If women are driven to extremes in Lars von Trier’s films, it is never in doubt that it is men who drive them there. His male characters largely represent the brutality of the world: reason, authority and domination, while the women are often the embodiment of sacrifice, suffering, and the battle with patriarchy (see 1996’s Breaking the Waves and 2000’s Dancer in the Dark in particular).
Such representations have, perhaps unsurprisingly, been criticised for implicitly denying women any subjectivity or creative agency of their own. However, von Trier has offered a galvanising first taste of rebellion and imaginative freedom in his later protagonists, as represented by Charlotte Gainsbourg’s ‘She’ in Antichrist, Kirsten Dunst’ Justine in Melancholia and Stacy Martin/Gainsbourg’s Joe in Nymphomaniac, which marks the beginning of a shift in his work towards female characters who take their lives and their relationships into their own hands.
In Antichrist – a film of rich, wild symbolism, violent beauty and boundless ideas – we encounter perhaps von Trier’s bleakest vision and his darkest, angriest film to date, where accusations of misogyny were again a source of controversy. From the outset of this vicious, visceral battle of the sexes, Antichrist has the mark of something supernatural. Unfolding within a mesmeric dreamscape, governed by its own rules, the film might be best read as a dark fairy tale, weaving all the metaphorical potentialities of Eden into a miasma of menace and death. Here, unreliable visions chew up meaning, a husband and wife fall apart when they can no longer connect with each other, and eventually, both are destroyed.
Exploring issues of trauma, loss, abuse and madness set against a wild, ‘uncivilised’ backdrop of emotional and sexual excess, the film exquisitely conveys a gothic tradition, which turns the familiar and known into the strange and uncanny. Significantly, it is the fear of losing control and the dread of rupturing the thin veneer of civilisation that informs the film’s philosophical horror.
Commencing with every parent’s worst nightmare – the death of a child – Antichrist builds towards a climax which is inevitable from its first moments. The fatal accident sets the stage for the film’s extreme anxiety attached to sexuality, and the accompanying confusion that arises.
Running a full range of psychoses and neuroses, from the initial psychic collapse through to her mental breakdown, Gainsbourg’s uninhibited performance as the grief-stricken mother is incredible; von Trier shows her to be subtle, relentless and unforgiving, which are rare qualities in the limited spectrum of female film roles. This, I suspect, is the real reason behind certain negative reactions to this film.
At once open-ended, uncertain and interrogative, von Trier asks us to question the very subjects that the film engages: family, love, desire and violence, are all stripped bare for an inquisition. And, rather than focusing on moments in which history and myth have become entangled, if not dangerously indecipherable, Antichrist goes against the current, disrupting certainties and undermining convenient truths.
In investigating the film’s underlying themes, such as the ‘weight’ of history (the witch trials), patriarchal power (represented by Willem Dafoe’s ‘He’) and religion (in the film’s reference to Eden and the Fall), Antichrist arguably reveals itself as something of an anti-misogynist manifesto and critique of the fragility of patriarchy. Von Trier not only exposes the fallacy of the patriarchal conception of the witch, but also forces us to reflect on the validity and absurdity of the traditional ideology. Moreover, by subverting the stereotypes of the Biblical text, Antichrist exposes the social construction of gender that Christianity has historically helped to fabricate. In this way, von Trier does not need to create actual monsters, because he is making a statement about the monstrosity placed onto the meaning of femininity itself.
The complex nature of self and identity is further represented by Antichrist’s refusal to name its characters, which allows them to be defined almost entirely by their actions and conflicting emotions on screen. She is as passionate and emotional as her husband He is cold and clinical. When She breaks down, He – a foolish idealist believing in the power of his limited therapeutic methods – takes command of her physical and psychological care. He represents patriarchal authority and demands complete control of her body and her life. However, in response to his cruel manipulation, She rebels.
Adding to the film’s ambiguity, the underlying tensions and multi-layered secrets that haunt Antichrist’s narrative are not those specifically connected to the material detail of the child’s death, but those that lead to the superstition and fear surrounding it. In the film’s complex depiction of motherhood, there emerge indications of She’s hostility towards her child, and an implication that his death was, if not deliberate, then encouraged. Still, by refusing a privileged spectatorial position, von Trier almost constantly focuses the film via the man’s deeply troubled subjectivity, where vague and contradictory pieces of information are presented, rendering him an untrustworthy site of identification and moral attachment.
Intriguingly, towards the end of the film – when he begins to suspect his wife of child abuse – flashbacks appear only from his perspective where he might well be constructing events, placing blame, and ridding himself of guilt. Consequently, by leading us to share the male character’s point-of-view, this is von Trier’s most strategic move, but also a trap that needs to be investigated.
In the film’s closing scenes – where the woman will be discredited and found guilty in her husband’s eyes – she buckles under the terrifying weight of a world she doesn’t fit into, internalises all the negative and hateful messages of a patriarchal culture and arrives at a place of self-loathing. Resigned to her fate – in a final act of genital mutilation – symbolically and physically she erases the source of all difference.
If we approach Antichrist through this perspective and focus our attention on the film’s observation of the witch trials, which invokes images of religious bigotry, discrimination, and persecution as well as the perils of a society possessed by irrational fears, then we can come to a more complex understanding of the film, particularly through its unflinching critique of gender politics. Thus, simply to dismiss Antichrist as misogynistic, suggests a very narrow understanding of the structure of the film, the intent behind von Trier’s characterisations, and the themes he explores.
‘Antichrist (Devil’s Advocates)’ by Amy Simmons is available now.
Published 9 Dec 2018
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