Possible spoilers ahead.
Director Lars von Trier delivers a veritable mindtwist in his 2009 drama Antichrist. If you do watch this film, do not be lulled into a false sense of security by the film’s almost dull beginning. Certainly, von Trier leads us to believe it will be a gentle ride. At most, it is a gentle mindtwist. Starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a nameless married couple who must face the grief they experience after the death of their child, the film begins with a visual symphony composed in black and white slow-motion. As Dafoe’s and Gainsbourg’s characters make love, a disturbingly ethereal Handel aria plays as their son escapes from his crib, walks down the stairs to momentarily spy his parents in the act, and then, finally, to fall out of a window to his death. From the beginning, we are told that sexuality will be a deadly force in the film.
As the woman (Gainsbourg) descends into the abyss of her own grief, her husband (Dafoe), who is a therapist, attempts to pull her out with all the tricks of modern psychology. When she tells him she is afraid of the woods at Eden, the cabin and land to which she had vacationed the summer before with their son to finish writing her doctoral thesis on gynocide, Dafoe’s character decides that she must confront her fear and he takes her back to Eden. At one point, when he is trying to get her to reveal her fears, his wife states that nature is “Satan’s church.” He mistakes this as confession of her fear of nature. In reality, he projects his fear of nature onto his wife. The name of their camp grounds, Eden, is definitely not a coincidence. The couple represent a modern day Adam and Eve. The woman, torn apart by her grief, is a force of nature, both Madonna, mother of sorrows, and a sultry temptress of deadly sexuality. The husband does not realize his fear of nature, but it is evident in his attempts to control his wife, who is undoubtedly a force of nature. The more he attempts to control her, the more out of control she becomes.
Historical constructions of gender play an important role in von Trier’s storytelling. The wife bases her doctoral research on gynocide, which is the systematic murdering of women over the years, usually within the Christian tradition. Her husband is astounded when he realizes she has come to believe, through a twisted line of thought, that women really are evil and have brought the world’s scorn upon them. This is really a sign of the woman’s self-loathing and need to feel the burden of her own guilt, namely the responsibility she feels for her son’s death. We understand the measure of her self-hatred and blame when she says at the beginning of the film that her son’s death was all her fault, even though her husband should be held equally as responsible. While her husband acts the role of the enlightened male, his attempts to control nature (evident in his brutal beating of a crow to death) and his wife through traditional masculine behavior demonstrates the way in which he feeds into the dominant stereotype. Ultimately, there is a question of whether or not all of his actions add to the amount of historical patriarchal abuses of women.
As stated before, sexuality is a deadly force in the film. The couple solve their battles through sexual encounters. When the woman wakes up in the middle of the night with an anxiety attack, her immediate reaction is to climb on top of her husband, who denies her because he feels it would be unethical of him to sleep with her since he is then playing the role of her therapist. In other words, sex is only acceptable when he says it is. The woman has the last word when, convinced that he plans to leave her, she stops mid-coitus and smashes his penis with a wooden block. She then proceeds to drill a pulley mechanism through his leg and secure it with a bolt so that he is unable to escape. The woman has obviously descended into madness. She is unable to deal with the implications of sin and guilt that plague her mind. In reality, this is the result of her inability to extricate her mind from the hazards of a collective Christian consciousness. She believes that nature, which has traditional connections to femininity, is Satan’s church. Her own anatomy is a shame; she believes this is further proven by the fact that her son died because she was distracted by sexual acts. Moreover, as she is an Eve figure, she believes the fall of her son (which can also symbolize the fall of humankind) is her fault. Her final act of atonement, as she lies writhing next to her husband who is bleeding but still stimulating her clitoris with his hand while she cries wildly, is an act of sexual self-loathing. In order to mute the her and her husband’s sin, she mutilates his penis. In atonement for their sins as well, she takes a pair of rusty scissors and castrates herself, brutally abscising her own clitoris. She is a storm at rest for a moment until she realizes her husband is trying to escape. Then she attempts to murder him, and, in response, he chokes her to death. The woman’s death scene is intensely personal and we are privy to every second. The husband’s brutality and hatred of her nature, that being her feminine nature, of course, is apparent as he stares coldly into her eyes as he squeezes her last breaths out of her.
The film is separated into a prologue, four chapters (Grief, Pain [Chaos Reigns], Despair [Gynocide], and The Three Beggars), and an epilogue. The disturbing aria from the opening frames returns again in the epilogue. The husband is walking through the woods, escaping after destroying his wife’s remains through fire, feeding on berries. The landscape through which he treks is composed of dead female bodies. As he takes a moment to rest, a large group of women begin to ascend the hill upon which he is seated. The final scene ends in this way. We are left wondering if the women are coming to redeem or revisit him for his act of gynocide or if they are there to unleash their “evil” upon him.
Antichrist eases you into a multi-layered story of sin, sacrifice, and death. The first moments may have you yawning, but the middle picks up and has you cringing. Lars von Trier has a way of making the audience uncomfortable and, at the same time, responsible for the horror and brutality depicted on screen. Antichrist is definitely not a film to watch for a light mood. Students of theology and philosophy will be scratching their heads at the movie’s implications. Watch it. It’s worth it. But, have a happy movie nearby to watch afterward.
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