Antichrist

You don’t need to know a work to be influenced by it. Cinema consists entirely of resonances. That’s why it’s impossible to create masterpieces in the classical sense, but also what makes it so rich. The creative possibilities are always multiplying and branching out.

-Raul Ruiz (1)

Perhaps halfway into this apocalyptic fairy tale, an emblematic fox, taking Aesop’s formulation of sour grapes to its furthest point, tearing at its own innards, turns to “he”, the unnamed male lead played by William Dafoe, and mouths the words “chaos reigns”. For if nothing else, this is the tale of a return to the fall, the garden of Eden post expulsion, and there is no question of turning back. Hence Antichrist (2009), but not in the formulaic horror tradition of a demonic possession, but perhaps more appropriately an ‘ante-Christ’, a time and place before salvation could possibly be conceived. This is the bleak Jansenist life as hell without salvation of late Robert Bresson, the devil probably indeed.

What is striking about Lars von Trier’s tale, biblical and bleak in an Old Testament manner, of a descent into the depths of suffering and desolation, is the beauty of its images. They recall a bevy of ‘art cinema’ classics. The muted tones of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il deserto Rosso (Red Desert, 1964) of which Antichrist could be considered an update, the central character no longer simply neurotic, but psychotic. The black and white, at times slow motion sequences of Andrei Tarkovsky, to whom the film is dedicated. David Lynch’s step printed, slightly out of focus close-up sequences. But the encyclopedic imagery does not stop at ‘art films’ nor cinema alone. There are parts that recast the recent horror genre staples such as Saw (James Wan, 2004), and fantastical poetic images from the likes of El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth Guillermo del Toro, 2006). Outside of film, there are precursors in Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde works, which themselves hark back to the Victorian obsession with taxidermy and the 18th century Venetian anatomical wax castings from cadavers. Many of the dream like images recall the manipulated still photographic work of Pierre et Gilles, the grisly news photography and manipulations of WeeGee, and a range of surrealist photographers’ usage of camera distortion of the body. Then there are the ever-present echoes of Hieronymus Bosch. Dante’s Inferno is never far away either, as are Peter Greenaway and Raul Ruiz’s videographic versions of it.

So what does this cinema of dark beauty achieve in setting up resonances from so much that has come before it? Has it effected anything other than a coy quotational amalgam? Is Lars Von Trier nothing more than the Quentin Tarantino of the ‘art cinema’, a graduate of too many hours spent at the cinematheque rather than the local video store?

Perhaps this is what splits opinions so in critiques of the film. Are there narrative effects and thematic elements which ‘work’ for various audiences despite, or even because of this knowing creation of a cinematic Frankenstein? An investigation might begin with a consideration of the layering of tropes in the use of both genre devices and imagery, then attempt to assess what audience these may address, and how.

It would probably be safe to say that the main genre convention that manifests throughout the film is that of horror, more specifically what has often been described as the ‘existential’ horror film. Again, the references to this oeuvre abound. From a fine tradition which encompasses early classical works such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920) and Kurutta ippeiji (Page of Madness, Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926), the closer analogues are probably largely from Roman Polanski’s work, starting with the most obvious, Repulsion (1965), but following through to Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Le locataire (The Tenant, 1976), and even the much later Death and the Maiden (1994). Curiously, another Polish director’s work also comes to mind, Andrzej Zulawki’s Possession (1981). For the central horror of the film is the impossibility of containment and cure of a seemingly contagious madness that engulfs the emblematic couple, the Adam and Eve of a dystopian Eden. What some critics have labeled a misogynist fantasy is more generally a misanthropic tale of the dissolution of what is still today, in most societies, seen as the traditional triad, the “mommy, daddy, me” (as Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call the “Oedipal triangle”), through the gradual manifestation of a psychosis which incorporates (and the word is most appropriate, as the ‘symptoms’ are physically inscribed upon the corpora, the bodies, of the characters) the traditions of various notions of ‘evil’, fear of a notion of the uncontainable and uncontrollable ‘feminine’, and extending to a gradual fear of nature as the grand generating maternal machine turned malevolent. The workings of the narrative cannot, however, easily be contained in some form of ‘scared of mommy, afraid of women’ simplification. For “he” gradually manifests a paranoid assemblage, entering into a paranoid relation with “she” (Charlotte Gainsbourg) as his attempts to control and cure the ‘madness’ slowly unravel both the analytical paradigm, (which he has already crossed step by step, first by taking on his wife as a ‘patient’, then by entering into sexual relations with this taboo ‘analysand’), and possibly his grip on a reliable reality. Her psychosis can no less exist without his paranoia, and the point of view structure of the narrative slowly melts away like the nonexistent constellation of the “three beggars”, perhaps the pauper equivalents of the three wise men attending the death of the anti-Christ child in this reverse utopia.

