Three animals, representing grief, pain, and despair – the Three Beggars – wander into a cabin. Country breezes are great, but install a screen door, people!
The Film: The first entry in Lars von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy”
The Potable: One bottle of 2012 Balduzzi estate-bottled “Wine of Chile”
If we’re to break the world down into labels as simple as good and evil, Dutch auteur Lars von Trier may be the closest thing European art cinema has to a villain. Abrasive and provocative, he has a reputation for controversy, and more than one critic has described Antichrist as the work of a deeply misogynist director. Is this fair?
The film opens as so many of these arty affairs do: slow-motion black-and-white shots scored to opera music.Though I don’t remember The Seventh Seal having quite so many close-ups of Willem Dafoe’s Willie Nelson, the atmosphere is similar.
Basically we’ve got three characters here; a mother, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, a father, played by the aforementioned Dafoe, and a baby. Just don’t get too attached to that baby. While the parents bang in the shower, the child, left alone, falls to his death through an open window.
After two minutes I am already in over my head.
This somber opening is only a prologue, and to retreat from their grief, the couple abandons the city in favor of a cabin in the woods. Dafoe’s character is a psychiatrist, after all, and he knows what’s best for his woman, er, I mean wife.
I got the feeling pretty early on that Dafoe wasn’t exactly the best doctor back in Copenhagen. His primary method of psychological analysis is a food pyramid, for Christ’s sake, and while “getting away from it all” sounds good in theory, even I know that crippling isolation in a time of loss may not be the best idea. Indeed, it starts to become a problem.
The horror elements kick in right away. The forest surrounding the cabin seems littered with dead animals, Gainsbourg lies down on some peat moss without any regard for grass stains, more than one shot has an eerie, hazy effect, as if the camera was stationed next to a gas-lit BBQ grill, and the cabin is inexplicably pelted by a downpour of acorns. You know what they say, sometimes a nut is just a nut, but this all seems deeply symbolic.
The kicker, though, comes at the act break, when Dafoe finds a shitty looking CGI fox that whispers “chocolate rain” before hissing away into the undergrowth. The fox is simultaneously goofy and horrifying, I guess. I wasn’t scared or anything. We laugh to keep from crying.
At some point it is revealed that Gainsbourg is a grad student writing a thesis on the 16th century gynocide of women accused of witchcraft. It is unclear at what point in her life she chose this subject, and it frankly seems a little too convenient to the plot. An interesting thought experiment: how would it affect the film if her character had chosen a different topic, such as the impact of the Little Ice Age on agriculture, or gone into pharmaceuticals? Through her thesis, she comes to hate herself, and all women by extension.
“The literature that you used in your research was about evil things committed against women, but you read it as proof of the evil of women? You were supposed to be critical of those things,” Dafoe tells her. Typical mansplaining.
A final revelation suggests a deeper source of the mother’s guilt, that she may have resented her own child, and what follows is perhaps the most cringe-inducing 30 minutes ever put to film. I will not go into detail here, since I like to think all age groups should feel welcome to read my drunken treatises. Trust me when I say that his getting smashed in the dick with a log is the family friendly edit. A chase ensues, Gainsborough running around with her pants off, Donald Duckin’ it through the woods, as Dafoe hides in a hole in the ground, the most obvious womb metaphor since John Goodman came screaming out of that prison tunnel in Raising Arizona.
The central question: Is Antichrist misogynist? Von Trier has described the original idea behind the film as being an imagining of the world if it had been created by the Devil instead of God. That idea evolved over time, but its impact is clear. Satan is nature and nature is the mother. The horror comes from the reversal of the natural order, with both nature and woman shirking a responsibility to nurture. This sounds, yeah, a little misogynist.
Except the film’s final moments redeem it. The epilogue shows Gainsbourg joining the souls of the thousands of women murdered before her, and a dimwitted Dafoe, oblivious to their pain. He is the dummy doctor, after all, and the benefactor of a patriarchy that places the burden of nurturing almost entirely on women. His guilt was minimized by her own, a father never in danger of unraveling since the child was essentially the mother’s to love or lose. He is, more than anything else, the source of his wife’s madness.
Short answer: maybe. Long answer: no, but also with a maybe.
Verdict: very uncomfortable