WORDS Harry Pasek
"Antichrist" (2009)
DIRECTOR Lars von Trier
"Posession" (1981)
DIRECTOR Andrzei Zutawski
A woman laughs and shrieks uncontrollably in an underpass, hurling the bags of shopping she carries against the wall. She writhes with maniacal rhythm, utterly uninhibited, her abject movement showing no concern for her own body. She is burning with something that could be rage. As she reaches a kind of harrowing crescendo, it reveals itself to be a total abdication of the self. Eventually, she slumps to her knees, covering herself in vomit and other indeterminate fluids that emerge from her body. The scene ends.

In the late 1970s, the film directors Andrzej Zulawski and David Cronenberg both went through painful, acrimonious divorces. In 1979, Cronenberg released The Brood, in which a man and his mentally ill wife fight for custody of their five-year-old child, against a backdrop of experimental psychotherapy and a series of brutal, unsolved murders. In 1981, Zulawski released Possession, in which Mark (Sam Neill), a spy, returns home to his West Berlin flat to find that his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) has been unfaithful and wants a divorce.


These are both horror films, with Lovecraftian monsters, ostentatious scenes of death, gore and much else besides. Perhaps the most horrifying element of each film, however, lies in the unvarnished, pessimistic view of human relationships that they share: a perspective undoubtedly informed by each director’s recent experiences. Cronenberg described The Brood as his version of Kramer vs. Kramer. Disillusioned with that film’s rosy depiction of divorce, he wanted to make something ‘more realistic.’ Zulawski, meanwhile, states that he wrote Possession in a deep depression, and incorporated his real-life experiences of divorce into the screenplay. These films are more than autobiographical navel-gazing, but this context nonetheless reveals something about their overall meaning.


In the mid-2000s, Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier was also suffering from a debilitating depression that left him hospitalized. While recovering, he had an idea that would become 2009’s Antichrist, a film about an unnamed couple (played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who retreat to a cabin in the woods following the death of their son, which explores the darker recesses of what it means to love another person. While many terrible, nauseating things happen in the film, perhaps the scariest thing about Antichrist is the sense that we cannot ever truly know even the closest people to us, much less help them.


These films sit within a tradition of art cinema that utilizes the tropes of the horror genre to explore the unconscious and subconscious elements of human relationships. Other notable examples include Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and, latterly, Ari Aster’s Midsommar. There has been much talk of a recent revival of so-called ‘elevated horror cinema,’ but serious film directors have long understood the genre’s potential to expose the more difficult truths of human nature, relationships and love.

Horror is a cinematic language of extremes, and the genre that most effectively mines the collective unconscious. It is no wonder that love and relationships, the causes of many of our most extreme emotions, so effectively dovetail with a form that might seem worlds apart from romance.

Some romantic dramas are plainly horrific. Consider the close of David Lean’s Brief Encounter, in which, after the end of an affair, Laura (Celia Johnson) seriously considers hurling herself into the path of an oncoming express train, before quietly returning home to her husband and family. Or Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage – admittedly hardly ‘romantic’ – in which, during an affair with her former husband, Marianne (Liv Ullmann) awakes from a nightmare worrying that she has never loved another nor been loved herself.


Through the more extreme visual and emotional landscapes of horror cinema, the interior landscapes associated with love can be probed from different angles. The ugliness of jealousy, the bitter fear of rejection, the dark stab of cosmic loneliness: All of these things have been explored in rich and inventive ways in horror films. The ease with which horror can embrace the surreal has always allowed for a more expressionistic rendering of emotional states and internal struggles. Indeed, the earliest horror cinema arose from the interplay of established Gothic literary tropes and the new visual language of German Expressionism, which emphasized the depiction of inner feeling over the replication of reality.


Perhaps the first horror film to explore the essential weirdness of love and relationships was F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). Doomed to be unloved for eternity, through the vast abyss of time, Count Orlok is one of the most tragic, horrific figures in cinema. When Werner Herzog remade the film in 1979 with Klaus Kinski in the starring role, he had his immortal antihero state plainly that “the absence of love is the most abject pain.” The source of his tragedy is the same thing that haunts Marianne’s nightmares in Scenes from a Marriage: the idea of our essential isolation from others.


