Let’s Talk About Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009)
Masterpiece or piece of misogyny?
Some films are divisive. Sometimes, it is their directors who are divisive. Lars von Trier always makes sure to tick both boxes, yet in Antichrist (2009), he takes both forms of polarization, distorts them and elevates the concept to a whole new level of controversy. I can’t think of any film, interview or review that can prepare you for the excellent photography, flummoxing symbolism and brutal scenes that define this work.
The picture premiered at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival only to surround itself with myriad opposing reactions. Articles reported some members of the audience laughing and cheering, and others booing or even passing out. In terms of accolades, whilst Charlotte Gainsbourg received the Best Actress Award, the festival’s ecumenical jury bestowed von Trier with an exclusive anti-award for the most misogynist movie. Beyond Cannes, the film received a mixture of praise, confusion and calls for censorship.
But what are the reasons behind these reactions? First of all, I think everyone agrees that Antichrist is not a pleasant movie to watch. In less than two hours, we are presented with blood, talking dead animals and an unpalatable scene of genital mutilation. However, the most controversial aspects come from the plot. Feminism and religious symbols are central themes throughout the story but, because von Trier masks them with puzzling scenes and allegories, viewers often misinterpret them as evidence of the director’s misogyny. In this story, I try to offer my interpretation of the movie and clear up misconceptions about what I believe is a strong feminist statement dressed with religious motives.
Before we start
The movie follows a couple made up of She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and He (Willem Dafoe) after their son’s death, who falls from a window by accident. He, a psychiatrist, decides to travel to a cabin in the woods called Eden to force Gainsbourg’s character to overcome her grief. However, She’s growing concerns about her identity and what she calls “the evil nature of women” will bring their relationship to a breaking point.
Von Trier’s experiences with mental health particularly shaped the production. The movie is the first installment of his Depression Trilogy (along with Melancholia and Nymphomaniac), where issues like anxiety, depression, and distress not only appear as themes but also create a unique language for the film. In Antichrist, this resulted in the addition of scenes and images that lacked coherence but served as a reflection of mental instability.
The good thing about this whole process was that I was not really feeling very well, so I wasn’t rewriting a lot of time, and things were done more instinctively. I just wrote it through once, and I didn’t analyze it.
Lars von Trier for Dave Kehr.
With this, I feel that we should explore Antichrist as an existential crisis about womanhood, seen through the lenses of mental health and masked with religious allegories.
The nature of women
It’s hard not to see this movie as misogyny in its rawest form. Indeed, the only female character is depicted as delirious, aggressive and abusive, not to mention that she argues how women are inherently evil. But knowing how this movie is highly metaphorical, one cannot help to wonder what are the reasons motivating her reactions.
The first one I can point at is her husband. Dafoe’s character spends the movie patronizing her wife’s suffering, minimizing and forcing her to rationalize the irrationality in the death of a child. His appreciation is nothing more than academic curiosity, which he manifests by poking around the studies and books She had no intention to share. He was designed to be a complete douchebag.
And my male protagonists are basically idiots, who don’t understand shit. In Antichrist, too. So, of course things get fucked up!
Lars von Trier for Knud Romer.
She is automatically a victim of her husband’s patriarchal values, but here is the twist: she is also an executioner, and this existential dichotomy is what eventually breaks her down. Gainsbourg’s persona blames herself for mistreating her son but feeling obliged to love and miss him. She feels guilty for hating her husband and feeling pleasure from him, which motivates the mutilation scene. She is ultimately disgusted by the social implications of being a woman yet feels tied to those. Von Trier shows women as victims of misogyny but also as involuntary executioners of patriarchal obligations. She thinks women are evil because she has chained herself to her destruction.
Religion and the origin of the female suffering
The story unravels in a place coincidentally named Eden, which is a somehow evident reference to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve and the origins of human nature. Just like Eve was blamed for triggering humanity’s fall of paradise, She is to blame for not preventing her son from falling off the window. However, the men in both stories are portrayed as martyrs and the survivors of female wickedness.
He puts women on a pedestal and then pushes them off, but I find that quite brilliant. There is a lot of mystery around his female characters.
Charlotte Gainsbourg for Dave Kehr.
The pedestal Gainsbourg is referring to materializes through remarks like “Nature is Satan’s Church”. Indeed, women often find themselves obliged to worship concepts like marriage, motherhood, and other patriarchal values religiously. This nature, however, is deemed evil by the same society that imposed it on women, making the portrayal of its worship as Satanic instead of Godly.
With this, I believe von Trier intended to make an intelligent feminist statement, but he ended up masking it with metaphors so complex that the result was misunderstood as misogynistic. To this day, I still struggle to comprehend the complete imagery in this movie and how it could change my interpretation of the plot. The only thing I disliked is that some symbols were so puzzling they didn’t contribute to the story. All in all, I wouldn’t say Antichrist is a masterpiece, though it’s definitely a creative attempt to express the mental suffering provoked by the patriarchy.