is a very interesting piece of art. As Culliton writes, von Trier’s thesis is that women are the source of chaos and wild nature, and to us this is wrong, but it does not matter that it is wrong. The film both reminds us that it is wrong and also helps us understand why it is wrong, and in that way it may be seen as a work of art.

Matt Beckett


References:

(1) Betsy Walker Culliton, ‘Ethics, Aesthetics and Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” as Art’ <URL: https://www.academia.edu/284966/Ethics_Aesthetics_and_Lars_von_Triers_Antichrist_as_Art&gt; [Accessed on 11/09/14]

(2) Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen, ‘Antichrist—Chaos Reigns: the Event of Violence and the Haptic Image in Lars von Trier’s Film’, in Journal of Aesthetic and Culture, (2009): 1-10, 3.

(3) Nina Power and Rob Wright in ‘“Antichrist”: A Discussion’, in Film Quarterly (Dec., 2012)

BLACK SWAN, Darren Aronofsky, 2010


Dionysus’s dance with Apollo.

“One must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I, v.

Upon seeing Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan and having particularly enjoyed the Nietzschean interpretations of There Will be Blood (Issue 74) and The Departed (Issue 65) in Philosophy Now film columns, I felt compelled to produce a Nietzsche-inspired piece myself.

Aronofsky’s haunting creation captivated me not only because of its spectacle as an aesthetically-powerful movie, but also for the resonance that it had with my own area of study – Nietzsche’s belief that language fails to render the cosmic symbolism of music. That said, I’m not so much interested here in Tchaikovsky’s powerful composition for the ballet Swan Lake (around which the story of Black Swan revolves), as in what I consider to be the clashing of two world-views. These are what Nietzsche coined the Dionysian and the Apollonian. ‘Dionysian’ is from Dionysus, the Ancient Greek god representative of intoxication and frenzy (known as ‘Bacchus’ to the Romans), while ‘Apollonian’ is from Apollo, the Greek god of a variety of things, including light, the sun, and medicine; but for the purpose of Nietzsche’s argument, he is mainly representative of reason. To Nietzsche, these two divine aspects form the distinct sides of artistic expression: the ‘Dionysian’ being the passionate, emotional element, and the ‘Apollonian’ being the visionary, intellectual element (see for example, his The Birth of Tragedy, 1872).

Nina: The Consummate ‘Apollonian’

Black Swan depicts the protagonist, Nina – played by Natalie Portman – on a frenzied journey in pursuit of the perfect performance in the lead double role in the ballet Swan Lake as both Odette, the White Swan, and Odile, the Black Swan. Overseen by her neurotic mother, Nina has become the consummate performer, and as the hottest prospect in her ballet company, is awarded the mantle of the lead role for the coming season’s shows. Through fastidious practice, complimented with intense discipline, she embodies the precise nature of the Apollonian White Swan. However, in the eyes of her domineering director Thomas – played by the excellent Vincent Cassel – she fails to capture the primordial essence of the Dionysian Black Swan for which he yearns. The visceral portrayal of Nina’s tumultuous journey in pursuit of embodying the Black Swan in order to deliver the perfect performance is provided not through a particularly complex script or dialogue, but predominantly through Aronofsky’s uniquely dark direction, which in turn is wonderfully accompanied by the cinematography of Matthew Libatique and the enthralling score by Clint Mansell (inspired in no small part of course by the work of Tchaikovsky). Through its highly stylised approach, the film builds relentlessly to an overture of epic proportions in its rendering of what embodying the Dionysian spirit of art entails.

The film culminates with Nina delivering a mesmerizing performance as the Black Swan. In the preceding hour and a half, viewers have witnessed her practice indefatigably in pursuit of perfection. However, we have also seen her go down a path of self-destruction due to her obsession: she has habitually scratched herself feverishly, to the point of bleeding; suffered torrid hallucinations; and, as a bulimic, also frequently induced herself to vomit. A final hallucination depicts her stabbing and killing a fellow dancer whom she perceives as a competitive threat. What is revealed, after she has delivered the performance of her life as the Black Swan, is that in the course of this hallucination she has actually stabbed herself. As the film nears its end, we see Nina bleeding, in all probability, to her death. Lying with tears in her eyes and an ever-so-slight smile, she appears a shattered figure, but at the same time enormously satisfied. She proceeds to utter a bittersweet reflection on all that she has suffered: “I felt it. Perfect. It was perfect.” The film then fades to white as the roar of the crowd chanting her name echoes on.