This notion of contagious insanity leads us to the other genre invoked, that of ‘woman and madness’. Although titles such as The Snake Pit (Anatole Litvak, 1948), Three Faces of Eve (Nunnally Johnson, 1957), and Sybil (Daniel Petrie, 1976) may well be the mainstays of such a genre, they exemplify narratives which use the cypher of ‘woman’ as a gendered symptomatology, a counting off of causes and cures which attempts to contain and control the ‘madness of women’ through categorisation, much in the manner of psychoanalysis and the therapeutic tradition in general. The teleology is that of treatment and cure, and Freud’s implacable Dora is hardly their poster girl. The more relevant reference would be, for instance, to Robert Rosen’s Lilith (1963), where the ‘patient’ (Lilith, palyed by Jean Seberg) is an uncontrollable narrative force, the Foulcauldian mechanisms of discipline and control failing to exert their force on the internee of the asylum. Here again Lilith’s ‘madness’ begins to effect others at the institution, and we have the figure of contagion, even of characters initially presenting as ‘sane’. (The use of the figure of Lilith is itself fascinating, as it relates to a maze of references in the mythologies of so many civilizations, from prehistoric times to the present day, always figuring the uncontainable and uncontrollable feminine: Lilith, the demonic incarnation of lust, wandering sexual predator, emblem of lasciviousness, bearer of disease and death, succubus, embodiment of the power of seduction.) Generally, however, the Hollywood tradition seems to lean toward the representation of the ‘sick’ woman as a controllable entity who can ultimately be cured, or whose effects, at the very least, can be quarantined.

If such dramas tend to have ‘safe’ endings, where the general fabric of the socius remains intact, the thematic of the murderous, malicious, and malevolent feminine is more widely seen, and given freer reign, resulting in attendant havoc, within film noir. There is an abundance of literature on the role and function of the femme fatale in cinema, and it would suffice here to say that although murder and mayhem are par for the course in the genre, the portrayal is of characters who are, if somewhat socio/psychopathic, on the whole in control of their faculties. From the likes of Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944) to the Final Seduction (John Dahl, 1994), these are tales of deception, manipulation, and above all, cautionary sermons on the consequences of a ceding to the call of desire, both sexual and psychological. Although all of these are elements reflected and refracted in Antichrist, the madness central to the film is hardly the stylised seduction of film noir.

There are however, a number of uncategorisable films which fall uncomfortably between the genres of what could be called the ‘women’s film’ and film noir, where the chief character’s desire and obsession lead to chaos, although not to quite as extreme an extent as in von Trier’s film. There is for instance, Preminger’s Angel Face (1952), and the more unusual in many ways, particularly in its extent of adherence to melodramatic conventions, John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1946). Both leads are powerful drivers of their narrative trajectory, whose boderline obsessive and paranoid tendencies result in ‘grief, pain, and despair’ for all involved. Social conventions seem unable to limit their transgressive power, and although they exemplify, to a great degree, the paradigms of the film noir femme fatal, the criminal, underworld milieu is conspicuously missing in both.

