written and directed by Lars von Trier
starring Willem Defoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Cinema has the potential to shock, annoy, retard, unnerve, and occasionally remove the veil that separates life as it is lived from whatever gesticulations are taking place on the screen. In Lars von Trier’s excellent new film, the audience is subjected to a snapshot of the lives of a married couple who are faced with the aftermath of a tremendous tragedy that affects them each in very different ways.
Known only as He (Dafoe) and She (Gainsbourg), the couple face the future after the death of their toddler son. The film is broken up into four chapters as well as a prologue and epilogue. The prologue introduces us to the couple as they are having increasingly intense sex. Their child leaves his bed and ultimately ends up on the ground below after climbing through an open window. These scenes are shot slow motion in glorious black and white accompanied by an aria called "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Handel’s opera Rinaldo. The music conveys tortured romance and longing for something to have and to hold.
The four chapters are Grief, Pain (Chaos Reigns), Despair (Gnynocide) and The Three Beggars.
Each deals with various stages of emotional unrest as it afflicts both He and She. Unable to deal with their torment at home they leave for a cabin in the woods known as Eden. Why it is called Eden is not altogether clear. It certainly sits amongst a wilderness that is both inviting and terrifying and it’s possible that the name may reference Eden after the fall. It appears friendly and hospitable but there is something exceedingly unnerving about it that slowly wreaks its cruel magic on the couple who find it difficult to reach a state of being that allows them to manage effective their grief and their ongoing estrangement from each other. They are both trapped and unable to fully articulate their terrors, fears, agonies, etc.
He is a therapist and she came to the cabin the previous summer to work on a thesis about violence toward women. In the midst of it she discovered what she refers to as evidence that women are inherently evil because human nature is evil. He begins to treat her as a patient and uses a number of exposure techniques to get her to face her fear which she believes is centered at Eden.
The film delves deeply into the psychology of the woman as she slowly begins to unravel over the course of the film. She always initiates sex and does so in an aggressive and possessive manner. Indeed, she uses sex as a blocking mechanism in order to rid her mind of the torment that persistently afflicts it. She seems to believe that each orgasm puts distance between herself and her thoughts which are filled with remorse because she believes herself responsible for the boy’s death. He tries to comfort her but never truly reaches her. He is controlling and authoritative using the psychobabble language of modern therapy and none of it works to help her see the nature of her sorrow. His lack proves to be his downfall as he goads her through the inadequacy of his technique into acts of progressively menacing despair.
Few films have dealt with the agony of loss with such immediacy as this film. It is omnipresent and effectively chokes both He and She and cuts them off from their emotions. He seems cold and indifferent while she becomes progressively more hysterical and unmanageable. She is truly the wild, anguished Mother who seeks revenge for the loss of her child. It is as if she becomes possessed by the spirts of every female who has suffered injustice at the hands of a man. They come together within her and the result is a terribly angry, frustrated, haunted creature who literally cannot tolerate the inability of her husband to understand the totemic quality of her grief. He represents the failure of words, however soothing, however calming, to do anything whatsoever to ease the pain that always comes to those who have suffered the loss of a child. She doesn’t want to understand the nature of her fear, she doesn’t care that it exists. She merely wants to unleash her vengeance and he becomes her obvious target.
These are performances that very few actors have the courage to take upon themselves. The roles require a peering into the very depths of hell in order to extract characters who feel the anguish of existence with exacting fury and rebuke. The film exposes God as an imposter and the conceits of society to be a sham. Nothing in the end exists that can help a person when they are hanging off a cliff with one hand. Life is essentially meaningless and grief mocks us by revealing our helplessness to deal with personal tragedy. We live barely skimming the surface of the vaunted ocean of being and so very few decide to dive into the depths to see what strange alien creatures reside in such a murky paradise.
Nature plays a foreboding role in this picture simply due to its presence as horror is played out in and around the cabin. It is not the nature of pictures and postcards which people insist on showing to one another merely to prove that they exist. This nature is ugly, furious, eager to establish its dominion over its pathetic, unruly usurpers who call themselves human. It is best represented by the acorns that routinely fall onto the cabin’s roof. They incessantly remind this couple that they are in enemy territory and they can expect no sympathy from the foilage, animals and trees about them.
The symbols in this film are quite difficult to grasp even upon two viewings. There are animals that appear for reasons that remain obscure. What is the meaning of a deer carrying around a dead fawn or a fox disemboweling itself? What of the violences administered by the woman in moments of absolute terror? Indeed these scenes have struck a number of commentators as being excessive and unnecessary. They are certainly graphic and horrible but they prove to show the degeneration of sex and its terrible aspects and how closely linked sexual ecstasy is with pain. The look on the woman’s face during her orgasm could easily be from getting stabbed in the chest as her husband continues to pump away.
Sex in this film is as all good sex violent, raw, and intense. She uses it as a painkiller and even insists on mounting her husband while crying uncontrollably. Then she asks him to hit her which he refuses at first only to relent after discovering her at the base of a tree masturbating furiously. Auto-eroticism has become a maniacal attempt to reach pain and it has nothing to do with sexuality at this point. It is simply a measure designed to feel something, anything, that might possess a meaning of its own. The goal, the orgasm, is a fact that cannot be denied and however the fleeting the pleasure it at least proves that at that moment the person existed and performed a task of great import.
Overall, this film features extraordinary performances by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Each actor brings forth all the guilt, suffering and torment one could possibly expect from such a script. These individuals are lost in their own devaluations of life and nothing saves them from their own debasement. The film does seem to put forth the idea that women are in fact evil and because of their general emotional instability much more vicious and cruel when scorned. She demonstrates this clearly as she maneuvers herself through the film. But, He is not necessarily presented as blameless throughout and most certainly not at the end. His morality slowly cedes to reveal something that is as ugly as any of the stories she has collected regarding the behaviors of “the sisters” as she describes womanhood.