Misogyny has been the most frequent accusation thrown at Lars von Trier’s Antichrist since its debut at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. With its scenes of abject sexual violence and the endless, harrowing emotional suffering endured by Charlotte Gainsbourg’s unnamed protagonist (simply referred to as “She” in the film’s credits), it certainly lends itself to this decisive response. We have, after all, witnessed other von Trier women in comparable states of mental and physical distress. From Björk’s Selma in Dancer in the Dark (2000) to Nicole Kidman’s Grace in Dogville (2003), von Trier’s conception of femininity is often one that must be martyred or punished; women with no agency or control of their own.
Amy Simmons, in her study of Antichrist for the Devil’s Advocates series, promotes an alternative view. Her reading accounts for von Trier’s most controversial film as one that actually takes a scalpel to patriarchy and misogyny itself. She encourages us to see Gainsbourg’s “She” as a female character of depth and complexity in a film that demands much more than knee-jerk reactions. Simmons provides a thoughtful, meticulous analysis in this slim 90-page volume, part of a series exploring classics of horror cinema in detail, which includes studies of Carrie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Suspiria. Simmons’s is a complex investigation into a complex film, locating it within the wider concerns of von Trier’s output, of the Gothic tradition, of extreme cinema, and of body horror films, while arguing for the highly unique nature of its visual language and ultra-sensory storytelling. In her capable hands, Antichrist reveals itself as something of an anti-misogynist manifesto and critique of the fragility of patriarchy – a film of rich, wild symbolism, violent beauty, and boundless ideas.
Despite only explicitly stating this in the books’ final pages, it is clear from the outset that Simmons has shaped her study around the knowledge that “Antichrist isn’t a work to love. It is a work to admire, to puzzle through and to wrestle with”. (p. 86) For some viewers, von Trier’s nightmarish, mysterious puzzle is also an endurance test. Simmons’s analysis offers a way through the darkness and contradictions with impressive ease. Antichrist, as Simmons repeats, is a film that dares us to dig deeper; and with this volume a significant portion of the excavation is completed for us.
Gender is a crucial unifying concern. The book begins with a brief contextualising introduction, which is followed by a longer analysis section that is divided thematically. Many of the threads raised within the analysis are drawn together in a concluding essay entitled “Abject excess and the monstrous feminine,” before a final conclusion that works mostly to make a case for the intrinsic cultural and artistic value of von Trier’s film. Throughout, Simmons returns to the idea that the film’s controversy is not a hatred of women but rather the ferocious challenge it poses to the representation of female stereotypes, and that only those who engage solely with its surface would fail to see its psychological complexity in relation to the destabilisation of patriarchal values. Her study is, in many ways, a rebuttal of such a reductive tendency.
Simmons starts with an introduction that explores von Trier’s position as a “provocateur”. She locates Antichrist both within the context of his own biography and his previous film output, as the first of von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy” (followed by Melancholia in 2011 and the two-part Nymphomaniac in 2013). Each of the female protagonists in these films suffers depression, as does von Trier, for whom the women might be seen to act as surrogates. Antichrist, as Simmons points out, was written from von Trier’s sick bed, as an act of catharsis during a particularly dark time. He remained unwell during the film’s production; shaking hands made it impossible for him to operate the camera as he usually does during a shoot. (p. 16)
Acknowledging that “von Trier’s oeuvre has focused predominantly on female characters suffering incredible duress” (p. 9), Simmons corrects this limited reading by urging us to remember that “von Trier is working in an extremely heightened form of melodrama, where the female character’s misery is often generated directly or indirectly by misguided and controlling men. The male characters largely represent the brutality of the world – reason, authority and domination – while the women are the embodiment of sacrifice, suffering and the battle with patriarchy.” (p. 10) For Simmons, this is a way of shaping the world that reaches its peak with Antichrist; certainly manic filmmaking, but not without purpose. As she concludes, it offers “a genuinely radical and unflinching account of human relationships” (p. 11) and of what depression really feels like.
Moving into the analysis section of the study, Simmons provides the critical framework for her argument. In an overview, she begins with the understanding that securing a definitive meaning for this “open-ended, uncertain and interrogative” (p. 19) film will be a challenge and explains that “in coming to terms with this complexity, I intend to approach the film from multiple perspectives, including analysis of the film’s aesthetic, its representation of gender, its philosophical and psychological concerns and my personal reactions to the film as a whole.” (p. 20) Simmons cautions that “it would be unwise to push analysis further than it is able to go.” (p. 20-1) Here, she acknowledges both the limits of interpretation in general, and more specifically, of a film that often actively defies it.
Her interpretation commences with a discussion of the film’s title and its place within Nordic horror and the psychological tradition exemplified by Carl Theodor Dreyer. With its fantastic dreamscape and the creation of a world (Eden) governed by its own rules, Antichrist also has a place within the Gothic tradition. But Antichrist is a film of layered signifiers. A film that begins with the death of a child and the trauma that consumes a couple, Simmons traces a line from von Trier’s film back to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) and Andrej Zulawaski’s Possession (1981), each with its own sense of unease and entrapment.