This could perhaps point to what distinguishes Antichrist from films in the genres mentioned previously. It is an ‘exception film’ which, though using elements from a range of genres, deals with a different form of narrative, which might be called a cinema of the borderline, an invocation of the liminal, of a process of becoming. The closest body of work by any director to such a form may be the oeuvre of David Cronenberg, whose films, although more often considered as variations of horror stereotypes, or as ‘atypical horror’ for those clutching for categories to place them in, are centred on the thematic of the question: what is it to be human? From the earlier films in which the stereotyped notions of the mind and body, of consciousness and corporeality are questioned and reach limit points, points of transformation, fracturing, multiplication (Scanners (1975) – the limits of ‘individual’ consciousness become blurred and overlap; The Brood (1979) – extreme emotion gives birth to a new corporeality from the surface of the body, obviating the ordinary mechanisms of maternal generation; Videodrome (1983) – a new body incorporating non organic matter reaches what might be called ‘telecommunion’; The Fly (1986) – the human gradually becomes subsumed by the non-human, eXistenZ (1999) – the implantation of the non-organic leads to a merging of real and virtual, again the ‘telecommunion’). Such a conception of cinema would even encompass the work of Bresson (Mouchette, (1967) – how are the rejected of society to live, if the only road left to becoming human is to ‘unbecome’; Le journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, 1950) – what does one become following the absolute abjuring of the corporeal in attempting to reach religious ecstasy, a near psychotic assemblage; L’Argent (1982) and Le diable probablement (The Devil, Probably, 1977) when action follows desire without moral compunction, what are the consequences to the human condition placed in peril of losing it’s moorings completely, a form of psychosis).

A cinematic device which may not at first be apparent also links the two filmmakers. Each, although in a different way, uses the close-up in scenes that exemplify and concentrate the intensity of the limit points on locuses of the body. And is this not the same intensity, though of a different kind, which characterises what is derisively referred to as the ‘pornographic hard-core insert shot’, which has brought so much ridicule and controversy to the Prologue in Antichrist? Sexual ecstasy as the limit point of subjectivity, the dissolution of consciousness in an extreme state?

The close-up of the cineliminal can also be seen to be operational in the other two scenes that have drawn controversy. What is being referred to in reviews as the “torture porn” scene, is climactic, not only in terms of the violence displayed, and certainly intermingled with sexuality, but it occurs at a transition point where “she” irretrievably crosses over into a psychotic assemblage. The voracious sexuality that she has displayed is excessive enough from a traditional conservative view of female desire, particularly considering her state of mourning, but when it then moves into what is depicted to be nonconsensual extreme violence, the limits of the socially acceptable, even in terms of today’s liberal conceptions are exceeded. To ascribe the acts to von Trier as the puppetmaster of the narrative and actors and an alleged misogyny on his part is a gross simplification. The psychotic/paranoid subjective assemblage is reacting to the attempt “he” has been making to contain, normalise, control and annihilate the subject out of bounds that she is becoming.

Antichrist

The mention of “castration” in some accounts of the scene is interesting also, as “she” hits his lower body with a plank. There is no castrating implement, no excessive blood; where is this “castration” coming from? What then follows is no ordinary ‘porn’ shot. She masturbates him (he is either in extreme shock from the attack or unconscious) to an ejaculation which seems to consist partly, or possibly completely of blood. There is, to begin, the question of whether this is at all physically possible. Such a doubt would then already put the point of view structure in peril, and raise the possibility that the sequence, and possibly the whole film, is a psychotic delusional fantasy, equally possibly of one or the other character, a risk which always haunts any film. Even if the sequence is considered to be in narrative ‘real time’, the conventions of a pornographic masturbation scene are subverted, if not controverted. The male gaze within the shot is no longer present, the female gaze is overly intense and there is no submissive posturing on her part, nor meeting of the two’s looks, a standard part of the lexicon of masturbation depiction in porn. Additionally the ejaculation of blood is hardly erotic to most, and if anything, it would constitute a genre of porn only attractive to a small minority of extremely masochistic males and just as extreme sadistic females. In the general iconography of popular S & M porn, the “contract” between participants that Deleuze refers to in Coldness and Cruelty, his introduction to Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, requires the consent and agreement of both parties, which does not occur here.(2) It places the sequence in the realm of psychopathology, which surely exists, but is not the norm of most pornographic material. Additionally, the bloody ejaculate is a liminal image in that it brings blood, normally within the body, to the outside in the same manner as menstruation (that is, through a sexual organ), images of which are uncommon, and in most societies have been considered taboo (this is not to say that such fetishised images are not available, but that they are very much a minority interest).

