Women are Evil (or are they?): Lars von Trier's ANTICHRIST (2009)

Check out the title art for this film:

When I teach composition, I always tell my students not to forget about title when they’re analyzing texts. If Lars von Trier’s Antichrist means anything as far as the title, it’s three things: “Antichrist” is a word that conjures a specific set of emotions and expectations, only some of which are met by the film, wherein “antichrist” might refer to nature, women, or Willem Defoe. But by associating, through the above title art, the word “antichrist” with the biological symbol for woman, we can perhaps guess where this film might be going. Also because of the emotions and expectations associated with this word, folks might think that Antichrist is some kind of religious thriller—thereby encouraging a certain set of people to see it a la The Passion of the Christ—and while it may have some relation to certain religions, it’s more a terrible place sort of horror film than a religious thriller. So if you’re looking for some kind of Exorcist redux, this isn’t it. Lastly, perhaps “antichrist” is a word that von Trier thought might be used to refer to him after producing this movie.

Antichrist is full of interesting visuals and great effects. Palettes shift from a solarized black and while to intense greens to emphasize the natural world, but usually rests in a blue-grey area somewhere in between, accentuated by extreme long shots done in super slow-motion. I frequently wanted to pause the DVD just to be sure about what I was looking at in the shot, but resisted, thinking that the ambiguity was intentional and I should just go with it. Nature, and specifically a place called Eden, is clearly a character in this film, and is portrayed with startling beauty and cruelty. Beauty in the shots I just described (even if some of them—like an image of a doe with a dead fawn protruding from its womb—are disturbing), and cruelty in the connection it seems to share with She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the main female character in the film.

She is an intellectual woman with a young son, Nic, and a nearly completed thesis, seemingly titled “Gynocide.” The allusion to “genocide” should not be ignored, and is exploited late in the film when Eden is revealed to be a place where women were either killed or placed after they were killed. In other words, a beautiful, natural place literally built on the bodies of slaughtered women. Of course, this place affects She in a negative way in the film, influencing what is implied to be her innate lust for pleasure and power, drawing out her connection to corrupted nature, and giving her the power to execute evil acts. In other words, She goes completely nuts, or, as the film says, “chaos reigns.”

During her time in Eden after the death of her son (he falls out an open window while his parents are having sex in another room at the beginning of the film), She comes to embrace the idea that women are inherently evil—an idea that runs in direct opposition to those in her thesis. She fights the psychoanalysis her therapist husband subjects her to using sex as an escape, emphasizing the naughty, lusty drive in women (remember, kids, it’s a DEADLY SIN) before her mental state fragments further, leading her to violence (which is, of course, largely also sexualized).

In extreme keeping with this view of women as evil, she eventually performs a clitorectomy on herself with a large pair of scissors. WHAT?!? Yes, you read that correctly. If you already know this about the film, I’m sorry for making such a “big deal” out of it, but the presentation came as sort of a surprise to me (the scene, however, was constructed so I kind of knew it was coming, just not how MUCH of it I was going to see). I know it’s only a movie, but I wish someone had prepared me for the graphic way this image was presented. Read: full-on view done realistically. Thanks, Lars. I know you’re trying to get me to “confront” the image and its symbolism, but geez. As you’ve probably figured out by now, I have a pretty high tolerance for graphic violence, but I’ll gladly confess to having to watch this film in two sittings, the first of which ended abruptly after this scene. Ultimately, through what can either be termed a flashback or an “alternate view” of the events in the prologue, we learn that She saw Nic climbing toward the open window while she was having sex, and did nothing to stop it. This seems to be why She mutilates herself, though it doesn’t really explain why she also:

  1. crushes her husband’s testicles with a piece of wood and then masturbates him until blood spurts all over her (don’t worry: you can still respect Willem and Charlotte, since they had some adult film stars acting as body doubles in these most explicit scenes)

  2. drills a hole through his leg, and then attaches him to a heavy millstone

  3. chases him through the woods as he tries to drag himself to safety

  4. buries him alive and then thinks better of it, digs him up and

  5. stabs him with the scissors she uses to remove her clitoris.

As you can see, there were probably a lot of reasons why this film was such a controversial one, even at Cannes, where it debuted.

So, while the bulk of the film seems to making a statement something like “women will pursue pleasure and power (of the natural kind, like calling up hailstorms, linking She with negative perceptions of witchcraft) to the point of neglecting and/or damaging everything else in their lives, including family and children; therefore they are evil,” as well as “women must be punished for this inherent alignment with evil, which is why He (Willem Defoe) is probably doing She a favor when he strangles her and burns her body on a pyre,” I’ll admit I am still confounded by the final epilogue. Although he sets out to heal his wife, He ends up literally destroying her, and limps away from Eden as her body burns outside their cabin. In one of the most compelling images of the film, an extreme long aerial shot in super-slow motion reveals hundreds of women’s bodies buried along the path he treads on this journey. He stops to rest and eats some berries from the ground, and as he continues on his way, he sees the “Three Beggars,” the doe, the fox (that he previously saw disemboweling itself in the woods as his wife descended into madness) and the crow (which led her to him when he was hiding in a fox hole, trying to escape). Previously, She had informed him that when they came calling, “someone has to die.” Someone has—She herself. This time, the animals appear in the soft, solarized lighting of the prologue, giving them an almost angelic aura, perhaps a prelapsarian reference that the prologue also alluded to. Then, suddenly, He also sees hundreds of faceless women walking up a hill out of Eden, striding past him—perhaps significantly, these women are all clothed, whereas the women’s bodies in the aerial shot before were naked. This exodus would seem to say that perhaps only some women (like She) are really evil, and that if those women are destroyed, then the rest of the female gender can be freed from this stereotype. In my opinion, these final shots seem to absolve He of participating in the same kind of narrative that placed all those women in the ground in the first place by justifying his killing of She—who was definitely disturbed, it is true. But the film makes her behavior so violent and outrageous that He emerges as the hero. The viewer, then, is also complicit in the condemnation of at least this one woman, and like Black Swan, this film seems to imply that women can’t have it both ways—they cannot be mothers as well as sexual beings. Or beings who think about injustices done to other women. Charlotte Gainsbourg got Best Actress at Cannes for this role. And it was a very intense performance. But valorizing her portrayal of a clearly messed-up individual doesn’t change the message of the film, which, it seems to me, in spite of the closing shots, is still antagonistic to women. And maybe, considering the title, that’s putting it mildly.

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