by Lewis Manalo
At first glance, a viewer would not expect Avatar and Antichrist to invite a critical comparison. Avatar is a computer-generated extravaganza, a record-breaking blockbuster. Antichrist is the enfant terrible auteur’s psycho-thriller, and any records it broke would involve how many people have walked out of it. Yet a closer inspection reveals that each film addresses similar themes of loss, femininity, and nature; but each film veers off to a radically different — and equally ridiculous — conclusion.
Throughout his career, James Cameron has explored a singular brand of femininity, one that is tough, sexy, and motherly. In the opening scenes of his first film Piranha 2: The Spawning, the camera lingers on the bare legs of a woman lounging in bed, only to have the eroticism of the scene interrupted by her child running into the room. Cameron’s butch rendition of Ripley in Aliens takes a little orphan under her wing, and the depiction of the tough, sexy, motherly ideal comes together in Terminator 2‘s Sarah Connor as depicted with brilliance by Linda Hamilton (in the tradition of auteur and muse, Cameron’s ex-wife).
In Avatar, the women are still tough, even out-butching all the science and corporate guys, and though Sigourney Weaver‘s character is a might bit motherly of Sam Worthington‘s Jake Sully, forcing him to eat his meals with tender bossiness, women take on a larger thematic role in the film. With the requisite messiahs to await and father-figures to kill, the narrative is constructed along the lines of monomyth, following a Syd Field, paint by numbers format. As the females that take on a larger symbology, Weaver’s scientist character Grace and Zoe Saldana‘s alien woman warrior Neytiri become the gateway to Nature. Grace gives Sully access to Pandora by giving him an avatar, and Neytiri teaches him how to live in harmony with Pandora, effectively making him a part of Nature like Dryden’s noble savage.
Where James Cameron loves women in a way that would’ve made Howard Hawks proud, Lars von Trier is a bit more ambivalent about the females of our species. Trier often puts his heroines through all kinds of torture and suffering. Bjork’s suffering mother mother in Dancer in the Dark is betrayed by a man she confided in, then hanged. Emily Watson’s Bess from Breaking the Waves sleeps with strangers at the bidding of her delusional husband, only to have a shipful of sailors gang-rape her, causing injuries that lead to her death. The suffering women of von Trier’s films often reach unexplained martyrdom, such as Bess’ husband’s miraculous cure, but in the end, they still end up screwed.
In Antichrist, as in Avatar, women are the agent of Nature, but von Trier skips over the primitivist’s romantic view, instead funneling the 14th Century sentiment that “Nature is Satan’s church” through Jacques Lacan’s idea of ideology being the root of behavior. The cabin in the woods scenario is reminiscent of Evil Dead, but with Woman being the agent of Nature, the people who need to be afraid in the forest are the men and the children. As with Cameron’s mother figure, Charlotte Gainsbourg‘s mother is highly sexual (explicitly so) and sadistic and homicidal, but instead of having the protective instincts of Ripley or Sarah Connor, Antichrist‘s mother tortures child and husband, letting the first fall to its death and attempting to kill the latter.
(Though not central to this piece, it’s worth noting that Jake’s opportunity to use an avatar on Pandora only comes after the death of his twin, who, other than a few curt comments, Jake doesn’t really seem to mourn. A death, this time a child’s, is also the catalyst to the story in Antichrist, but von Trier treats death as a real tragedy, not a plot device. Also of note, where the violence in Avatar is thrilling and entertaining, the violence in Antichrist is horrific and brutal. I’m just saying.)
The divergence of these two filmmakers and their themes comes from their philosophical source material. Cameron has been reading too much Joseph Campbell, and the overly simplistic structure of the monomyth, copulating with Cameron’s technology fetish, guides the hero of Avatar to triumphant Post-Humanity on a planet that is an actual biological database. (Really. It’s in the movie.) Von Trier, on the other hand, has been reading too much Jacques Lacan, leading to a lot of brutality towards the genitals and a healthy dose of sexual desire motivated by death.
If you can get past watching the Disney-fied Thundercats having sex in the woodland database (in 3D) and the (mis)appropriation of September 11th imagery, Avatar does deliver on action, and if you can get past the ridiculousness of a talking fox and the outrageousness of an unconscious man ejaculating blood, Antichrist does deliver on horror. But with such radical assertions to make, neither film delivers on a satisfying argument, and neither depiction of Nature or women rings true. One wonders if they wouldn’t have fared better if they’d traded scripts.
But maybe they’ve already made the other man’s movie.
James Cameron’s Antichrist:
Lars von Trier’s Avatar: