Von Trier’s latest, highly controversial film has infuriated and disgusted many critics, most of whom dismiss the film immediately due to its graphic nudity and sexual violence. Reviews of the film are often sensationalized and hysterical, with some film writers becoming offended by the mere suggestion of the film’s content, one in particular even admitting to not having seen the film, but calling for it to be banned anyway (note: this article contains MAJOR spoilers, so unless you have seen the film, do not read the paragraph beginning with “A husband and wife…”). Not only is this presumptuous article ridiculous on principle (how can one criticize a film one hasn’t seen?) but it, of course, completely ignores the context of Antichrist’s assault on the senses. Having seen the film, I do also find this article rather hilarious, because Antichrist is really not that shocking when put next to many mainstream American horror films. Rob Zombie wouldn’t bat an eyelash. Perhaps it is the frankness of Trier’s images that so disturb critics – he presents nudity, sexuality, and violence in the center of the frame, close-up, and doesn’t play tricks with the camera to hide any of it. This isn’t new to his canon, nor is controversy, but the extremity of a few shots here has garnered more attention than usual. Yes, it is violent, and yes, the intimate and sexual nature of the violence is often disturbing to witness, especially as it veers into self-mutilation. It is not, however, all that gory or gleefully creative, like most contemporary horror which delights in spilling as many guts as possible, and is tied inextricably to the themes Von Trier is trying to express.
What, then, is he trying to say, that relies on such extremes to be his vessel? In his interviews on the film, he has attributed its conception and execution to a severe depression he suffered recently. It’s not hard to imagine that the idea for this film came straight from the depths of despair. It concerns an unnamed married couple who loses their young son in an accident, and retreat to a cabin in the woods to deal with the mother’s debilitating grief in a setting that terrifies her. Her husband, a therapist, is relatively unmoved by his son’s death, or he is just distracting himself by turning his wife into a project, dissecting her anxieties and forcing her to go through painful mental experiments that she is clearly not ready for, in the guise of wanting to help her. She is seeking comfort and desires physical intimacy from her husband in order to feel safe. Because he denies her needs, she channels that desire first into a ferocious sex drive, and then into slowly escalating violence, towards him and herself. The specifics of their son’s death are an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding her extreme behavior. The child tumbled out of a window while his parents were having sex in another room, and that his mother blames herself for neglecting to watch him is natural, if somewhat irrational.
She has found herself in the middle of an ages-old battle between the “dual” natures of woman: the maternal side, which is selfless and rational, and the sexual side, which is selfish, wild, and dangerous. Men have long feared and tried to suppress this oft-mythologized stereotype about female sexuality, which Von Trier himself has described as mysterious and frightening. Deep in the woods, surrounded by the feral and cruel order of nature, She becomes unhinged, her basest fears and desires finally being expressed after grief tears down all illusions of civility. She remembers the last time she visited the cabin, with her son in tow, to work on her thesis, the topic of which is the exact thing her life becomes: the terror men throughout history have felt when confronted with female power, and their subsequent destruction of it. Her writings focused on religiously motivated gynecide, such as the Salem witch burnings. The film itself is loaded with obvious and heavy-handed religious symbolism, the clearest of which is the cabin being called Eden, when it fact it turns into the couple’s own personal hell.
A more nuanced and interesting take on the religious theme comes from the film’s visuals, which are both nightmarish and elegant. Many of Trier’s compositions call to mind the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, whose works featured dark and surreal depictions of Heaven and Hell. In particular, The Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych, the first two panels depicting ecstasy in nature, and the third damnation in hell, with similar imagery to the shot in Von Trier’s film of the couple making love against a tree. Pale hands reach up through the roots, appearing sinister and demonic, like they are coming out of Bosch’s vision of hell. This connection could be entirely mine, but nonetheless I think it is intriguing and at any rate, the heavily stylized visuals and beautiful arias that score the film call to mind classic religious art from many sources.
Although the film has been called misogynistic, I think it is actually critiquing the patriarchal society that denies women comfort and understanding, by turning them into the “Other.” We like to believe that as a society, we have moved past these stereotypes about women, but they are still prevalent in our religious institutions and traditional views on female sexuality. When tragedy and fear enter the picture, we revert back to our primitive instincts, and these ancient evils rear their heads. This internal struggle is visually echoed by the location of the forest, which is primal and violent, and the “Three Beggars” that cause this violence among humans (pain, grief, and despair) become animals (a fox, a deer, and a crow). The film is such a dizzying amalgam of visual symbolism, loaded dialogue, allusion, allegory, on top of fierce performances by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, that in the end, I’m not surprised most critics chose to simply latch onto the most obvious aspects and declare the film offensive. It is a lot to wrap your head around, and the result is certainly not for everyone. It is intense and harrowing, with emotion dialed up to 11 as Von Trier likes (see also: Breaking the Waves, which deals with a hysterical heroine, punishment of female sexuality, and dark religious themes set against an unforgiving landscape). For me, however, it was one of the most provocative and exciting film experiences of my life, inspiring in its unrelenting vision, and especially in Gainsbourg’s fearless performance, which makes me wish that I will ever go that far in pursuit of my art.