The following sequence is again a point of narrative intensity. If the gruesome drilling of a limb appears to be part of horror iconography, what “she” then does changes the tenor of the scene. In any case, it brings up the question of the body, corporality, and carrion, an iconography who’s early manifestations reside in the portrayal of crucifixions and more recently were brought to a more personal and everyday level by the work of Francis Bacon. This is the body (and/or body parts) as anomalous and anomic, as envisaged by Georges Bataille and others of the College of Sociology,(3) and the state of abjection described by Julia Kristeva,(4) and again by Bataille. It is the body in crisis, the body in intensity, recalling Deleuze and Guattari’s formulation that not all voyages are spatial, but can be that of intensities. This is not the body of the horror film, where the narrative demands a confrontation between the perpetrator and a random individual standing in for the audience, where there is no prior relation between the characters. (Is that also the horror of the Nazi concentration camp, where individuality and identity, as well as the notion of ‘humanity’ itself is stripped, an incarceratory machine taken to its final form, and therefore “final solution”? How would Liliana Cavani’s couple in The Night Porter (1973), transgressing the mechanisms of such a disciplinary machine in extremis figure in such a formulation? Is the intensely personal sado-masochistic mutual ‘marking’ of their bodies a reclaiming on their part?) The piercing is a lancing of the analyst’s word become flesh, threatening to control and contain the paranoid assemblage of the analysand. There is a prior narrative infusing the scene that differentiates it from the grand guignol norm of the horror genre.

One can also contrast this body to the medicalised/institutionalised body (in Michel Foucault’s sense) that exemplifies the recent rash of ‘hospital/medical procedure’ television programmes. Even though embedded in an ostensibly melodramatic narrative meant to involve the audience, the standard practice of institutional medicine removes the body, its parts, and its taxonomised symptomatology to depersonalise the surgical procedure and alienate it from the body in process which individuates it as a subject. The ‘intensification’ of the body referred to here is the movement, either of territorialisation or deterritorialisation, which may include a subjectifying or de-subjectifying, it is the ‘becoming’ that matters, even if it results in a dissolution or disappearance of the subjective assemblage (death, psychosis, catatonia). This is the realm of shamanic practice, unusually depicted (though perhaps in a semi-sensationalised, trivialised manner) in Elliot Silverstein’s A Man Called Horse (1969) and its sequel, Irvin Kershner’s Return of A Man Called Horse (1976). It is also the arena of performance artists such as Stellarc and the late Robert Flanagan, the subject of the documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (Kirby Dick, 1997).

AntichristThe insertion and fixing of the grinding wheel onto the limb not only echoes crucifixion, but ‘makes material’ the friction and force of the analyst in the uncooperative analysand’s eyes. Perhaps it is the transference of the metaphorical millstone hung around the rebellious patient in an attempt to stop the normalising threatening discourse of analysis. One could speak of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) as a materialization of psychosis (on the part of the character played by Tippi Hedren?) in a similar manner. (In fact, a publicity still on the Antichrist site has von Trier seated in a large armchair, with a dead crow at his feet, wings spread out, lying dead on it’s back, no doubt a reference to the promotional images Hitchcock at the time of The Birds.)

Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi HedrenWhat is to be made of the much maligned ‘clitorectomy’ scene that follows? To begin with, the use of the term is misleading. What seems fairly clear is that “she”, using the scissors, has sheared off a labium. In the speed and movement of the shot, it is virtually impossible to determine the exact points of severing. Such labeling also reveals the media’s bias, what Jacques Derrida pointed out as the ‘phallogocentrism’ of culture (and this would be in the most literal manner imaginable). For the clitoris is not the simple analogue of a penis, miniaturised, but includes sensory tissue lying deep within the lower torso and acting in consort with the labia, vulva and vagina in erogenous stimulation (Deleuze and Guattari propose the conceptualising of skin as a field of vaginae, dissolving just such simple formulations). What is depicted cannot be equated to a severing of a penis or castration. It is also not a depiction of a ‘torture’ for the pleasure of the male character’s sadistic gaze within the narrative, but an instance of self-harm, an act often carried out to claim control over psychic or physical pain (again, Bob Flanagan and the documentary on him come to mind, and particularly the most well known cinematic depiction of self-harm in cinema, the penis nailing in the film). The use of the scissors is not the murderous deployment seen in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954), or any number of other thrillers, and the designer of the theatrical poster which uses it as it’s central motif, with the handles morphed into the couples faces, has captured what the scene embodies more accurately than any words could describe.

AntichristIt should also be remembered that all the action takes place in the house in the woods, giving the images a mythic dimension often present in fairy tales. These are the forest and house of Jungian archetype and Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography (it would appear the only universally praised aspect of the film) shifts gradually as the protagonists proceed to their destination. The image markers, though, had already begun on the train journey out to the dystopian Eden. There are shots of the blurred passing scenery in the train window, but within the shot of the smeared countryside are subliminal inserts of “she”, mouth open wide in an existential scream worthy of Edward Munch’s painting of the same name. Thus the transition between urban and bucolic is already overwritten with the beginnings of a movement toward anguish, grief, despair, and psychic disintegration. The importance of sound design in the film should also be mentioned. As the tale moves inexorably toward it’s characters’ dissolution, the use of what can only be described as disconcerting and discomforting sound effects comes to the fore and dominates the aural field. (Is this analogous to, in Marguerite Duras’ India Song (1975), the madwoman’s song referred to in the voice-over, and the insistent piano refrain on the soundtrack? We have here an ‘auditory cinema’ in the league of Bernard Herrmann’s use of sound in Psycho (1960) and The Birds, something few director’s today entertain. Could the continual ‘raining’ of acorns onto the roof of the cabin be compared to Herrmann’s famous ‘slashing’ motif in Psycho?)

As the couple hike toward the house the discomfiture rises, it is as if the house already contains the psychosis to take place. (It could easily be compared to the famous house of Hitchcock’s Psycho, though the trajectory of that narrative adheres more closely to the later oft-repeated horror standard. The desiccated body of the mother in the wheelchair, however, brings in thematics of the abject maternal body that are far less common.) The couple are in effect entering a zone, comparable to that famously marked out in Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), where nothing can be relied on any longer, and anything may change at any moment: the liminal itself. It is also the house floating on the surface of the planet Solaris in Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel of the same title. “She” is afraid to enter the zone, sensing the threat to her subjective assemblage. It is a bridge she fears crossing, literalised in several scenes. Again the figure of the liminal, the stream, neither a still body of water nor reliable grounding, with a bridge, a transition point between two zones of intensity.

AntichristEverything in the zone conspires to destroy the couple and their subjectivities, it is a paranoid assemblage par excellence. The very ground seems to open up to swallow them. In fact, is she not beginning to hallucinate that it will actually do so? She cannot countenance walking on the grass, while “he” tries to cure her by getting her to imagine becoming one with it, precisely the dissolution she fears, a poetic, and at the same time terrifying image realised on screen. Is it not an appropriate revenge when she tries to bury him alive? Again the liminality, a state between life and death, of integrity of the body and its disintegration.

