Note: This is an in-depth analysis of the 2009 film Antichrist, and, as such, there will be plenty of spoilers for the film. Additionally, the film being discussed here is extremely graphic in nature, and some of these graphic moments are explored in this article. As such, reader discretion is advised.
Note: This is a multi-page article. The links to the subsequent pages often get hidden near the bottom of the page, so just know that the article does not end at the bottom of this page. It is a four-page article.
Lars von Trier’s 2009 film Antichrist might be the single most divisive movie I’ve come across, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise given von Trier’s persona and body of work. Rotten Tomatoes (which I am always reluctant to cite, but here I think it shows my point fairly accurately) has the film at an even 50% based on 163 ratings. That is to say, 81 for and 82 against. Could a film be more evenly split on critical reception?
What could account for such a divisive opinion of a film? Antichrist tells the story of a nameless couple, He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), retreating to a cabin in the woods dubbed “Eden” following the untimely death of their young son. What follows is an intense undoing of the two characters through severe depression, sexuality, misogyny, and eventually violence. The film is arguably the most depressive of von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy” of films. And yet, this is not often cited as the real reason for the film’s negative response from at least 50% of critics.
I. Misogyny, Misinterpretation, and “Final Girl” Culture
Antichrist‘s graphic sexual violence prompted critics to claim that the film, and perhaps von Trier by proxy, was misogynist in its interpretation of gender hierarchy and gendered violence (here is just one example: a review from the Daily Mail). Others took the opposite approach, such as Slate writer Karina Longworth, who wrote in one article entitled “Why ‘Antichrist’ is a Feminist Horror Film” that quickly filing the film into a column labeled “sexist film faux pas” is to discredit the nuance that von Trier puts into the film. Longworth claims von Trier is subverting the basic sexual tropes of the horror film with his interpretation of sin and cruelty.
The horror genre has engaged with these same gendered tropes for decades, only sometimes straying away from them or otherwise using them as fodder for satire. The “Final Girl,” the female survivor who is able to best or evade the murderous antagonist through the power of her virginal purity, is perhaps the most common of these tropes. What this trope does is herald feminine empowerment over what is often a masculine villain identity, yet it also condemns feminine sexuality as a one-way ticket to decapitation. The “Final Girl” culture of the conventional horror film thus limits feminism in the same instance where it attempts to encourage it.
Whether or not you want to call Antichrist a horror movie is a debate for a different time, but regardless it is hard to argue that the film is not horrifying in its explicit depictions of violence. What Longworth is arguing for is that the film is far more complex than the knee-jerk reactions of some critics give it credit for, and that the female protagonist of the film is actually acting to triumph over male oppression, even if it means sacrificing her own well-being in her agency.
The Daily Mail review called Antichrist “offensively misogynistic,” and claimed that the film’s opening sequence, which cross-cuts between the couple having sex and their son falling out of a window, has an implication that “somehow [S]he and her son are being punished for her taking pleasure in sex.” This is certainly one way to interpret the scene, but it also allows She the ability of sexual pleasure in a genre that historically forbids it. It subsequently allows the same “Final Girl” triumph by allowing She to topple oppressive masculinity at its literal root.
What this opening scene really sets up is the film’s rallying call, later stated explicitly by a disemboweled fox: “Chaos Reigns.” The scene is the chaos that will prove to breed further chaos. We see glasses pitched to the floor, spilling water everywhere, as sexuality invades the immediate environment of the frame. It is not eroticized as much as it is characterizing. She retains sexual agency in a relationship were she is otherwise repressed by the coldly removed He.
The argument can certainly be made that the film is indeed acting as a misogynist outlet for its creator. She does have a self-hatred that stems from an obsessive belief that women are inherently evil. She also lashes out violently against He after a series of frustrating sexual encounters and a confrontation about her acts against their late son. Fearing that He will leave her, she is perhaps castrating him so that he has no manhood to provide to a different woman. While this view paints the picture of female self-hatred and male dependency that would denote misogynist undertones, I think the interpretation goes deeper than this reading.
Is von Trier a misogynist? I don’t know. Do I think he set out to make a misogynist film with Antichrist? Not at all.
What is undoubtedly correct about the Daily Mail’s statement is that the characters are being punished, but I don’t think their punishment is created in order to paint an anti-woman picture. Woman is not the eponymous antichrist; Man is.
Or, in an alternate reading, our entire existence is.
First, in Part Two, we look at Man as antichrist.