In their own ways, Possession and Antichrist represent two of the most effective examples of an expressionistic cinema of love. Near the beginning of Possession, after Anna has informed Mark of her desire to leave, they lie naked in bed, a rare tender moment in a film famed for its unhinged, operatic performances. “Maybe all couples go through this,” Anna offers to Mark. What is meant by ‘this’ is not immediately clear. It seems to be, at the very least, a genuine attempt to make sense of the rupture. As the film unfolds, the statement acquires a mordant humor. Most couples certainly do not go through one partner cheating on the other with a grotesque, tentacled monster in an abandoned building in Kreuzberg. Still, the film gives ugly, physical form to feelings of jealousy, betrayal and sexual inadequacy that are relatable, and that many couples do experience at some stage.


The being Anna has fallen for remains completely unexplained, but exerts an irresistible hypnotic, erotic pull upon her. It gains strength from their sexual assignations, and its form becomes gradually more human throughout the film. For her part, Anna will go to any length to protect the creature, killing the investigators her husband has hired when they discover the thing.

In a film largely written from the perspective of a spurned partner, Zulawski creates a literal monster from the psychological trauma of infidelity. Insecurities that are usually left to fester in the imagination are given a shocking form consummate to the internal havoc they have wrought.

The monster is not simply of Mark’s making, but also of Anna’s: the awful issue of her unfaithfulness and Mark’s own failures as a partner, nursed and strengthened by her self-hatred and his jealousy. Perhaps this is a heavy-handed metaphor, but it is certainly an effective one. “I can’t exist by myself because I’m afraid of myself,” Anna says, “because I’m the maker of my own evil.”


Throughout the film, the outlandish performances given by Neill and, especially, Adjani externalize emotions that often remain sublimated. Their rage, confusion and despair meet head on with no self-restraint. A fraught early argument in a cafe ends with furniture hurled across the room and, in a bravura sight gag, Mark being forcibly restrained by several of the restaurant’s staff. In another scene, both Mark and Anna cut themselves with an electric meat carver. While very few relationships, however dysfunctional, could sustain this level of intense conflict, the painful emotional landscape of Possession is a simple and understandable one.

Throughout the film, the internal trauma of loving and losing another person is expressed externally, viscerally and without inhibition. We see the wounds being inflicted and we hear how it feels. The film is an exorcism of feeling.

A perceived loss of control is also central to Gainsbourg’s performance in Antichrist. Suffering from atypical grief after the death of her son and undergoing ethically dubious analysis from her psychiatrist husband, in several scenes she urgently and violently attempts to initiate sex with him, which he is powerless to resist. While sexual jealousy is one of the driving forces in Possession, sexual compulsion is more prominent in Antichrist. The couple’s chemistry is established early on – in fact, they are having sex in the opening scene, when their son escapes from his cot and falls to his death from an open window. The film mirrors Don’t Look Now in its exploration of the intersection of grief and sexuality, but presents a darker interpretation of the role sex might have in the aftermath of bereavement. In a work rich with biblical allusions, desire is posited as the couple’s original sin, rendering them tragically negligent of their parental duties. As the film wears on, the woman’s sexual compulsions are presented to the audience as a way to avoid confronting her grief, her desire becoming increasingly sadomasochistic over time.


The supernatural phenomena the husband experiences in the woods (which, in another biblical allusion, are called Eden) provide cryptic clues to what is afoot. A scene in which he encounters a disemboweled fox that tells him “Chaos reigns” is the clearest omen. Eventually, it is revealed that the woman has intentionally killed their son and has brought her husband to the woods to kill him, after her academic research into historical ‘gynocide’ leads her to believe that women are inherently evil.


The revelation of this deceit upends the assumptions on which the film has been built. In one harrowing scene, she bludgeons the man in the crotch with a toolbox, causing him to pass out from pain. Noticing his penis is erect despite being unconscious, she manually stimulates him until he ejaculates blood, before drilling a large bolt attached to a heavy stone through his leg. While shocking, this huge shift in the couple’s balance of power feels at least partly warranted, after we have spent much of the film watching the husband’s controlling need to psychoanalyze his wife, motivated more by male arrogance than the desire to provide care. Despite this, eventually, the husband is able to free himself from the bolt and strangles his wife to death, before burning her body on a funeral pyre and escaping the forest.


