Lars Von Trier’s "Antichrist": Gender and Nature as Horrorific and Instructive

Watching Lars Von Trier’s movie “Antichrist” roughly six weeks ago has left me in awe, still. I was able to witness a movie displaying many of my favorite things, namely allegorical use of theology, psycho-analytic theory, horror, the hyperbolic rise of chaos (namely, Bakhtin’s notion of carnival), subtle elements of pantheism, and gender issues. Quite obviously this movie may be too esoteric for the casual movie-goer masses. I considered this as I watched it with a friend as we guffawed and oh-my-god-ed while giving each other sideways, smirking glances over and over. I knew, though, that the movie had more to offer than the shock value that it initially displays. It was illuminating and vivid, obscure and grotesque, as well as thought-provoking and dense. Its risible aspects lessen as the viewer realizes that the story means business.

I’ve never seen a Von Trier movie, but this guy definitely knows what he’s doing, especially as he architects the brilliant cinematography to propel his story. The opening scene is both shocking and surreal, as it shows the man (Willem DeFoe) and woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) having sex (literally and in the audience’s full view), as it snows outside. The viewer gets an amazingly choreographed and beautiful scene shot in slow motion that mixes ecstasy and death as the couples small child walks out the window from two stories up into a heavenly snow scene to his death below.

After their child falls out the window and dies, He (a psychologist/therapist) wishes to help Her (getting her Masters degree in some subject having to do with medieval feminist studies, which figures heavily into the plot) get over her grieving, so he takes her to the place that she says scares her the most: Eden, their vacation home in the woods of rural Washington state.

It is when they arrive at Eden that things begin to really fall apart. The contextual order she enjoyed from her hospital room and a slow funeral procession wrought with grief and self-flagellation give way to the surreal terror the forest has to offer her. Once the couple enters Eden (an obvious analogue for the location of original sin propagated by Eve) He begins to lose his logocentric control over his wife. His science cannot aid him to unravel his wife’s, and what seems like at the forest’s behest, descent into illogical and irrational behavior. During one of their first nights at Eden the Oak trees begin to drop their acorns on the cabin’s tin roof, which thoroughly disconcerts He. Soon the noise rises to an unnatural crescendo. During this scene it seems that He is at odds with nature as it jars him literally from his dreams. He repels and is distrustful of nature, unlike his wife, who is first fearful, then embraces it completely. Quite interestingly, Her initiation seems to mirror Jack Torrance’s character in Stephen King’s The Shining, who slowly welcomes invitations to permanently join the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel. Only, She seems to be fulfilling another role, not that of the middle-class alcoholic man trying to break out of his seemingly class-bound position by writing a novel, but the role of one who wishes to unconsciously overturn her husband’s world of logic, science, and order. And this occurs, slightly.

Enter the three kings, I mean beggars. (The biblical references are overwhelming in this film.) The three beggars, as the movie subtitles call them, are denizens of the forest: a deer who represents grief (we first see the doe giving birth to a stillborn faun), a fox who represents pain (we first see this little guy disemboweled saying ‘chaos reigns’ when the couple first enter “Eden”) and a crow who represents despair (the crow’s role becomes a pivotal one at the film’s end). Considering the film’s themes of building chaos, fear of nature, grief and the supposed solution to these, science, the introduction of the three beggars seems to be a mystifying red herring. But then on the other hand the metaphors seem too easy. Could the three animals signify the biblical three kings who brought baby Jesus gifts on his birthday, solidifying his being the savior of (man)kind? In this scenario the three baggers become analogues to the female version of this mythos. I don’t know. I don’t find much conclusive evidence to support this theory, nor to disprove it, but the metaphor is there for you to do with it what you will.

I don’t want to give away the movie’s–to say the least–harrowing closing events, but they play the most influential role in regard to understanding what Von Trier may be trying to say. Many critics writing about the movie label him as a misogynist. Von Trier portrays She as a homicidal, sex crazed, grief-stricken, illogical woman, and He as a methodical and logical scientist. But what I think the element the nay-saying critics are missing is that this is a work of art, not reality. Von Trier is not lobbying to reduce women’s rights, nor is he making a statement on the culture of “women” or femininity. He’s fabricating a paradigm that the last twenty years of third wave feminist theory has been explaining, explicating, and championing, and many of these same feminist theorists would say that the themes and tropes this film furthers fit to a T the unknowingly acculturated notions that most men and women uphold; men are strong, silent methodical, and scientific as they use rationalism to solve any problem coming their way, while women are emotional, capricious, and potentially dangerous when they give themselves fully to their (gasp) emotions. These theorists would comment on the clichéd gender roles floating around in this movie, but they would also take note of the man’s position at the film’s end: alienated and in awe of the feminine nature, which becomes Von Trier’s final comment.

The friend with whom I watched the movie surmised that it was about men having to watch themselves around women, and that they had to maintain control (” you gotta keep a bitch in check!”). My take on the film, which I feel would also be the take of many gender theorists, would be that the movie serves (first) as a primer for gender divides and fears, then (second) shows the effect–in the extreme–of what occurs when these presumed gender divisions are upheld with certainty. He is left alone, alienated, having to procure sustenance from nature, but also having been purged from it by the very thing he fears: lusty non-science and il-logic.

Nature, is not what She calls it: “Satan’s church.” Although it becomes Satan’s church when one fears and reveres it as the characters do in this film. I’m not sure that this movie is even feminist, but rather destructivist of ossified gender role presumptions; it wants to highlight the points of contact we encounter in our daily lives, show the liminality of these “maxims,” instruct the audience on their fallacies, then destroy them to show that gender roles and how people interact with nature are not as concrete as most think. Really, chaos does reign, in all forms of life, which is quite the constant. Audiences may find, regardless of what horror or disgust the film induces, that the film is misogynistic at its most superficial level. The film provokes a deeply buried beast in the audience though. Freud drips from this film, and the character unspoken for at the film’s conclusion is the boy (who took the front gainer out the window because of his parents’ sexual indulgence).

This entry was posted in Carnival, Critical Theory, Essay, Fear, Film, Film Review, Freud, Gender, Horror, Pop Culture Issues.

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