We’ve heard more than once that Lars von Trier “hates women.” Certainly, the Danish director’s major works (say, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville) have heaped misery after misery upon his central female characters, seemingly only to plumb the limits of women’s ability to suffer. Antichrist is no exception, and in many ways it seems Von Trier’s rejoinder to such criticism, as if daring us to watch what we expect to see. Just as certainly, the scene of female mutilation that has so many viewers in an uproar is about as brutal an attack on a woman as can be imagined.
But Von Trier’s movies offer redemption along with the brutality, and his suffering women are readable as survivors of Old Testament-style vengeance and divine justice. Suffused with Christian moralism, the films recall the art of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, with its focus on the suffering body of Christ and the mortification of the flesh. Indeed, several tableaux in Antichrist directly invoke this tradition. The promotional posters, for instance, show She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and He (Willem Dafoe) coupling at the base of a tree with multiple other human limbs intertwined among the roots, plainly recalling the voluptuousness of Counter-Reformation artists like Caravaggio and Hieronymous Bosch.
Through such religious allegory, Antichrist challenges us to consider the social and personal implications of conventional moralisms. This is clear in He’s assertion that “thoughts distort reality, not the other way around,” insofar as it suggests that what we believe and how we come to belief shape our reality. Beyond religion per se, the film also directs us to consider the ethical conventions that replaced Christianity in the aftermath of the Enlightenment. This directive is ensconced in the very title of his film: who or what in Antichrist is the Antichrist?
In one respect, He is the Antichrist. As a psychotherapist, He is agent of the modern science that has eclipsed traditional religious accounts of individual drives and subjectivity. After the tragic death of their son, He takes it upon himself to help his wife work through her grief by taking her to a remote cabin in the woods. In his self-assurance that only psychoanalysis can “cure” her, He represents the hubris of rational, secular moralism.
In her mourning process, we learn details about She that indicate the effects of psychoanalytic assessment on individuals, and specifically on women. The son, it seems, was always wandering off, and, unattended by his parents, fell to his death while He and She were having sex. It becomes clear that She’s despair is driven by psychosexual guilt, and for her, sex becomes inextricably linked with death.
The problematic “nature” of sex and sexuality in psychoanalysis (and, of course, female sexuality was a particular problem for Freud) is elaborated when we see that She was also abusing her son. As the child represents her access to the phallus and its symbolic authority in psychoanalysis, her behavior suggests her desire to maintain some vestige of phallic authority. As She appears increasingly psychotic, she represents traditional psychoanalysis’s pathologization of women.
She is also the Antichrist, reflected in Christian notions of the “evil” of women and their sexuality. A graduate student just shy of finishing her master’s thesis, She has been studying the medieval persecution of witches by the Church, which provides an apt if obvious context for her own circumstances and punishment: isolated in the cabin, She retreats to fundamentalist Christian explanations of the “nature” of women’s sin and sexuality as expressed in the persecution of witches. She embraces her “nature” as a witch, a figure of unrestrained female sexuality, and acts out in terrifying ways, torturing her husband with sex and mutilation.
Much as she is produced as a female hysteric by psychoanalysis, She is similarly constituted as a Witch by the fundamentalist discourses of Christianity. The real Antichrists in Antichrist are the patriarchal institutions, whether Christianity or psychoanalysis, God or Freud, that routinely craft moralistic ideologies reducing women to misogynistic stereotypes. Pathological or demonic, She is condemned by the “nature” attributed to her.