Lars Von Trier has been ducking accusations that he holds the female sex in a rather low regard for as long as he’s been making movies about suffering women. Breaking the Waves set the stage for the next decade or more of his career in grand fashion, with an epic chronicle of female sacrifice that climaxed with the conflation of a woman’s faith and debasement receiving the approval of a watchful God. Arguing on Usenet back in the day, I briefly advanced a crackpot theory that Breaking the Waves was a kind of metaphysical horror movie, an audience’s revulsion at the sexual hoops Bess jumps through in the belief that her promiscuity will somehow help heal her husband’s paralyzing injury meant to be surpassed only by its astonishment that the universe was run by an entity that considered such behavior not only noble but exemplary. For the hell of it, I sent a quick email to an address that I believed to be Von Trier’s, asking, “Does Breaking the Waves have a happy ending?” The one-word response came back overnight: “Yes!!!!” So much for irony.
The follow-up to Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, didn’t feature an actual appearance by the almighty, but His presence was felt behind the scenes, where He apparently went about his business, allowing all manner of tragedy to transpire under His dominion. And Dogville was a different kind of game, taking place on a minimalist, Brechtian stage that represented a small town in Colorado where Grace took refuge from her gangster family. By drawing attention to the artifice of filmmaking, Von Trier made his audience aware at every moment of the presence of an auteur behind the scenes, pulling the puppet strings and playing God. At the end of the film, Von Trier transfers his powers to Grace herself. Having been raped and degraded by the townspeople, she is suddenly in a position where she holds the very reins of life and death in her hands. She ruminates on the ethics of revenge, waffles a little bit, then makes her decision. The people of Dogville will die a horrible, awful death. (And, perhaps, a deserved one.)
Uniting these films is not only Von Trier’s dim view of humanity, but his recurring inclination for manipulating his audience. Some might say he likes to brutalize his audience along with his woman characters, but he’s also given to playful engagement. He shows up at the beginning of The Boss of it All to essentially lie to the film’s viewers, passing off the patently spurious claim that his film has absolutely nothing on its mind beyond light entertainment. And what happens in The Idiots, a movie about pranking that includes copious nudity and glimpses of hardcore sex, is clearly meant to vault the film prankishly across certain arthouse boundaries.
Given his long-standing proclivity for provocation, I don’t think it’s a stretch to approach Von Trier’s latest exercise, in part, as a definitive response to his critics. Accused of misogyny for so many years, perhaps he had it on his mind to make a film that would engage with the subject and present a truly and finally misognystic scenario. Out of such dark, perhaps blackly humorous thoughts a film like Antichrist could easily be born. It’s not enough that the woman in this film (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a grieving mother, or that she’s reliant for psychological support on a quietly smug, patronizing husband (Willem Dafoe). No, it seems that this one is possessed by the spirit of none other than Satan, who uses her madness, and liberal dollops of sexual sadism to take her cocksure spouse down a few significant notches, finally goad him into killing her. Damn right she’ll rise again.
The film opens with a lush, monochrome sequence shot in super slow-motion with the Phantom, a high-speed, high-resolution digital camera. Scenes of He and She’s enthusiastic lovemaking (that’s how Von Trier has named his characters; it’s less on-the-nose than Adam and Eve, but not by much) are intercut with shots of their adorable little boy first stumbling upon them in the act, then tumbling through an open window to his death in the snowy night outside. The black-and-white videography gives the scene a sexy, TV-ready gloss which, coupled with the content, feels a little smug. However, given Von Trier’s long-standing fascination with digital video, this is the lushest imagery he’s produced in many years, and as deployed here it hits its mark — beautiful, disturbing, and maybe just a little kitschy. The bulk of the film is shot in 35mm, with an occasional time-out for another massively overcranked digital shot that might show an ethereal She striding through the wilderness or He standing amidst a rain of acorns, their temporal advance slowed to a crawl.
The wilderness is Eden, a portentously named wooded enclave outside of the city where She spent some time researching the history of anti-woman thinking in Western civilization (the film has a credited misogyny consultant) and which she can identify as the source of much of her anxiety. He determines that She must return to Eden to face down her doubtless-irrational fears and, perhaps, get in touch with nature. As it turns out, this film’s idea of nature is not something you want to be in touch with. Perhaps He starts to suspect something unusual is happening when he spies a doe with a half-born fawn dangling from its hindquarters, as though stopped in time. Surely He’s gotten the message a little later on, when he comes across a fox engaged in auto-vivisection, tugging at pieces of its own meat before eventually throwing back its head and declaring, “Chaos reigns!”
