Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist , starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe as a couple grieving the death of an infant son who tumbled to his death while mommy and daddy were having hot sex, has been piously lambasted as “misogynist ” by male critics ever since it premiered at last May’s Cannes Film Festival. Before I had a chance to see it, a male reporter for a major newspaper told me that “no woman” could possibly enjoy the film.
I’m sure he meant this as a critique of Antichrist’s graphic sexual violence (mostly notably male and female genital mutilation, both performed by Gainsbourg’s unnamed “gynocide” researcher), and not as a critique of us hypersensitive womenfolk’s inability to read allegory, but after I saw the film a few days later, it was hard not to take offense at the reflexive gender assumption. What can I say? I enjoyed Antichrist. I guess this makes me less of a woman?
Von Trier has carefully calibrated his auteur terrible persona so that most of the criticisms his work inspires seem to play directly into his hands. In the case of Antichrist , he’s playfully stoked the misogyny fire by billing one of his collaborators, Danish journalist Heidi Laura, as the film’s “misogyny consultant.” But anyone who takes the time to grapple with what Von Trier has put on screen should find a film that’s far too complex to be dismissed as merely sexist. Von Trier seems to engaging with, inverting, and/or subverting the whole of horror movie history, from the function of the woods in earlier talkies like Frankenstein , to wartime allegories like Cat People , in which woman is an exotic beast who must be spayed or slayed, to Carol Clover’s “final girl” theory of the slasher films of the 1980s, in which the last woman left alive is transformed from victim to hero.
Von Trier’s heroine takes the opposite route-she transforms from victim to perpetrator-but her crimes, though born from sexual hysteria, aren’t unjustifiable. Von Trier goes out of his way to depict Dafoe as an unbearably condescending scold who privileges his own professional success to his wife’s while depriving her of basic physical comforts. In classic horror movie formula, desire repressed always comes back as vengeance, and Antichrist defies any viewer with a feel for that formula to not, on some level, get excited by the woman’s revenge.
In fact, I’d argue that Antichrist is a much better-and scarier, and more sexually and politically provocative- female revenge film than Jennifer’s Body , which some writers have claimed as a work of feminism . Just as many of the more positive writings on that Diablo Cody film defend the screenwriter against what is seen as her unfair persecution, a lot of the most negative writings on Antichrist apply a superficial, knee-jerk reading to an incredibly complicated film, in order to get to the conclusion that it’s not safe for viewing by anyone, but particularly women. I wonder how the common effort to protect all of us delicate female flowers-whether from the ego-bruising of criticism or the potential psychological damage of bearing witness to a movie clitorectomy-doesn’t qualify as its own kind of misogyny.
Maybe we should all take a cue from the one demographic that has unapologetically embraced Antichrist : the fanboys , who have turned the warning growled in the film by a disemboweled fox (“Chaos Reigns!”) into a T-shirt slogan and all-purpose battle cry. The dateless, basement-dwelling stereotype of the fanboy aside, young male horror fans aren’t going to let the kind of fear of women that leads to politically correct tiptoeing get in the way of their good time. And neither should we.