Antichrist: inquiry into misogyny and battle between rationality and Nature

Lars von Trier, “Antichrist” (2009)

Highly controversial for its depiction of sexual violence and mutilation, “Antichrist” was made when von Trier was suffering depression and the lack of hope and the despair that follow that condition clearly show in the film. Symbolism is rife throughout and can be interpreted on several levels: at a very basic level, it’s about a couple grieving the loss of a child and the strain their grief places on their marriage and sanity; on another level, it’s about the arrogance of humans in believing that reason and human ingenuity alone can solve all problems afflicting humankind; and on yet another, it posits Nature as a sinister force against humanity and how the natural world plays people off against one another through gender warfare.

The couple known only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are plunged into grief and She becomes depressed and feels guilt after their toddler son falls from a window to his death. He, a therapist, takes his wife in hand and tries to treat her with psychotherapy; all his attempts fail so he takes her to a woodland area where she had spent time writing her thesis on gynocide. The thesis is supposed to be critical of the acts and deaths performed over the centuries by men on often innocent women and girls but over the course of the film He finds to his horror on reading various thesis extracts that She believes in the concepts wholeheartedly to the extent that She regards him (He) as her mortal enemy.

The cinematography must be the outstanding feature in “Antichrist”: often shot like a nature documentary, the film features lush green backgrounds and dark haunted forests through which a cool stream flows. The handling of images and some of the weirdly wacky and wackily weird critters that appear suggest cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle might need to fine-tune his technique a little but generally the work is of a very high standard and has great atmosphere and poetry. Train scenes seem to have an unnatural life and vitality and other scenes set in the woodlands can appear both benign and malevolent. The acting from Dafoe and Chainsbourg is incredible despite their having to go through some very harrowing and emotionally painful scenes!

Von Trier has been accused of misogyny in several of his films including “Antichrist” but I did not find any overt evidence of gratuitous female-bashing other than what’s required in the film. Misogyny where it presents is explored through She’s struggles with He as he tries to treat her illness and the movie makes clear that He’s efforts are doomed to failure against a greater force that he cannot understand. Nature is portrayed as a malevolent beast that mobilises plant life and the weather against the couple and eventually insinuates itself into the couple’s lives by seemingly taking over She’s mind and spirit. The unconscious and irrational self through She bests He’s rational and well-meaning attempts to cure his wife. Thus Nature flummoxes He by causing an oak tree to rain acorns on the couple’s cabin, hitting him with ticks and presenting a deer, a fox and a crow at critical points in the movie to him. One notes that She never sees these animals and doesn’t need to. The message seems to be that women through their connection to Nature (because they can give birth) have access to a terrifying power denied men and which they will never comprehend or overcome. Hope and the wish for a better world are useless in this context. Sex is no longer an expression of mutual love but a weapon with which parties try to dominate each other (and there is plenty of that in “Antichrist”!) and Nature punishes humans for their intellectual pride.

The break-up of the film into four chapters bookended by a prologue and epilogue gives it a symmetry: at the beginning and the end, the major characters, or one of them anyway, have contact with other people; in the middle of the film, the main characters He and She cut themselves off from the world and pay a heavy price for their isolation.

Pace is leisurely and slow and moments here and there throughout the film could have had their fat trimmed off and the action made a little more efficient without jeopardising the main thrust of the film’s message. The Antichrist turns out to be She in full witches’ fury during Chapters 3 and 4, attacking He and crushing his testicles. Although He is able to subdue She, he is forced to do by acknowledging his own irrational side and so makes himself vulnerable to psychological and spiritual attack in the film’s epilogue when hundreds of blank-faced women rise from the ground and walk towards him.

The supposed misogyny turns out to be a warning that humans are possessed of (and by) an irrational nature that is only thinly suppressed by intellect and rationality. Upholding only reason and all that it understands while denying and suppressing our “Antichrist” side will ultimately lead to disaster as our dark side ends up being channelled into a sinister force that explodes sooner or later to our detriment and affect others around us. The universe will not help us because the universe itself is a magnification of that sinister force.

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