BY CHRIS WITHERS
Ever since I was a child I’ve been fascinated by movies. I didn’t simply like watching movies I liked debating about movies, and their content, styles, etc. I suppose that it isn’t a shock that when I went to college my first thought was to become a film critic. Of course sometimes debating about films goes beyond discussions of quality or entertainment value, and sometimes the conversation has to be more uncomfortable. This, I feel, is a necessary prologue to any discussion regarding the film Antichrist.
Ever since its premiere at the Cannes film festival in 2009 the film has been the subject of controversy regarding its views on misogyny. The film was well received in some areas, as its lead actress, Charlotte Gainsbourg, won the Cannes award for best actress, but ultimately the film was given an “anti-award” deeming it “the most misogynist film from the self-proclaimed best director in the world.” This is because the film is about a woman going insane, eventually hating herself for being a woman.
Now since one of Trier’s previous films, Dogville, had a fairly strong feminist message, at least from my point of view, I found it difficult to simply accept Antichrist as a completely misogynist film, and thusly have decided to lay out the facts about the films production alongside my own interpretation, to prove that the film is not misogynist.
Chapter 1: Despair (chaos)
Antichrist is directed by Lars von Trier, acclaimed Danish director whose previous works include the aforementioned Dogville, and Dancer in the Dark, both part of his first run of well-known films, the “USA-Land of opportunity trilogy.” Antichrist is also part of a “trilogy,” in this case, and the USA trilogy, it simply refers to the films having similar conflicts or themes, despite not following one another nor existing in the same universe. Antichrist, as well as Melancholia, and the soon to be released filmNymphomaniac are part of what Trier calls the “Depression trilogy.”
This is a reference to the fact that Antichrist was written shortly before Trier fell into a deep depression, or at least that’s when the first draft was written. The film was initially written in 2005, but was tossed after an executive producer revealed the films ending twist to the public. The final twist, some of which is implied in the final product, is that the Earth was created by Satan, not God, and thusly was more his kingdom. Trier cancelled the project to do extensive rewrites, only to fall into depression in 2007, and ultimately releasing the film in 2009.
Chapter 2: Eden (grief)
The film, told in 4 chapters with a prologue and epilogue, begins with Charlotte Gainsbourg, who is never referred to by name simply called She, and her husband played by Willem Dafoe after the death of their child Nic. In the first bit of interesting symbolism, the three I mentioned are the only characters with visible faces in the entire film. The extras during the opening funeral scene, and the finale have their faces blurred out. In the opening scenes this could be shown as grief causing the characters to shut out the world. In the following scenes we see She trying to get over her grief with sex. This is one of the moments that have been picked over for being misogynist. The fact that we see the grieving entirely from She’s point of view is not necessarily a bas thing, as focusing on the motherhood aspect would tie in very nicely with imagery later in the film. But viewers dislike the fact that we see She as a grieving mother with seemingly no control over her emotional state yet He is perfectly logical, implying an emotional stability inherent in males, largely through the lack of other characters.
This leads us to the major setting for the film, the forest known as Eden. This leads to the first appearance of the “3 beggars,” three animals that represent grief, pain, and despair; namely the deer who represents grief. This deer, to carry the motherhood theme, is seen in mid-stillbirth, with a dead calf hanging out of its rear. Some cite the imagery as offensive but I find it to actually be pretty interesting, as it shows the inversion of motherhood, and emphasizes the difficulty of losing a child, with the additional metaphor of the pain always sticking with you.
Chapter 3: Misogyny (Gynocide)
The parts of the story that most consider misogynist comes towards the end of the film when the audience learns that the wife had lived in the cabin whilst writing her thesis on Gynocide, also known as Femicide, the killing of women for being women. We see that her thesis was meant to expose such things but as it goes on it becomes clear that she starts to agree with the presumptions in her paper. This leads to an infamous moment in the film where it is implied, but by no means stated, that She is responsible for her son’s death. There are two possible interpretations of this plot point, its shown in the autopsy report that the bones in the child’s feet were deformed, and in several pictures he is shown to be wearing shoes on the wrong feet; one is that She did this, the other is that She and He are misremembering events and trying to assign blame to She to explain their son’s death. I personally fall into the second camp, as shortly after her son’s death at the beginning of the film we see her going into unconsciousness because of grief. This would imply that she did care deeply about her son, which is why I believe that it’s more of a commentary on He than She. Since we never see She looking at these reports, it could be implied that He is hallucinating a connection between the cabin and their son’s death in order to cope.
Of course that isn’t the most infamous moment of alleged misogyny in the film. The most famous is an even later scene where She performs genital mutilation on herself after a flashback where we see her see her son about to fall and die but does nothing. Once again it is possible that this is imagined, a symptom of her guilt, but it is impossible to miss the symbolism in her acts. After learning about her agreeing with the misogynist topics that she went to the cabin to study she takes the penultimate step in her own self-hatred, attempting to remove her own femininity. Upon first viewing this segment of the film repulsed me, but after learning about the script rewrites I believe that this is something that carried over from the original script. Since, in the end, the audience would learn that Satan created the Earth, this could be seen less as rejecting femininity and more rejecting life upon the new revelation. That upon learning this that the characters would assume life, and thusly making life, to be evil, and symbolically attempt to remove it. This also would make sense as a parallel to an earlier scene where She had destroyed He’s genitals, as the two scenes are similar in content, context, and even the way that they are shot.
Chapter 4: Hate (Misanthropy)
I believe, however, that the film isn’t misogynistic but rather misanthropic. The fact that She mutilates her own genitals is brought up in many discussions but those discussions usually forego the parallel with the earlier scene with He. Some would point to the fact that the mutilation in the second scene is self-inflicted, but I believe that to be part of the initial script as well. Throughout the film there are references to witches and witchcraft, particularly Celtic in nature. Celtic witchcraft was often connected with the Earth, almost as if the witches had a connection to it, as they could command its power; something that again was meant to be in the film as in ancient myths the witches were said to be able to summon hail, and in several scenes we see the cabin peppered with acorns in the same way as hail. Thusly it could be that, more in the original script, She was aware of the corruption of the world and attempted to be rid of it.
Ultimately whether or not I’m correct is, firstly a matter of interpretation, and secondly a question that will probably never be answered. With what limited knowledge is publicly available about the original script many of my points are simply conjecture, simply related to the connections that I can make about tertiary subjects related to the material. Perhaps you would disagree, perhaps not. But I will say that I believe the film deserves interpretation, and the amount of thought that I have afforded it. I believe that it is far more interesting than people give it credit for, whether you believe it to be misogynistic or not.