Counter-Cinema: ‘Natural Born Killers’ & ‘Antichrist’

There are many conventions that the Hollywood mainstream films rigorously follow, conventions that audiences “have grown to accept as natural or typical in certain contexts” (Phillips, 2005: 368). But, just like Brakhage argues, “everything we have been taught about art and the world itself separates us from a profound (…) vision of the world. We are strait-jacketed by myriad conventions that prevent us from really seeing our world” (quoted in Phillips, 2005: 368).

What Peter Wollen analyses are the counter-cinema values that Godard has developed in opposition with those of “orthodox cinema” (2002: 74). It is from this perspective (and not only) that I will thus discuss the manner in which “Natural Born Killers” (Oliver Stone, 1994) and “Antichrist” (Lars von Trier, 2009) subvert the conventions of the mainstream.

  • Narrative intransitivity

According to Nelmes (2003: 84), the action in the mainstream cinema has “a clear developmental pattern and a cause-and-effect chain”. In counter-cinema, however, the clear patterns don’t exist anymore, as the narrative is broken down by breaks, gaps and excesses.  Definitely not your typical love story (boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love etc), “Natural Born Killers” creates its own version of this classical Hollywood narrative: boy meets girl, boy kills girl’s dad, boy and girl go on a killing rampage. It also represents the perfect example of a narrative structure that is continually crosscut by television commercials, sound effects borrowed from cartoons and sitcoms canned laughter.

The “Antichrist” is also a great example of an unconventional structure. The opening scene, filmed in slow motion, (the baby climbing up the windows and falling off, while his parents are having sex) weights heavily in all that it signifies and is followed by numerous jump cuts and scenes filmed with a shallow-focused, handheld camera.

  • Estrangement

If there is something that both Stone’s and von Trier’s films are doing through their characters, that’s definitely making the viewers heavily question their own lives, their own character, their own way of feeling and acting.

Assisting to the evolution of “Antichrist” characters (in terms of the intensity of their feelings) is like dissecting our own self. It’s more than just putting ourselves in the skin of one person, as throughout the film, they’re never just one and the same. They’re fragmented characters whose struggles and grief are constantly changing who they are. At the beginning of the film, we find ourselves condemning of her choosing physical pleasure over her own child. But as guilt starts biting into her, our damn slowly turns into compassion for her grief as a mother and the wife of an estranged husband. However, the deep distress causes her to turn into this possessed woman, making us wonder whether it’s sympathy or blame that she deserves. It is clear that Lars von Trier likes to shock and builds his characters in a way that makes the audience process his ideas and provoke an incredibly wide array of human emotions.

  • Transparency

While “in mainstream cinema the film-maker hides the work of film production” (Nelmes, 2003: 85), “Natural Born Killers” is a good example of a counter-cinema film in which the means of production are apparent in more than one instance. All throughout the film, flat objects are used to project images (for example, movie clips from western films), while the lighting techniques are a constant reminder of the artificial use of light (a good example is the opening scene which takes place in the diner).

  • Multiple diegesis

While mainstream films are built on a “coherent storyline” (Nelmes, 2003: 86), all the elements they present on screen are part of the same world and they make sure they let the audience know when making temporal and special changes, it is clear that “Natural Born Killers” and the “Antichrist” are subversive to all these conventions. The world presented in “Natural Born Killers” is definitely not a homogenous one, as changes of settings (eg: from color to black and white) and drifts into dream scenes are made without any warnings. Similarly, the latter one creates a universe in which there are no delimitations between concepts of reality and delusion, as scenes of auto-mutilation are easily blended with hallucinating scenes of a deer with a newborn still hanging out of her and a fox which not only speaks, but also eats itself.

  • Intertextuality

Like in any script written by Tarantino, “Natural Born Killers” encompasses a large number of references. However, the most obvious ones are the chainsaw scene from “Scarface” and the tongue-biting one from “Midnight Express”, both films written by Oliver Stone (clips of these scenes can be seen when Mickey and Mallory are in the hotel room). Lars von Trier also found inspiration in other people’s work. In the dedication at the end of “Antichrist”, the director mentions Andrei Tarkovsky, gesture which draws attention to all the ways in which von Trier has been influenced by Tarkovsky. The most recognizable one is represented by the similarities and resemblance between the cabin in the wood where Von Trier’s characters retreat and the setting, imagery and color palette from “The Mirror” (1975).

  • Displeasure

According to Wollen (referenced in Fowler, 2002: 79), what counter cinema is trying to do is to provoke with the aim to “dissatisfy and hence change the spectator”. “Natural Born Killers” and “Antichrist”, by exploring unpleasant and uncomfortable areas of life, are doing just that. Provocation is the name of their game. Stone’s film raises a lot of issues about the contemporary society, one of them being violence and its glorification in the media. It is definitely not the most comfortable film to watch, especially when extreme brutality and aggressiveness are shown in such a visually explicit manner. However, I consider the “Antichrist” to be one of the most distressing films I have ever seen. On one hand, the discomfort comes from the mutilation and self-mutilation that the characters are shown doing, as she smashes his testicles and cuts her clitoris off with a pair of scissors. On the other hand, it’s their relationship and every words exchange that weights heavily on the viewer, as the couple is in total despair.

The two films seem to follow many of the rules drawn up in ‘The Vow of Chastity’, confirmed by Dogme 95. What the directors of this collective faught against was the “predictability (that) has become the golden calf around which we dance” (Utterson, 2005: 87), the superficiality of action and the heavy cosmeticization of film. They also battled against the “supreme task of the decadent film-makers (which) is to fool the audience” (87).

There are many questions that both films are asking. There are however no clear answers. Every viewer decides for himself. Because, just like Bergman argued, films shouldn’t be a pre-packaged view of the world.


FOWLER, C. 2002. The European Cinema Reader. London: Routledge.

NEMES, J., 2003. An Introduction to Film Studies. London: Routledge.

PHILLIPS, W.H., 2005. Film. An Introduction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

UTTERSON, A., 2005. Technology and Culture, the Film Reader. London: Routledge.


~ by andragroza2013 on March 6, 2013.

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