OF DESTROYED GENITALS AND HAUNTING IMAGERY.
Lars Von Trier has been accused time and time again of misogyny (Volley, R. 2012), especially with his films Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000) and The Idiots (1998). Collectively known as The Golden Heart Trilogy (Lumholdt, 2003), these films feature lead female characters who go through humiliation and abuse.
However, none of these seem to have gathered as much hate from the feminist camp as Antichrist (2009).This film can be described as a “psychological drama about the couple’s different responses to the loss of their child” (Buch-Hansen, 2011).
Claims that Antichrist’s view towards women is “the most openly, psychopathically hostile” (Tookey, C, 2009), and that the film “confirms and legitimizes sexual violence against women” (Jensen, 2009, cited in Buch-Hansen, 2011, p. 118), are two examples of strongly critical statements that the film has received.
This time, such accusations would have been hard to pass off as superficial, especially since at the end of the film he credits a ‘misogyny consultant’ (Raphael, A. 2009). Such consultant was employed to furnish Lars with ‘proof’ of ‘the fact’ that women are evil, using sources that go back to Aristotle, who described the female as a “mutilated male” (Raphael, A. 2009).
This is an attempt to discover exactly what makes Antichrist such a target for angry criticism, as well as to interpret its’ symbolism through applying feminist theories.
Man’s Fear of Women
The American feminist Camille Paglia argues that men are afraid of the mystery of woman, especially in relation to her powers of fertility (Laura, H. 2009). She likens man’s fear of woman to the fear of the vastness and mysteriousness of nature. To Paglia, Antichrist manages to merge these ages-old ideas and conceptions “into a wondrous, cinematic universe by Von Trier’s imagination” (Laura, H. 2009).
In her Studies in Religion and Reception (2011), Buch-Hansen notes that the proof that females in general are the target of Von Trier’s ire is in the symbol within the word Antichrist on the poster (Thomsen, 2009). The last letter ‘t’ in the title is replaced by the female sex symbol.
Antichrist’s plot evolves around a man and a woman whose names we are never given. When their son dies through their neglect, the woman becomes so overcome by guilt that she succumbs to depression. The man, who is a therapist, believes that she can be cured by affronting her fears in their cabin, which is in a forest called Eden.
The mention of the name Eden connotes negativity towards women. In Genesis, it is the woman who permits Satan to enter the earthly paradise. This is also a pivotal point in the Malleus Maleficarum, which the female character has become so obsessed with, while researching for her thesis on witchcraft and demonology.
The man’s attempted therapy not only fails to cure his wife, but leads to their descent into their personal hell. The woman’s evil is exposed through gradual revelations about her knowledge of and belief in witchcraft, and especially through the man’s discovery of the abuse their son had gone through at her hands.
As time wears on, the woman becomes increasingly unpredictable and dangerous, while the man remains relatively lucid and rational. He demonstrates an ability to remain composed and compassionate while she becomes more unstable and disheveled. This is mainly conveyed through the actors’ acting abilities and the use of low lighting.
As an audience, we find it easy to relate to the man and empathize with him, hoping he would shed his naivety and realize that the woman is going to be the end of him.
This becomes a reality in the film’s climatic scene. While he is trying to comfort her, the woman abruptly attacks the man and castrates him. This scene, which is delivered in shocking violence, is closely followed with her taking a pair of rusty scissors to her own genitals and mutilating herself in extreme close-up.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about the film’s violence, and that hardcore feminist activists find most objectionable, is that this scene is presented in such a nonchalant, cool manner. The portrayal of the woman mutilating her genitals in such an aberrant manner seems to be the defining and most disturbing moment for most audiences (Bindel, J. 2009).
Prologue (and the Cinematic Gaze)
GitteBuch-Hansen in her critique Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, the Bible and Docetic Masculinity (2011) makes an interesting observation on how, in the film’s opening scene, Lars manipulates his audience into watching the film through the male’s perspective by making use of the cinematic gaze.
The film’s opening sequence, aptly titled prologue, is presented inblack and white and in slow motion. This greatly increased the scene’s dramatic effect, and makes the whole sequence feel like a stand-alone artistic short.
The prologue tells the story of a son’s fall to his death while his parents are making love in the bath.