Antichrist is the stuff of nightmares, but points to a more pedestrian fear: of not being able to know another person, no matter how close they may be. As in Possession, by presenting the most extreme possible conclusion of a partner’s fears and insecurities, Von Trier creates a harrowing vision of love as unreliable, compulsive, self-serving and ultimately futile. While the major deceit of the couple’s relationship is enacted by the woman, the man is hardly blameless, with his questionable compulsion to treat his wife. Again, love emerges as a potentially destructive force, or a smokescreen through which other drives and desires are rationalized and enacted.


The elephant in the room in Possession, Antichrist and The Brood is misogyny. It is no coincidence that each is directed by a man, and while they all explore the complexity of gender and sexual politics between couples to some degree, each could be read as having a dim view of women. In Possession and Antichrist, the female leads are duplicitous, unattainable and removed, while simultaneously psychologically unstable and needy.

These films freely offer the viewer access to the insecurities of the straight male subconscious, rooted at least partly in a fear of feminine agency. They all depict versions of the monstrous feminine: Women who shatter the roles they have been assigned by cheating on their partners, and neglecting or killing their children.

Antichrist, in particular, plays with these notions by explicitly discussing the relationship between evil and womanhood, but its conclusions are purposefully unclear. In the final scene, while escaping the forest after killing his wife, the man is set upon by a large crowd of women wearing outdated clothing, walking peacefully towards him, their facial features obscured. Despite the fact that these ghostly apparitions appear benign, their ethereal presence cannot be assumed to be positive. They are a metaphor for the enormity – for better or worse – of feminine power, which the man has only just come to understand through his experiences in Eden.


In Possession, Mark discovers that his son’s teacher, Helen, is a doppelganger for Anna, and begins a tentative relationship with her. Also played by Adjani, Helen is submissive and quiet, while being an attentive, caring motherly figure to the child: exactly the opposite temperament to Anna. She is a manifestation of the divine feminine, but her benevolence has something of the uncanny about it, as though she has been lobotomized. By juxtaposing two characters played by the same actor, Zulawski presents opposing poles of womanhood, neither of which in their extreme form are healthy or desirable.


It is clear that these directors are interested in womanhood. What remains unclear is the extent to which they are concerned with a female perspective. Men are the subjects of these films, and women are complex and difficult obstacles for them to overcome. In their defense, these films deal with subconscious drives and insecurities, and the unconscious is not always an enlightened place. These are films that shine a light on ugly emotions that people do feel, and the filmmakers do work subtly to criticize these emotions throughout, examining and lamenting the shortcomings and blind spots of our psychological makeup.


By the end of Possession, the creature has evolved further, becoming a doppelganger of Mark. Before their death in a hail of police bullets, after a ludicrous chase through West Berlin, Anna shows the doppelganger to Mark. “It’s finished!” she says, “I wanted you to see.” This is another strangely tender moment, with Anna appearing proud to have made something in Mark’s image. It is also an absurd, nightmare vision of meeting the new partner of an ex for the first time. After Mark and Anna’s death, Mark’s doppelganger bangs on the door of their flat, where Helen is bathing their son. The son screams and pleads for her not to answer it, but as the film ends, she walks to the door.


Here, Zulawski gestures towards generational trauma, and the cyclical nature of our mistakes, frailties and follies. In a sense, when the doppelgangers meet, Mark and Anna will be reunited. Earlier in the film, Anna states that “We are all the same. Different words, different bodies, different versions. Like insects! Meat!” This unseen ‘reunion’ is the film’s ultimate tragedy, in the same way that an abused partner might return to their abuser. We can’t escape the bonds that we form, Zulawski says, even in death.


For their faults, these are powerful, challenging and genuinely innovative films. In giving shape to the outer limits of love and emotion, Von Trier and Zulawski create distinctive and honest topographies of the psychological torment that relationships can enact. Horror has had success over the last decade presenting itself as a cinema of ideas; these films are certainly intellectually rich, and laden with philosophical questions. What they remind us, however, is that horror has always been primarily a cinema of emotions, and that love is rarely without the most exquisite of horrors.