That’s where the film, apparently reliably, loses its audience. Mike D’Angelo assured me in a tweet that, at the film’s Cannes premiere, “Talking fox brought down the house.” At the press screening I attended in Manhattan, the room was filled not just with sneering chuckles, but with outright jeers and guffaws. I don’t think it helps that the first half of the film is so humorless and slowly paced, but from that point on, I could feel that the room had turned against Von Trier. When he really lets his story rip — that is, as the marital relationship on screen erupts in an act of sadistic and inexplicable violence — the din in the screening room can grow almost as noisy as the one on the movie screen.
The last 20 minutes or so of Antichrist has been spoiled so thoroughly and unapologetically in the press that I assume you’re familiar enough with what, exactly, is depicted on screen that I don’t need to recount the details. But it’s important to note that (SPOILER!) the film does end with the death of She at the hands of He. In a coda, we witness what must be a sort of rebirth, not of She but of many faceless, barely seen women who crawl out of the woods. I originally read that scene as representing some kind of happy ending, as though He, by destroying his wife, had somehow managed to set free the unhappy souls of so many persecuted women. But on much reflection I’ve decided that it instead represents the triumph of great evil — and the ultimate event in Antichrist‘s resolute inversion of Christian dogma. Instead of a child’s birth, Von Trier presents a child’s death. Instead of three kings bearing gifts, we have a mythology of three beggars (a crow, a deer, and a fox) portending death. And instead of being placed by God in Eden, the purported birthplace of sin amongst men, the man and the woman return to an Eden of their own volition. And instead of a savior rising from the dead, we have an unholy resurrection. Goaded into killing the bitch, He has unwittingly released an army of darkness, its faceless women rough beasts indeed.
She in this film is not so different from Grace in Dogville, except that She is taking violent action not at the small-mindedness of a single mountain town, but at the culmination of a human history’s worth of fear, hatred and sadism directed toward women. If the film is explicitly opportunistic about this — it takes one of the most heinous contemporary examples of patriarchy run amok, the clitoridectomy, and turns it into an endurance challenge for gorehounds — that’s part of Von Trier’s game. The message being passed from the filmmaker to his critics is the same one that’s being sent by the demon-channeling She to her multifarious tormenters: No, fuck you.
Von Trier has crafted a horror movie that asks the question, “What if the vile, anti-woman forces that have played a pernicious role in so much of human history are actually correct?” And then, more mischievously, “What would a truly misogynist film look like?” I’m certain that, while Antichrist is very much a film about misogyny, it does not follow that it is necessarily a misogynist film — do viewers really think that Von Trier is seriously arguing that Woman is a vessel for Satan on earth? This is more like a parody of misogyny. The resulting cinematic joke is so sick and dark and, let’s face it, tasteless that many viewers don’t realize it’s meant to be a joke at all. Many of them are placing this as Exhibit A in their arguments that Von Trier is not only a longtime woman-hater but has always sucked, to boot. It’s an utterly fearless work, but it’s too much a po-faced film, bordering on the banal in stretches of its resolutely dour first half, especially once our couples-counseling session moves into the wilderness. Maybe what I’m saying is that, for this kind of Satan-in-the-woods scenario, Von Trier is doing a little too much Scenes From a Marriage and not quite enough The Evil Dead.
For Von Trier’s fans — I most definitely count myself in their number, though I found Antichrist to be by some margin the least rewarding of the man’s films that I’ve seen — it is at least a fascinating oddity. Whatever its merits as art, it’s a landmark in the ongoing relationship between this director and his audience. I’d like to say it’s a must-see for everyone else, but in truth it’s a minor film with a quite high level of craftsmanship, a ferocious central performance by Gainsbourg, and off-the-charts shock value — for better and worse, per your tolerance for such stuff. I wish it was more, and I hope that, having spent most of this year defending it, Von Trier will return to cinema feeling scrappy and newly energized for his next salvo aimed at the arthouse audience. He’s already promised, tongue firmly in cheek, “No more happy endings!” I can take it.