This fate seems later to have even befallen one of the three beggars. “he”, having dragged his way away from the house, weighed down by the grindstone/millstone, hides in the tree stump, a kind of cave, the cthonic, neither surface nor earth, sepulchural, again a space of transition, and finds buried the crow, the carrion eating creature, buried within it. In fact, the other two animals in this fable can be seen as liminal creatures as well. The self-devouring (self-harming?) fox is both inside and outside, a wound is always in a state between healing or infection. The foaling deer has it’s offspring, still in it’s amniotic sac, hanging from it’s vagina, neither alive nor unborn, but in process. It is the figure of the maternal, neither one body nor two, the subjectivity in generation. (The foetus has a central role in another seminal film of existential horror and angst, Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), where it is an abject body, still unformed, neither human nor inhuman, aborted, and by all rights, should be dead, but still alive.)

It is no surprise that the fairy tale house in the woods should present an impending danger. This is the emblematic residence of evil in the dark woods, the subconscious waiting to ravenously devour whatever red riding hood may arrive at it’s door. (In Neil Jordan’s most accomplished work, his adaptation of Angela Carter’s In The Company of Wolves (1985), the psycho-sexual undercurrents of the tale are brought to the fore – another film with many liminal thematics, with the becoming-animal which is the mainstay of the werewolf myth and films of the horror genre, and oddly reminiscent of Cronenberg.) It is, after all, the house of the witch Hansel and Gretel narrowly escape: children are in peril when they approach it (François Ozon brilliantly uses that particular narrative as part of his modern fable, Les amants criminel [The Criminal Lovers, 1999]). And witchcraft resides here too, it would seem. “He” finds evidence in the attic (another horror film favourite for the hiding place of secrets and evil) of the sorcery which he suspects has begun to take over his betrothed, when he discovers the book of incantations that his wife has worked on during her previous residence, the “Gynocide” thesis she had been writing. As he leafs through, it is difficult not to be reminded of Häxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages, Benjamin Christensen, 1922) and, of course, any and all films regarding such themes, the reproductions of witch burnings bringing to mind even Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), and the inevitable conflation of witchcraft, desire, religious states of ecstasy and demonic possession that then play into Antichrist‘s narrative. Again, the figure of the archaic Lilith, killer of children, unbridled hunger, succubus arises.

Is it any surprise, then, that the child, who has already been in this witch’s den, and through an elaborate narrative ruse, involving uncovered photographs from a previous stay, and a coroner’s report, is shown to have been occasioned harm by his mother’s putting on his boots back to front (the witch’s malfeasant attempt to form his feet into cloven hoofs?), is it any surprise that this child must die? This is not the first film in which the death of a child results in madness and chaos. There is the equally moody, though ultimately crass and simplistic thriller, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). Then, although at first the comparison may seem inapposite, there is Roberto Rossellini’s Europa 51 (1952). It also begins with the death of the child of the lead character, played by Ingrid Bergman, again by a fall, which may even have been a suicide, rather than an accident. The mother grieves and, like “she”, is hospitalised. In both narratives, this supposed repose is a rupture, which in Antichrist is a virtual ellipsis, an unknown zone where several weeks have passed, during which, possibly, the abyss of psychosis has opened up. In Rossellini’s film, the hospitalisation marks a turning point in the protagonist’s psyche, a liminal transformative episode from which she embarks on a journey of self discovery, renouncing her privileged lifestyle to follow an ascetic trajectory (in some ways recalling Bresson’s Diary of Country Priest), a road with religious overtones which those from her secular background cannot understand, a sequestering from the material world which ultimately leads to her committal to an asylum.

