Disgust — Provocations from Trier’s Antichrist

6 Nov

When I was writing my halloween posts last week I came across a link to a film review blog called A Movie A Week. It’s exactly what it sounds like–a site where critic Shaun Henisey reviews one movie a week. As I read through his reviews, I realized that Henisey had reviewed a challenging film, Antichrist, which I had been failing to talk myself into watching until recently. Henisey’s review is both generous and cautionary. Lars Von Trier‘s film is notorious for its extended meditation on (or embodiment of) misogyny. It’s a sexually graphic and psychologically intense film that divided audiences and critics alike. Detroit News film critic Tom Long’s comments are typical of positive reviews: “Self-loathing, mean, ugly and perfectly made, Antichrist is probably the best film ever that you’d recommend to absolutely no one.” On the other side, Dallas Morning News critic Christopher Kelly wrote, “Antichrist is a unique form of cruel and unusual punishment: an unrelenting orgy of graphic sex, violence and cynicism that also manages to be wildly pretentious.”

You can see the overlap in the critical reviews of this film–it is a disturbing piece of cinema. For some there was meaning in the madness; for others there was only madness.

Antichrist by Lars von Trier

Antichrist by Lars von Trier (Photo credit: ‘Lil)

Rather than write directly about the film–I think Henisey’s review captures many of the essential religious themes–I want to say a few words about disgust. First, a basic definition of disgust is a feeling of revulsion or profound disapproval aroused by something unpleasant or offensive. Disgust is a negative emotional response. It requires us to have moral, aesthetic, or religious boundaries. Disgust crosses the line. To bring Mary Douglas and Emile Durkheim to the discussion, disgust is taboo-breaking that places us in danger of becoming impure. Disgust assumes we are pure. It is a moral high ground. Consider the satellite of synonyms for disgust: revulsion, repugnance, aversion, distaste, nausea, abhorrence, loathing, detestation, odium, horror, contempt, and outrage. Is it possible that these alternatives are varieties of emotional condescension?

When we watch a film that really gets down in the muck, what is the nature of our disgust? Is it reflective? Are we repelled by seeing any fraction of ourselves? Or is it alienating? Are we repelled by the lack of relation?

Disgust is an emotional that has received considerable study. What’s fascinating, however, is that there are few studies of disgust as a religious faculty in modern experience. (I know of several studies of monastic practices that deal extensively with self-mutilation and other ascetic practices.) Yet religious studies appears to have overlooked this emotion today (whereas our colleagues in the social sciences have not).

When a movie like Trier’s comes along that provokes such intense reactions of revulsion and offense, I wonder whether it has successfully manipulated foundational religious elements to these effects. The wrapper of visceral gore makes it difficult to judge. What disgusts us in the film? Can we segment the stimuli? If so, are there more centrally religious elements? For our students, can these elements be extracted from the film to be discussed with material more appropriate for the classroom. (Despite my firm belief that there are really no limits to the objects we study in the academy, I do believe there are a number of limits to the objects we teach with in the classroom. Antichrist violates so many of these I hardly know where to begin.) In short, can we approach a “disgusting” film didactically and then employ its lessons on less dangerously provocative material?

In the context of a class I am slowly developing on the supernatural, disgust is an emotion that I’m sure will be invoked at least once. After all, can you imagine watching The Exorcist and not being even a little disgusted by the demon’s provocations? So, at the end here, I have a very practical motivation for my inquiries. I expect to need a way to deal with disgust and its satellites of similar emotional responses. We cannot stop feeling when we watch horror films. In truth, and as I said in my post on horror and religion, I think those feelings are central to the genre.

Thus, how would you discuss disgust in a religious studies classroom? Do you see a place for it? How would you deal with it? If you have thoughts, let me know below.

Related articles on my supernatural course

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