The fellow dancer whom she perceives as a threat is her hedonistic, sensual understudy Lily, played by the aptly cast Mila Kunis. On the face of it, Lily is the Black Swan incarnate. She even has a large tattoo of the wings of a black swan adorning her back – alluring, but also menacing. However, while Lily can deliver a more than capable performance as the Black Swan, Nina is an outstanding White Swan, and would attain perfection if only she could display an unbridled frenzy and passion in the role of the Black Swan to the same degree that her steely dedication masters her portrayal of the White. This perfection is something Lily cannot attain, for she is not as exceptional as the Black as Nina is as the White. As we’ll see, for Nietzsche, it would not be possible for anybody to excel as the Black Swan without crushing the White Swan part of themselves.

Welcome to The Well of Dionysus

For Nietzsche, the Dionysian spirit is more than just a way of thinking. Rather, it is a state of ecstasy and a ‘frenzy of becoming’, through which the Apollonian ‘veil of reason’ is torn asunder. In Daybreak (1881), Nietzsche exclaims that “what are wanted are blindness and intoxication, and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned.” This dramatic proclamation summarises the purpose of his life’s work – and in particular, his endeavour to propagate the Dionysian way of thinking over that of the Apollonian. The outcome of this Dionysian outlook is displayed in all its intensity in Black Swan – that is to say, in the primal transformation of Nina into the Black Swan as she reaches her breaking point, having just, to her mind, stabbed and killed her understudy. She then enters the stage for the viewer to see her literally sprouting magnificent black wings, as we see her give herself over to the Dionysian frenzy which results in the primal, perfect performance of a lifetime: she has embodied Nietzsche’s cry for Dionysian passion.

The perfection for which Nina strives is analogous to what Nietzsche ascertains to be the supreme goal of art. This for Nietzsche can only be reached through immersing oneself in the unadulterated primordial passion of Dionysus. Accordingly, this passion is then able to unshackle one from the confines of the Apollonian realm of reason. But this paradigmatic shift in being, much like its messenger Nietzsche, is not for everyone. Nietzsche believes that the Dionysian is only for those strong enough, who have reached the limits of reason enmeshed in the Apollonian spirit. Hence, the Dionysian is only accessible by way of the Apollonian – the two are inextricably linked. Nina’s journey of suffering, and the manner in which she pushes Apollonian art to its limits, is a necessary pre-requisite for her to be able to enter Dionysus’s awe-inspiring well of the primordial. Furthermore, the Dionysian mentality is not something superficial, or something which can be dipped into on a whim. Rather, it requires unmediated passion – something of which Nina is actually capable, but Lily is not.

Not unlike the notion of Plato’s ‘Allegory of The Cave’, in which (crudely put) one falsely believes a shadow of an object to be the actual thing itself, Nietzsche argues that those who believe that the Apollonian is the truth of human perfection invariably perpetuate the relegation of the truly liberating Dionysian spirit, exclusively favouring works of reason as the ultimate expression of artistic freedom. As a result, unlike many reviewers, I do not consider Nina’s suffering in the film to be about mental illness per se, nor about the supernatural. Rather, I read Nina’s experience as the pain associated with transcending the confines of Apollonian reason, i.e., the pain of reaching for the Dionysian light outside the Apollonian cave.

Perfection Beyond Reason

Black Swan vividly depicts the struggle to transcend the limits that one has established and reach perfection. This is a painful process, and it may crush one to death. But as the pioneering martial artist Bruce Lee once said: “There are no limits. There are plateaux; but you must not stay there, you must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.” Aronofsky increases the intensity continuously from the very first scene. This enables the viewers to immerse themselves in Nina’s surging to overcome her limits, and to feel the process of her embodiment of Dionysian frenzy. In a similar vein, Nietzsche’s provocative discourse in his books is emblematic of his Dionysian artistic purpose as a gadfly to provoke what he saw as a stagnated fin-de-siècle European society into striving onwards and upwards to greatness.

Nina’s striving towards, and ultimate attainment of, a form of perfection, illustrates the terrifying power of the Dionysian spirit in liberating its practitioners from the constraints of Apollonian ‘reasonableness’. In Black Swan, Aronofsky remarkably captures the clashing of two Nietzschean worldviews, and what results is an intense, dark and memorable audio-visual experience.

Dharmender Dhillon