As I saw Lars von Trier’s Antichrist recently, I had to constantly think of David Sylvian‘s album Manafon and the artwork, that in some strange way interacts with von Trier’s latest movie. There are three animals in Antichrist, represented by star constellations and symbolizing grief, pain and despair: deer, fox and raven. The deer is the first animal the male character played by Willem Dafoe encounters when he retreats to a cabin named Eden hidden in a deep forest together with his wife who is traumatized by the death of their child she feels responsible for. The deer carries a dead fawn hanging from her rear and it is not the last time the deer appears in the film. In the crucial and shocking scene in which Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character mutilates her genitals, von Trier cuts back to the black-and-white shot of the beginning in which the young kid falls out of the window while the parents have sex. Only this time we can recognize a deer standing behind the child slipping out of the window in super slow-motion.
Antichrist is laden with enigmatic symbols impossible to decode in its entirety and it seems as Lars von Trier never intended to provide a “readable” film as he stated in a “thesis“: a film is not about what the director thinks about things. Instead, there is a stylized imagery of partly super-aesthetic, partly bluntly horrifying scenes with no greater logic in the narrative. In a similar way David Sylvian’s latest album Manafon weaves a web of image-inducing poetry wrapped in beautiful melodies that are surrounded by a deep and mysterious forest of strange instruments and free improvisations growing in unexpected but nevertheless concise manners, like the undergrowth the deer lurks in on the cover of Manafon. Nature appears to be an over-saturated painting, a surreal landscape of the inner imagination, a place of solitude and unexplored terrain, of hidden dangers and unknown disturbing facets of the human psyche. Willem Dafoe’s character, the psychologist, stands there in the forest, puzzled and without explanation, after encountering the deer with the dead fawn.
Both Antichrist and Manafon deal in their own particular ways with faith and the existence or non-existence of god. David Sylvian emptied his music more and more from a predictable rhythmic backbone and clear harmonic structures over the recent years (apart from his Nine Horses project) and therein reflected a spiritual crisis he was suffering from. He stated in a conversation with Marcus Boon: “If we start with the track “Manafon” we’re looking at a description of a man, a man of faith, who struggles with that faith, who imposes an order on the external world in the hope of finding it internally. A man who embraces the morals and values of his faith and lives by them but who also struggles with the silence that burns inside his own heart and mind. God’s silence.” And then later: “I like the state of hopelessness. Hope really does tend to get in the way. It takes you out of the present towards an ideal. To live without hope but without a loss of love for life… that’s a great starting place it seems to me.” Here is a line from “Snow White in Appalachia”:
And there is no maker
just inexhaustible indifference
and there’s comfort in that
so you feel unafraid
And then in “Small little Gods” he sings:
I’ve placed the Gods
In a zip-lok bag
I’ve put them in a drawer
They’ve refused my prayers
And again, watching the “Small little Gods” video, the introducing black-and-white super-slowmotion scene of Antichrist comes into mind, the perfect contrast to the saturated greenish colour of nature, the pleasant enfolding warmth and heavyness of the woods the psychologist thinks will heal his wife but eventually turns into the unfolding of evil itself.
Now, the complete opposite trajectories with which both artists meet their own doubts and fears become evident. David Sylvian draws a lot of attraction from the enstrangement he imposes between singer and context, between the controlled part of his extraordinary singing and the indeterminacy of the instrumental web he spins around his voice. The improvisational freedom and indeterminacy has a direction, we can feel comfortable in this peculiar sound world and accept the strangeness. Lars von Trier’s world then is emptied of any sign of hope. The horror is unpredictable and irrational, nature is evil and chaos reigns. While Sylvians work still can be comforting, von Trier’s movie affects the strongest and most disturbing emotions in his audience. He revealed in a director’s confession, that he suffered a depression in 2007 and wrote the script as a kind of therapy after his crisis. His images stem from his dreams and possibly unbearable despair and were composed later “free of logic and dramatic thinking”. The subject of mysogyny seems to be a vehicle for him to unveil some of the darkest sides of the human soul. Heidi Laura, the official misogyny consultant for the film, supported this notion in saying that “the dark shadows of civilisation deserve to be seen and reflected on rather than ignored.” Both works, David Sylvian’s Manafon and Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, overlap by coincidence in a certain usage of the imagery of the forest and the deer as one of its main inhabitants, but though the images resemble each other, their symbolic meaning could not be of a bigger contrast.