Antichrist (Lars von Trier) and Handel’s Aria (Lascia ch’io pianga)

Lars von Trier’s recent film work often uses very specific musical cues within its narrative framework.  His visual style has developed very clearly beyond his self-imposed Dogma ’95 rulings, and his sound world also reflects this almost seismic change. Though music is equally as imposing in his 2011 Melancholia, the music used in his controversial 2009 film, Antichrist, sums up this sparse but very specific musical emphasis perfectly. Antichrist received very mixed reviews on its release in spite of its obvious technical achievements. These ranged from disgust at the small but visceral collection of violent scenes to the, sometimes overtly overbearing, symbolism within the film’s hallucinations.  Very little attention has been paid to its musical exploration, perhaps because it only uses one piece of music throughout outside of its abstract, minimalist soundtrack by Kristian Eidnes Anderson. This is surprising considering the film’s opening and closing segments are montage sequences whose only sound world is the piece of the music in question though montage sequences do tend to allow the viewer to lose themselves within the experience.

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Similarly t Melancholia, von Trier’s use of only one piece of sourced music throughout allows it to create an prelude for the themes within his film. Whereas with Melancholia the piece in question would in fact work as an overture (being a prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolade), Antichrist uses a piece of music which adds multiple readings to the montage sequences and the general themes of the film rather than a foreshadowing. The piece in question is by Handel and is an aria from the second act of his opera, Rinaldo.  This aria is called Lascia ch’io pianga and is sung in the opera by the character of Almirena who has been whisked away by magic and is currently trapped as another character takes on her form. This piece has some interesting musical and thematic bearings on the sequences they accompany, not least simply because it creates a stunningly beautiful effect. For the film’s opening prologue, the sequence shows the first tragedy of the film. As He (Willem Defoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) have passionate sex, their distraction means that they miss their young child innocently getting up, pulling a chair towards the window and then falling from it to his death.

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This is the inescapable tragedy of Antichrist that hangs over all of the events that happen after it. Handel’s Baroque music fits the scene eloquently but this is minor when contextualising it with the lyrics of the aria. Its Baroque instrumentation contrasts well with the electronic ambience of the incidental music and is equally fitting to bookend the film because of the distinct styles between the two fluctuating moments (Prologue and Epilogue) and the rest of the film’s chapters. Even though these two moments start and end the emotional journey of the film, the music references explicitly what is to happen in between.  This in-between is the trapping in Eden both physically (the violent addition of a concrete slab to He’s leg) and emotionally (the violent collapse of She leading to violence towards He and herself). Handel’s piece suggests this though it is subtly hinted at through the lyrics sung in Italian. When the music is played in these two moments, they are not concerning itself with the visual bookends of the film but suggesting what is about to happen and later solidifying what has happened in between. The lyrics for the aria are as follows:

Let me weep
my cruel fate,
and sigh for liberty.
May sorrow break these chains
Of my sufferings, for pity’s sake.

The character of Handel’s opera is bemoaning and mourning her freedom, sad to be away from her lover and trapped seemingly beyond help. This sense of entrapment is vital to reading von Trier’s film as the character’s actions are solely down to being trapped, in both the physical and the emotional sense. She is trapped initially emotionally, unable throw off the shackles of guilt and mourning for her son. Of course She could be said to beg for her sorrow to “break these chains”. It would free her from her guilt and her physical location in Eden.

This instantly makes Antichrist about emotional entrapment, not just from the visual montage that tells the story but from a subtle, lyrical hinting and a musical Baroque aesthetic that aptly demonstrates that the inner chaos of the characters can still be represented through an orderly manner (one of the ironies of Baroque aesthetics within filmmaking). When the aria returns for the film’s short Epilogue, the music is no longer implying or predicting the reprisals of the death of the child but trying to progress from them. He has escaped Eden after the orderly chaos has reigned supreme. The forest of Eden that, for much of the film, has been an unnerving and dangerous place is now transplanted to within the same emotional area as the film’s opening (before the tragedy began). The aria no longer predicts the journey of the couple but instead laments the outcome that has been seen. The lyrics reflect She’s final destination; unable to cope with the death and depression and having completely broken down, it is assumed She is forever there.

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He, on the other hand, has escaped and so the aria now becomes solely about She, creating a counterpoint between the two segments and characters. Though the melodies of the scenes are the same (in aesthetic terms, the sequences could be said to be off the same key or at least shares rhythmic similarities with the use of black and white photography and slow motion), they are now opposite; playing within the same material but creating new meanings. For von Trier, this is final element that brings together the use of Lascia ch’io pianga.  In highlighting the entrapment of the characters as a paradigm, he has instantly provided a decoder for the rest of the film’s complexities and ideas which have all branched off from the one Baroque ideal; of orderly systems creating a calm surface for the inner chaos within to flow and ebb.

Adam Scovell

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