On "Antichrist"

By Steven Menashi
The American Scene
10/13/09

I saw Antichrist at the same showing at which someone had a seizure but I have been more curious about the contortions of critics who want to defend the film against charges of misogyny . According to Robert Cargill there are ongoing arguments “about whether the film is decidedly misogynistic or wildly feminist.” The idea that Antichrist is a feminist film must be the product of some sort of cognitive dissonance among those who fancy themselves both aficionados of art-house cinema and also good progressives — and who assume these two commitments will never conflict. Because I am not so constrained, I face comparatively little difficulty in pointing out what is pretty obvious: Antichrist is an extended polemic against female sexuality.

In case there were any doubt that Lars von Trier regards Woman as the Antichrist, he writes the title with a stylized “T” that resembles the symbol of Venus . As the title suggests, Antichrist is an inversion of the Christ story. Instead of the birth of a child, there is a death. Instead of three kings bearing gifts, there are “three beggars” demanding a sacrifice. Instead of redeeming the world, establishing moral order, “chaos reigns.” Instead of a crucifixion, there is a “gynocide.” And, at the end, there is a resurrection: While Jesus died and rose again to forgive sin and turn the world toward justice , after Charlotte Gainsbourg dies we see the resurrection of Woman as many faceless women pour forth from Eden to commit sin and create injustice.

In the film, “She” — the name of Gainsborg’s character — had been writing a thesis on violence against women through history. She realized that “nature … causes people to do evil things to women,” but concluded that female nature is also part of this cycle, that the nature of women inspires violence. As She explains it, women lack complete control over their own bodies, which are animated by some demonic spirit. For her, images such as those she collects of early modern witches copulating with demons capture some essential truth that her therapist husband, whose relentless rationalism fails to cure her, fails to appreciate until the very end.

Gainsbourg’s character, through her sexual frenzies and shifts of mood, seems connected to the natural world of Eden around her. When she observes that “Nature is Satan’s church,” it is not difficult to infer that while Christ was half man, half divine, Antichrist is half woman, half satanic. Indeed, She does not seem completely in control of herself. She brutalizes her husband, and then suddenly shifts back to a nurturing mode in which she genuinely seems to care for him. In her brutalizing mode, for example, She bolts a grindstone to his leg, and then throws the wrench under the house to prevent an escape. Later, in her nurturing mode, She wants to remove the grindstone and help her husband back to the house; She looks for the wrench in the toolbox as if she were not aware that she herself had hidden it elsewhere.

Such splitting of her personality recurs. In one (notorious) sequence, She remembers watching her child fall from the window while she did nothing to stop him because she was caught up in sexual ecstasy. When, horrified at her own conduct, She performs a genital self-mutilation, she is trying to protect herself as well as others from an uncontrollable destructive force within herself.

The fact that She herself is horrified by female sexual power seems to undermine the notion that the film depicts the result of patriarchal oppression. Rather, it is hard to escape the conclusion that She has rediscovered a truth that He, in his rationalistic naivete, has dismissed out of hand. And that the expulsion from Eden — the corruption of the world — was not simply the fall of Man but the rise of Woman.

Call me crazy, but I don’t find that wildly feminist.

Antichrist presents what Roger Ebert reports was von Trier’s original vision: “that the world was created by Satan, not God: That evil, not goodness, reigns ascendant.” But the vehicle of Satan’s triumph, the Antichrist, seems to be the point of the film.

An update: This comment from SDG is well taken. The language in the post was meant only to highlight the contrast with Antichrist and not to reëvaluate the hypostatic union.