Lars von Trier, the director who so famously tormented Bjork in Dancer in the Dark that she swore she’d quit acting forever, was booed and jeered at at Cannes for Antichrist. People even laughed at the private screening I attended with some of my fellow BUSTies. Antichrist has been censured as misogynist, and, to a lesser extent, as if somehow this is a lesser crime, pretentiously laughable. And while, yes, I did laugh at some over von Trier’s over-the-top scenes like the self-cannibalizing fox whose growl ‘Chaos reigns!’ has become a catchphrase with its own T-shirt, a YouTube clip I torment friends with, and perhaps my Halloween costume, I can’t stop thinking about it, reading about it, and telling people about it.
In the first chapter of Antichrist, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her performance) and He (Willem Dafoe) are a happy couple who are merrily fucking their way across their home, unaware their child and his teddy bear are toddling their way up a table and out a window. This highly stylized black-and-white episode is beautiful and wordless, set to an aria, and obviously evokes the Biblical Fall.
The next chapters are bleak and bleaker still, as She is drugged to a stupor in a mental hospital, paralyzed by grief. He is a cognitive behavioral therapist who knows what’s best for his wife, thank you very much, and has her discharged and taken off all of her medication. She grapples with panic attacks, anger at her husband, and, of course, inconsolable grief. It’s worth noting that He comes off as a condescending prick who also discouraged her from finishing her thesis.
Eventually, He helps her figure out what scares her most — their cabin in the woods where she spent the previous summer with their son and working on her thesis on gynocide. (The name of the cabin? Eden.) CBT works by exposing you to your greatest fear, so his solution, naturally, is to take her there.
Once they get there, their sex becomes increasingly violent (after their child’s death she was the one initiating sex and although he was somewhat reluctant at first, he went along with it, later almost sneering that she shouldn’t screw her shrink). The woods around them have grown increasingly baleful; the aforementioned fox is just one example. It seems their Eden has turned against them. Or is He losing His mind? ‘Nature is Satan’s church,’ She says at one point. It’s unclear who, if anyone, is crazy here.
Whether the escalating violence and sexual loathing is her internalization of her studies of gynocide or guilt or if von Trier is truly suggesting that women are evil are up for debate. Von Trier employed a ‘misogyny consultant’ for the script, Heidi Laura, who wrote an article about her experience with researching for von Trier for The Independent:
‘The indictment against women I composed for von Trier sums up the many misogynistic views all the way back to Aristotle, whose observations of nature led him to conclude that vthe female is a mutilated male.’ Should we avoid staring into that abyss or should we acknowledge this male anxiety, perhaps even note with satisfaction that women are mostly described as very powerful beings by these anxious men?
Von Trier himself has said that he identifies with Gainsbourg’s character and generally with his female leads. (Here’s a fascinating article on women as Christ figures in his movies.) He was in the throes of a deep depression when writing Antichrist, as well.
Interestingly enough, some of Antichrist‘s most vocal supporters are women, such as film critic Karina Longworth, who wrote, ‘Antichrist is a much better — and scarier, and more sexually and politically provocative — female revenge film than Jennifer’s Body.’ Jessica Winter over at Slate dissects why she thinks von Trier isn’t a misogynist based both on his personal history and his movies.
In the end, I’m not sure that Antichrist is an excellent movie, or one that I’d recommend to most people, although I would like to see it again. It’s batshit over-the-top and funny in parts without intending to be, and also quite slow in the middle. That said, if you can stomach the violence, which is something that rivals Saw VI, it is beautifully crafted and unlike anything in theaters today. (And if you do go see it, I suggest you check out New York Magazine‘s very funny article, ‘A Squeamish Person’s Guide to Seeing Antichrist.‘)
The movie is currently playing in New York City at the IFC Film Center and will roll out via video-on-demand starting October 28th. It is unedited, which means you will see full-on penetration and up-close genital mutilation.