The first shot depicts a man’s hairy arm turning the water tap on, followed by a close-up of the man’s face. He is intently gazing at something beyond the camera. This close-up lingers enough for the audience to be able to relate to the man (Buch-Hansen, 2011).
The next shot is of the woman’s face. Returning his gaze, she reveals herself as the object of his desire. Through the way this montage is orchestrated, Buch-Hansen implies that the audience almost wants to feel the experience from the male point of view (Buch-Hansen, 2011).
Next is a shot of the open window, out of which their son will crawl out to his death during the parent’s love-making. Back to the parents, they are now entangled in each other, his object of desire now in his arms. He penetrates her body in full view, again in slow motion, letting the audience be as present as possible in this intimate moment.
It feels as if, at that moment, the man is encouraging the movie-goer to practice scopophilia or voyeurism, seemingly without the woman’s consent. The scene fits in Freud’s definition of scopophilia, as the woman is treated rather as an object seemingly under the spell of the man’s “controlling and curious gaze” (Mulvey, 1975).
One would not be overstating in saying that this scene is quite phallocentric. Most probably, it determines how the audience will receive the rest of the film. Continuing where Aristotle left off, Laura Mulvey says that it is the woman’s “lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies.” (Mulvey, 1975). Thus the importance of the particular penetration shot in the film’s prologue.
During this prologue, the woman wears an expression of ‘erotic exultation’ (Tookey, 2009). This, intercut with the son falling to his death, implies that she is automatically to feel guilt for his death, or perhaps that it is the female who has to pay a price for her pleasure. This scene is set to the music and lyrics of Lascia ch’Io Pianga from Handel’s Rinaldo, which translate to “Let me weep over my cruel fate and that I long for freedom.“
Removing Man from Himself
While most feminists complained that the film is anti-women, Gitte Buch-Hansen argues that rather than strictly about the female psyche, the film tackles “forms of masculinity which have lost their relation to the body,” (2011) and become docetic. This term was used by Norbert Brox to explain how Jesus only seemed to be human rather than actually was human. (Franzmann, 2003).
Buch-Hansen argues that the film’s goal is to show how masculinity has basically deteriorated and become “docetic” – almost losing its reality in this world and becoming invisible.
Echoing this view, the castration scene can be read through Nietzsche’s theory of Athenian Tragic Drama. In his book Anti-Christ (1895), Nietzsche attributes to Dionysus the untamed natural forces which “constituted the dark side of the Apollonic order” (Thomson, 2009). The Dionysian cult also serves to free man from himself, and this includes from his gender (Thomson, 2009). In Antichrist this is expressed through the genital mutilation of both characters.
A patronizing notion?
Ironically, the fact that many of Lars’s accusers are actually “pious male critics,” (Longworth, 2009) renders the arguments put forward by feminists rather patronizing for other female viewers. Karina Longworth goes as far as to call Antichrist a “Feminist horror film.” (Longworth, 2009).
Longworth also argues that Antichrist does not enjoy a strictly male fan-base, and that watching it can be an enjoyable experience for both genders. She deems the film “far too complex to be dismissed as merely sexist” (Longworth, 2009).
The killing of Her by Him could be seen almost as an exorcism – the man acting as a priest, ridding Eden from its source of evil. Once she is dead, the man attempts to return to normality, but is quickly surrounded by faceless women. This scene has the same artistic, dreamy aesthetics as the Prologue, brought on by slow-motion, non-diegetic music and de-saturated imagery.
Once again, Handel’s Lascia ch’Io Pianga is played over the images. This time the lyrics can easily be referring to the sacrifice the female has made in order for the male to be able to keep on living. This is also echoed in Angela Tumini’s opinion – “Von Trier sees the nature of man as dualistic…the ‘She’ that ‘He’ confronts lives within him, and in order to return to his oneness he must kill his ego” (Tumini, 2010). She refers to the women walking past the man in the end as being “not outside of him but within him,” and being “the symbol of redemption through the sacrifice of the female protagonist” (Tumini, 2010).
One may conclude that Antichrist is controversial on various levels and that the symbolism is too intricate to attach one definition to the film. Many perceptions of the symbolism present vary much from each other. Lars’s own reluctance to explain his film continues to add ambiguity, while leaving it open for interpretation and discussion.