Woman as Evil – Lars Von Trier’s Polarising Film “Antichrist”

Note: This is an essay I wrote for CIU110, posting to archive.

Prologue

An introduction

Lars Von Trier is arguably one of the most controversial filmmakers of the 21st century. He has stated to be “pushing regressive behaviour beyond all acceptable limits” (Hoberman, 2015) and “perceived as a brave and talented filmmaker … overshadowed by his eagerness to provoke,” (Ball, 2015). In particular, his film Antichrist (Foldager & von Trier, 2009) has gained particularly strong reactions after airing at the Cannes film festival. Its graphic depictions of sex, violence and misogyny split audiences in two. This essay will embark to demonstrate Lars von Trier’s masterful construction of themes to create an evocative film on the societal construct of misogyny. To demonstrate this, I will be referencing the influences of the writer-director, various academic literature and film-centric reviews.

Breaking the waves

On von Trier’s influence & influences

As briefly touched on before, von Trier’s overt influence as an artist has and continues to stir dialogue. His debut feature film, The Element of Crime (Holst & von Trier, 1984) set the tone for his film career, containing a self-assured tone and expressionist style (P. Cowrie, 2000), and is featured on the prestigious site, “The Criterion Collection”. von Trier received equal praise from acclaimed critic Roger Ebert for Antichrist, who gave the film a rating of 3.5 out of 4 and wrote that von Trier’s inherent need to provoke and shock his audience is far greater than similar filmmakers, as well as praising the intentional raw quality of the film’s sequences (R. Ebert, 2009).

von Triers’ influences include Arabian Nights (Grimaldi & Pasolini, 1974), Orson Welles’ The Lady of Shanghai (Welles, 1947) and Touch of Evil (Zugsmith & Welles, 1958) and Barry Lyndon (Kubrick, 1975) (Dedinsky, 2015). One of von Trier’s favourite short films, The Perfect Human (Leth, 1967), became the source of a collaboration between von Trier and Leth, after von Trier challenged Leth to create five similar experimental films under the title of The Five Obstructions (Aalbæk, Windeløv, von Trier & Leth, 2003) (Scott, 2003). von Trier’s main influence for Antichrist, The Mirror (Waisberg & Tarkovsky, 1975), led the writer-director to dedicate the film to Tarkovsky, a decision that aroused some shock (Jenkins, n.d.).

Nature versus Nurture

On the role of nature, both inside and out

Antichrist touches on many themes, though one of the deepest undercurrents of the film is that of nature; both the presence of it and the dynamic of human nature. To address the fears of “She” (Charlotte Gainsbourg), “He” (Willem Dafoe) takes her to the place she names the most fearful, a cottage in the woods named Eden. The forest plays a central role in the film, in the character arc of “She” and as a general force throughout. Nature is also an internalised mechanism, and as the film progresses we see the contrasts between society’s construct of the idealised female and that of the reckoning force of the natural woman. There is also a stable connection between nature and witchcraft, which we see in the unfinished thesis of “She”, and the animals that appear throughout the film.

Nature is a constant throughout the film, even while lying in the clinical hospital bed, the rumble of it is heard. The most literal of this representation are the animals throughout the film that represent grief, despair and pain. The nature of women is also addressed, perhaps in one of the more literal terms when a dead baby bird is swooped up and eaten by its own mother, contrasting with the death of Nic, the son of “She”. Through this we see, clearly and resolutely, that inherent nature of maternity is unnatural (Brent Plate, 2009)

The ideas between nature and witches are inherently linked throughout the film, though they are never named. von Trier stated in a 2009 interview that the film contained solid links between nature and primitive views of witchcraft, reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials (Electric Sheep, 2009). A direct correlation between nature and witchcraft can be found in multiple sections of “The Malleus Maleficarum” where the author states, “again, there are some things in nature which have certain hidden powers, the reason for which man does not know,” (Institoris & Sprenger, 1971, p. 38).  This ultimately leads into the construct of women and the persecution of their sex.

Woman as Other

On misogyny and construct of women

The film Antichrist, and in turn von Trier, have both absconded for being misogynistic and torture porn. Chris Tookey’s title of his review, “Antichrist: The man who made this horrible, misogynistic film needs to see a shrink,” is indicative of this, and he emulates this review by absconding von Trier’s thematic tools (2009). However this is a gross misinterpretation.

“Gynocide” is the thesis that “She” is writing, however the archaic and patriarchal readings she ingests on her endeavour ultimately lead to her conclusion, that women and female nature are inherently “evil”. Gynocide is a gendered term for “gendercide”, a word that means the mass-killings of either male or female. The film applies this to the witch trials of the past, and also the present day female construct (Genocide.leadr.msu.edu, 2015).

