III. The “Thereness” of Cruelty
Antichrist is divided into four major acts. Three of these acts are aptly titled “Grief,” “Pain,” and “Despair.” These three attributes fall under the umbrella of Cruelty, and this film is obsessed with Cruelty.
Let us address the elephant in the room with this film, the roughly three shots worth of screen-time dedicated to close-up shots of genital mutilation. They certainly aren’t pretty shots, and they are arguably the place from which the controversy of this film stems.
Professor Joanna Bourke analyzes the violence in this film quite succinctly when she says that “von Trier simply presents cruelty as ‘there’, serving no liberating function for the audience. Pain—its infliction and its suffering—is integral to life.”
The cruelty of this film, then, is rather cruel in its presentation. What this serves to do, again well put by Bourke, is “jolt us out of a passive voyeurism.” It is easy to sit and watch passively as people self-amputate their feet or gouge out their eye in the Saw franchise. It is harder to sit idly by and take the unflinching shots of violence in this film. Hence, controversy.
Antichrist isn’t torture porn. Let’s get that claim out of the way now. Violence here is not fetishized for the sake of gross-out entertainment. It is presented just as Bourke says it is. It is simply there, cold and apparent. “Pain is integral to life.”
In the film, Pain is the Fox, gutting himself with his own maw as he exalts chaos as a domineering presence. It is a self-inflicted pain, masochistic in a way.
Perhaps with this masochism von Trier is commenting on our own fascination with cinematic violence, our engaging with torture porn a masochistic desire to see if we can sicken ourselves. But more likely it is a commentary on our personal suffering. Depressed as von Trier was when inspired to make this film, the masochism likely speaks to how easy it is for us to slip into self-induced mental pain. Not only are we inflicted with emotional trials throughout our lives, but we can easily allow them to stick with us, propagating a sense of despair within us.
In the film, She is frenzied by her pain—a pain which would be hard for anybody to shake—and it sticks with her oppressively until it (and He) causes her to break. The film itself states (interestingly enough from the mouth of He) that Nature “wants to hurt you as much as [it] can.” Our very world wants to push us down, making it all the easier just to crumple at its whim.
Unfortunately, the film does not offer an optimistic alternative to this crumpling. Instead, it proposes a reality in which we have no choice but to be fearful and in pain.
In part four, the human world as a Miltonic Hellscape!