Must a child die for the narrative to proceed? In view of one of the most intractable and widespread of tales, the death of Christ, being central to one of the most widespread of religions, is there any surprise to this? Even the Old Testament has its close analogue, with the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. It would appear that such a proto-narrative is deeply engrained in social memory, as much as it’s reverse, patricide/matricide, and resides as a reflection of both biological imperatives as well as those organising social structures. Is this the cautionary tale of what happens to those who do not protect the progeny of the species? In Antichrist, however, there is one final twist. In the epilogue, a repeated telling of this narrative driver, there is a reverse shot structure which does not appear in the prologue: the child walks towards the bathroom and sees his parents in the Freudian “Primal Scene”. There is then an ambiguity in what follows. “She” has seen her child, but does not stop the sex. Has the child’s gaze met hers? This is not made clear with any resultant reverse shot. In a paranoid reading of a demonic progeny of a possessed maternal body, it is entirely possible to construct a narrative where the child, in fact, is following a preordained path, it’s own destruction, an Anti-Christian sacrifice of the child of Satan, in order to put in train the eventual destruction of the mother and the father. This would be a turn-around in the interpretation of the entire narrative. The child then becomes not the innocent cause of the battle between the mother’s psychosis and the father’s paranoia, but joins the ranks of “evil children” of cinema, alongside those appearing in The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956), The Omen (Richard Donner, 1976) and of course, again, Rosemary’s Baby (and needlessly conveniently for such an argument, is named “Nic”). There is also the precedent in literature in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, also made into several cinematic and televisual adaptations. This would in itself represent a diabolical Hitchcockian ‘McGuffin’, but there has already been a moment where the narrative logic has turned, possibly entirely. Back in the cabin and attempting to find a way to remove the grindstone from his leg, “he” suddenly begins to ram down at the floorboards, eventually breaking through them (where has this strength come from? One could ascribe it to an adrenaline driven instance of extreme exertion, but still…) and then reaches down to find the wrench, finally finding the way to free himself. How did he know it was there? There are no clues in any previous scenes as to how this occurs. Does this mean that the whole film is a paranoid delusion from his viewpoint? It is what could be called another ‘Caligari point’, the moment at which the interpretation of all that has come before is overturned, (and as in A Page of Madness) the inmates thence on are running the asylum. After all, “she” then stabs him, and though he survives the attack, he then crosses the ultimate line, strangling her in what oddly seems to intermix a release of hatred, but a form of deliverance for her as well. Is this the analyst’s ultimate cure?

The ambiguous ending, with his climbing the hill, a large tree growing out of it’s apex (is it the survival of the bifurcating arboreal structure which underlies traditional organisation of society, according to Deleuze and Guattari?), while writhing bodies appear surrounding him in a Dante-esque hellish scene, is no comfort. For “he” is now alone, and has destroyed what he professed to have loved most. The therapist’s Faustian bargain has taken its course. Is he, then, now stuck in what could be organised religion’s most potent invention of a liminal zone: purgatory?

With so many seeming loose ends, narrative rhizomes (strands which cannot necessarily be reduced to a cause and effect structure), and reversals of point of view and the ascription of causality, is there an audience for this film? Certainly, for those with an expectation of tidy trajectories, there is no respite nor solution. Perhaps there are some pleasures to be gained for the horror genre aficionado, and also even those enamored of the ‘psychological’ film. But for those who can jettison expectations of conclusions, certainties, and a cinema of reassurance, there are a plethora of resonances to entertain. After all, Jean-Françios Lyotard so resoundingly rang the death knell of “master narratives” in his The Postmodern Condition more than two decades ago, can the search for masterpieces not at last be put to rest?

In memoriam Nick Waterlow (1941-2009)

 

Endnotes

  1. Raul Ruiz in “Du Chili à Klossowski: Jérôme Prieur entretien avec Raul Ruiz”, Raul Ruiz, Ses 3 Premiers Films en France, box set, 2006 blaq out Collection.
  2. Gilles Deleuze, ‘Coldness and Cruelty’, in Masochism (New York: Zone Books, 1989), pp. 9-138.
  3. Denis Hollier, Ed. The College of Sociology, 1937-39 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).
  4. Julia Kristeva., Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).