The female protagonist is an example of the constraints of patriarchy gone horrible wrong. Throughout the film is becomes obvious that many gendered aspects of life, like motherhood and marriage, have tainted her soul. “He” is consistently taking the role of her therapist, treating her in textbook fashion, which “She” plays along with. However it becomes apparent as she oscillates between letting him “treat” her and commanding a highly sexual control over him, that there is a shift between the two. A deep contrast is her demand for him to claim dominance over her by demanding “He” hits her during sex and during the climax of the film where she graphically attaches a weight to him, wounding him and quite literally giving him her burden.

“She” also rebels against her own apparent nature to be a mother; subtly this is hinted when “He” references photographs of their son taken with the wrong shoes on, and the disfigurement that Nic subsequently developed from this. It is also heavily implied that “She” had a hand in her son’s own death, as she is seen watching her son climb to his death.

Epilogue

A summation

In conclusion, Antichrist is a thematic work of art that aptly reveals the gruesome nature of patriarchal society. The themes von Trier indulged throughout are ones that deserve brutality to truly understand, and the end piece is not of misogyny, but one deconstructing it. As a writer, artist and feminist, it is hard not to admire von Trier’s masterful work, as it not only delivers heavy blows, but leaves one with weighted thoughts. It is an evocative and inspiring piece that serves well to influence many, including myself.

Bibliography

Aalbæk, P.,  Windeløv , V. (Producers), & von Trier, L., Leth, J. (Directors). (2003).  The Five Obstructions [Motion Picture]. Denmark: Zentropa Real ApS, Wajnbrosse Production & Koch-Lorber Films

Ball, L. (2015). Nymphomaniac: A one night stand with Lars von Trier. Curnblog. Retrieved from http://curnblog.com/2014/02/28/nymphomaniac-one-night-stand-lars-von-trier/Hoberman, J. (2015). Sex: The Terror and the Boredom. The New York Review Of Books, p. Retrieved from http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2014/mar/26/nymphomaniac-sex-terror-boredom/

Brent Plate, S. (2009). Mother (Nature) Will Eat You: Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. Religion Dispatches. Retrieved 16 April 2015, from http://religiondispatches.org/mother-nature-will-eat-you-lars-von-triers-iantichristi/

Buch-Hansen, G. (2011). Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, the Bible, and Docetic Masculinity (Associate Professor). University of Copenhagen.

Cowrie, P. (2000). The Element of Crime. The Criterion Collection. Retrieved from http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/83-the-element-of-crime

Dedinsky, S. (2015). 21 favorite films of Lars von Trier. Distantlight.RU. Retrieved 16 April 2015, from http://en.distantlight.tv/index.php/today-watcher/item/54-favorite_movie_lars_von_trier.html

Ebert, R. (2009). Antichrist. Rogerebert.Com, p. Retrieved from http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/antichrist-2009

Electric Sheep,. (2009). ANTICHRIST: INTERVIEW WITH LARS VON TRIER. Retrieved 16 April 2015, from http://www.electricsheepmagazine.co.uk/features/2009/07/03/antichrist-interview-with-lars-von-trier/

Foldager M.L. (Producer), & von Trier, L. (Director). (2009).  Antichrist [Motion Picture]. Denmark: Nordisk Film Distribution.

Genocide.leadr.msu.edu,. (2015). Gynocide | Imaging Genocide. Retrieved 16 April 2015, from http://genocide.leadr.msu.edu/gynocide/

Grimaldi, A. (Producer), & Pasolini, P.P. (Director). (1974).  Arabian Nights [Motion Picture]. Italy: United Artists.

Holst, P. (Producer), & von Trier, L. (Director). (1984).  The Element of Crime [Motion Picture]. Denmark: Kærne Film.

Institoris, H., & Sprenger, J. (1971). The Malleus maleficarum of Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. New York: Dover.

Jenkins, D. Controversy? What controversy? Lars Von Trier is meek and mild when it comes to discussing his latest film, ‘Antichrist’. Timeout, p. Retrieved from http://www.timeout.com/london/film/lars-von-trier-discusses-antichrist-1

Kubrick, S. (Producer & Director). (1975).  Barry Lyndon [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Warner Bros.

Leth, J. (Director). (1967).  The Perfect Human [Short Film]. Denmark.

Scott, A. (2003). FILM REVIEW; A Cinematic Duel of Wits For Two Danish Directors. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C02E4D6143EF935A15756C0A9629C8B63

Waisberg, E. (Producer), & Tarkovsky, A. (Director). (1975).  The Mirror [Motion Picture]. Soviet Union.

Welles, O. (Producer & Director). (1947).  The Lady from Shanghai [Motion Picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.

Zugsmith, A. (Producer), & Welles, O. (Director). (1958).  Touch of Evil [Motion Picture]. United States: Universal-International

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