EDIT: Pardon the rambling nature of this one, as it was more an exercise in trying to discern the film’s ideology than a review so to speak. In any case, I figured it might be of interest to others, so here it is:
Coming back to Antichrist a couple years and more than half a dozen Lars von Trier films later, I figured I would be ready for it. On the whole, I don’t see Trier as a misogynist, as I did upon first viewing this film. I believe that at times he can be, and he certainly leaves that interpretation open to possibility. Still, I can’t shake the belief that Antichrist most definitely is, even as I make conscious efforts to read it against the grain and make excuses for the auteur who has claimed, so often, to identify with his female characters. The film’s virtues are in its beautiful cinematography—with the possible exception of Melancholia, this is Trier’s best looking film by a longshot—and in the virtuoso performances of Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Dafoe, its only two players
Trier has worked almost exclusively within the melodramatic mode since Breaking the Waves, presenting myths of equality and opportunity and illuminating rather horrifically how they have not been achieved. His best of these (Dancer in the Dark for one) clearly come out on the side of his female protagonist as Brechtian critiques of the behavior they depict. On the other end of the spectrum is this film. In the beginning, Gainsbourg has an orgasm at precisely the moment she watches her child climb out a window to his death. She begins to see a therapist, who tells her that her grief is “atypical,” to which Gainsbourg’s therapist husband (Dafoe) disagrees. If one were to read the film such that Dafoe’s character being the “evil” one, as many proponents have, it’s presumably best to assume that this early in the film, he is at least better than the alternative therapist, his sin being the masculine traits of overbearingness and selfishness. Trier’s distaste for therapy is also well-chronicled, and so as Dafoe continues to psychoanalyze Gainsbourg in an attempt to help her through the grieving process, we get scenes in which Gainsbourg has to walk from one stone to another—a silly task that certainly won’t help her move on with the death of her son. She alternately embraces his “help,” perhaps for sex (and perhaps not), and disavowals it, perhaps out of frustration (and perhaps not).
The characters are arguably too complex and internalized to read through the lens of melodrama, as archetypal forces responding to oppressive societal forces, but if doing so, certainly the oppressive, external force that is condemning society’s women is therapy itself, which attempts to pigeonhole and define a grieving process as being “typical” or “atypical,” divides it into phases, and thus probably finds a set “end” point for it, as if one could ever be totally “over” the tragedy that befalls Gainsbourg at the beginning of the film. If this is the case, there is not only too much signposting, the signs are contradictory. Gainsbourg’s remark that “Freud is dead” is delivered with too much irony to take seriously, seeming to again endorse Dafoe’s coolly rational, detached process, and when he chides her for reading literature that she interprets as proof of the evil of women instead of the evil against women, it is almost certainly Trier himself talking—after all, how many critics and viewers have misinterpreted his previous films precisely as such? Certainly Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, and The Idiots are not misogynistic, but they do enact violence and cruelty against women and are interpreted as such. When Gainsbourg cuts off her clitoris, it’s as if she’s taking responsibility for the death of her child. The trouble is, if she’s martyring herself, there is no external force that is driving her to take responsibility, as she has overpowered Dafoe at that point. She must simply be “crazy.”
The other trouble is that, for the most part, what Dafoe does is understandable and even helpful at times. When he is attacked, it is hard to side with Gainsbourg, as the film is told primarily through Dafoe’s point of view and close-ups seem to privilege their emotional states equally. We are welcomed into her subjectivity more than his, as when he tells her to close her eyes and imagine Eden on the train there, but that scene is without distance. We never are welcomed into Gainsbourg’s world during her more troubled and disagreeable moments, and we never see her envisioning herself apart from Dafoe’s commands. Taken as a horror film, perhaps Gainsbourg revealing herself as the “monster,” so to speak, is an attack on the customs that Dafoe and those like him try to enforce (i.e. psychoanalytic explanations for action and emotion, rationalizing emotions such as grief, repressing the sexuality of mothers), but if one has to use psychoanalysis to reach that point, it’s a rather ironic failure on Trier’s part. If Dafoe is the monster, the film never switches identification even when Gainsbourg starts to attack him, and it then becomes almost unreadable.
The only interpretation that seems left, then, is one in which a crazy woman (and, it must be repeated, sexual mother) attacks a man who is scarcely able to get away, after which all the women in the world enter Eden. Whether this is a statement that all women are like Gainsbourg’s or an anointment of her as a martyr, one who dies for the sins of all women (her primary sin being her open sexuality as a mother) is up for debate. Given the film’s religious overtones I’m compelled by the latter, but then, that would again make her the titular character. Trier has stated that he intended to depict the world in a state in which it was created by Satan, not God, and the film is indeed the story of creation in reverse—after the death of the baby Adam and Eve return to the Garden, at which point Eve is eventually unsexed and then disposed of all together—but for Antichrist, the devil is a woman. If the film is trying to trace patriarchy back to Genesis, it finds its definitive root in Gainsbourg’s self-mutilation.
I would also like to highlight Roger Ebert’s take, which looks further at the religious aspects of the film and Trier’s vision.