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Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist”: Misogny, Art, And A Possible Wink, Wink

Above: A still from Lars von Trier's film "Antichrist" starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe.

Since its premiere at Cannes earlier this year, much has been made of "Antichrist," the latest film from Danish provocateur Lars von Trier. Critics at Cannes "gasped, cheered, and hooted" and an Ecumenical Jury gave the film an "anti-prize" for "most misogynist movie."

Apparently, this Ecumenical Jury gives an award each Cannes to a film celebrating "spiritual values." Past winners have been "The Motorcycle Diaries," "Babel," and "The Sweet Hereafter." It would be the greatest of understatements to say von Trier's film strikes a different note than those movies.

Not surprisingly, horror movie fanboys LOVE "Antichrist," and have adopted one of von Trier's ridiculous stunts, a talking fox that eats its own entrails, as a mascot. The fox only speaks once (I promise you, that's enough), barking out "Chaos Reigns." It would be convenient to suggest chaos reigns in the mind of von Trier, but he's too obviously studied and deliberate to ever live up to his fans' newest mantra.

In this case, I have to admit siding with the fussy Ecumenical Jury on the misogyny claim (though I certainly don't support censorship of any kind – some have suggested the anti-award is a call for such). The misogyny debate regarding von Trier's work is long fought and "Antichrist" has rejuvenated it.

Charlotte Gainsbourg in "Antichrist"
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Above: Charlotte Gainsbourg in "Antichrist"

It's mind-boggling to me that someone could argue that "Antichrist" is a feminist film. It’s flagrantly misogynistic, and not just because it features self-inflicted, female genital mutilation. It's because "She," (the two characters are only given pronouns for names), played with ferocity and remarkable commitment by French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, is a character best conjured up with a healthy mix of male fantasy, voyeurism, and fear of women. For example, She goes mad in the film, and her descent is characterized by a ravenous appetite for sex (and violent sex), medieval torture of her husband and his various limbs (yes, that one), and an urge to not wear pants as often as possible.

Scene from the prologue of "Antichrist," starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe. Directed by Lars von Trier.
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Above: Scene from the prologue of "Antichrist," starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe. Directed by Lars von Trier.

But here's the thing… many horror movies are misogynistic and that’s what von Trier is making here, a genre picture. And, as I noted, the misogyny is flagrant, leaving one to wonder, what is von Trier up to? Did he make this movie as a "send up" of his own reputation as misogynist and provocateur? Is he constantly just winking at the audience? After all, "Antichrist's" end credits include a "researcher on misogyny."

Part of me believes "Antichrist" is a cinematic wink because it's so over the top, but von Trier has also stated in the press that he made "Antichrist" in the midst of a deep depression. If we take him at his word, it's hard to believe he'd have the brazen confidence to so consciously mock his own reputation.

Regardless of his motives, von Trier sets a course of suffering for his female actress that is at best, difficult to watch and at worst, unbearable.

She's madness stems, in large part, from the guilt and grief she feels over her son's death, which is depicted in the film's prologue. She is having sex with her husband "He," played by Willem Dafoe, winner of the most AMAZING cheekbones. During He and She's acrobatic shagging (including a hard-core porn shot, apparently using real porn doubles), their toddler son crawls out of his crib and falls out a window, plummeting to his death during a snow storm right at the moment his mother orgasms.

The prologue makes quite a visual statement, though it suffers from being self-consciously arty. Shot in black and white, with moments of slow motion, the boy's death plays out to Handel's opera "Rinaldo." It is a gorgeous sequence of images, the first of many in "Antichrist."

After a short stint in a psychiatric ward, She takes the advice of her husband, who is also a therapist, and chucks her medication and follows him to their remote cabin in the woods, a second home they call Eden. He has decided he can cure She's grief on his own (boy, does he pay for his hubris). Similar to "The Shining," this isolation spells disaster for the couple.

Eden is also where She has been working on a graduate thesis about gynocide, a history of violence against women, which has led her to believe that women are inherently evil. Eden itself is no picnic. It's a possible burial ground and home to talking foxes, raining acorns, and leeches. As She says in the film, "nature is Satan's church." Not much of a camper, this one.

The second act of "Antichrist" is a bit of a slog. Cry, cry, sex, hailing acorns, sex, masturbation, cry, cry, cry… TALKING FOX!....sex, cry, cry. You get the picture. My advice: relax and take the breather. It will serve you well for the last half hour of the film, which is a torture porn extravaganza. As Anthony Lane pointed out in the New Yorker, you could also spare yourself by walking out when She reaches for the rusty toolbox.

While watching "Antichrist", I was equally reviled and seduced. Von Trier constructs some of the most stunning images I've seen this year and some that I will loathe for many years to come. "Antichrist" is at Landmark's Ken Cinema through at least Wednesday (it may get held over) and currently On Demand. I watched it On Demand, with friends who were eager to talk about it after. I recommend that – it's a film that takes a lot of processing. Plus, if you watch it at home, you can pour yourself a stiff drink to get you through. I can see von Trier now, smiling menacingly at the thought… Cheers!

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