Antichrist is also firmly a horror film in the tradition of so-called “extreme cinema” with its transgressive sexuality (especially female) and the uncomfortable place in which it positions the viewer with respect to the violence. Horror cinema has a long history of scenes of extreme bodily violence that dare us to look away from the screen. But, at its best, horror cinema is rarely about the gratuitous presentation of violent acts. The horror is about something else, the locus for psychological complexity that extends beyond the blood and gore spattered surface of the screen. Ultimately, Simmons concludes that Antichrist rises above the tag of “torture porn” because of the emotional journey it takes us on, where “the first goal of von Trier’s project [is] to elicit a truthful emotional response from the viewer. By privileging the spectator’s instinctual, visceral responses, von Trier deliberately shatters our complacency.” (p. 27)
Rather than add to the confusion, these multiple perspectives open the film up and function as a way to manage elusive threads. Antichrist is not, as Simmons points out, “a completed work” but “one that is completed endlessly at each viewing” (p. 27), which makes the process of analysis seemingly unending. But Simmons’s structure is taut. Beginning with a close reading of the film’s opening scene, she moves deeper into a detailed analysis of the role of the unruly natural world in which the film is set, where chaos reigns supreme. This is the governing principle of the dreamscape in which von Trier drops “She” and “He” (played by Willem Dafoe): the anxiety in the woods evocative of collapsing patriarchal values of control and rationality that cannot hold. This fear is the backdrop for the film’s vicious, visceral battle of the sexes. Offering a comparison with the sexual symbolism in the landscape of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) might seem like an unnecessary diversion, but Simmons uses it to strengthen her argument that landscapes, in these films, mirror and exacerbate psychological states. Returning to Antichrist, Simmons explains, “As the couple’s arguing escalates, Eden’s environment becomes increasingly hostile”, (p. 38) empty and strange.
It is a landscape of extremes, highly stylised and nightmarish. If women are driven to extremes in von Trier’s films, it is never in doubt that it is men who drive them there. Heterosexual relations are most often configured as toxic. Where the women in von Trier’s earlier films had golden hearts (see Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark in particular), and were trampled on and acted upon because of them, Antichrist marks the beginning of a shift in his work towards female characters who act, who take their lives and their relationships into their own hands. Providing a nuanced reading of this gender battle, Simmons devotes separate, interconnected sections to an analysis of “She” and “He”.
In writing about “She”, Simmons focuses on the woman’s complex of qualities that mark her out as radically different from other mothers on screen. She is not a submissive victim and her “violent, unpredictable behaviour and rampant sexual appetite” (p. 42) destabilises the status quo. As Simmons writes, von Trier is expert at keeping “the morality pendulum swinging” (p. 40) so that we never quite know whether she is a monster or not. This constant dismantling of accepted knowledge about gender and feminine ideals leads Simmons to conclude that Gainsbourg’s character “defies all standard requirements for the image of women in cinema, and this, I suspect, is the real reason behind certain negative reactions to this film.” (p. 42)
Conversely, the inability of “He” to control her (either physically or through psychiatry) or the landscape is revealed by Simmons as a critique of patriarchy and white masculinity. He fails on all counts: “However well intentioned his efforts to help his wife through her pain, he denies her the one thing that she needs; the real, tangible sense that her anguish is shared and that he too is out of control.” (p. 52) The film’s alternative narratives of both heterosexual love and motherhood gain strength from this representation of a man who fails to grasp the world around him; and importantly, as Simmons, explains, is an unreliable narrator of the entire experience, “who will take us not so much further, but deeper into a rabbit hole between imagination and fact.” (p. 56)
The problems of the patriarchy are expanded on by Simmons in discussions of Christianity and witchcraft, adding to the multiple social constructions of gender that von Trier’s film battles against. Simmons concludes her analysis by advocating for the female’s continued dominance even when she is being strangled and burnt by her husband. While we can read her death as punishment for her transgressions, Simmons, powerfully, suggests it is a final act in her nihilistic rebellion; that, resigned to her fate, “she accepts that she must ultimately relinquish herself to the uncontrollable in a world that wants to control her”. (p. 71) Chaos continues its reign and she has made her husband an agent of it.
Throughout this study Simmons raises important questions about the role of the audience in creating their own meaning of complex film texts; especially how von Trier “forces” the viewer “into an exasperating position, [and] daring us to find a way out.” (p. 27) Continuing to dig beneath the surface and beyond received opinion, Simmons proposes: “Certainly von Trier wants us to be shocked and repulsed, but he is also forcing us not only to register the felt intensities of the characters, but also to question why these representations of violence seems to work so effectively to alienate the audience.” (p. 78) But ultimately it is a violence that we cannot escape – there is no catharsis once the narrative closes.
In her concluding discussion, Simmons poses the riddle of why such an open, ambiguous film is such an intriguing one. “We feel terribly uneasy watching Antichrist because we are not sure how we are supposed to respond to anything”, she writes (p. 83). The film, she argues, is deliberately provocative, but not simply for shock value. Rather, von Trier wants to provoke inquiry and active spectatorship. Answering his call, Simmons’ study resolves many of his questions, and importantly, empowers us with the language to keep asking more.
Amy Simmons, Antichrist (Leighton Buzzard: Auteur, 2015).
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