Sometimes movies seek to deceive us, to divert our attention so they can surprise us. Sometimes the surprises are fun and exciting—but they can also seem cheap and exploitative. Lars von Trier is a director who delights in tricking his audience, not about plot or hidden details, but about his very intentions. Antichrist is his most audacious film, his most vile and repellent, and the film that most requires us to understand just what he’s trying to do.
Aside from two brief title cards in eerily beautiful pastel colors, the opening minutes of the film signal that everything we see might be one big, tasteless joke. In a black-and-white scene, scored by a Handel aria, the two characters, known only as “She” (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and “He” (Willem Dafoe), are seen having sex. Or more accurately, they’re fucking. After shots of their faces (which remind us how much pleasure can look like pain), the camera cuts to a close-up of a man penetrating a woman. Of course, Dafoe and Gainsbourg would never agree to perform unsimulated sex in a movie. Instead, von Trier inserted footage of porn stars doing what they do best. It’s not that the images are that shocking (and anyone who hasn’t seen that shouldn’t be watching the movie anyway). It’s that they happen so early, and with no warning, before we’ve had a chance to get our bearings. The brief sex scene is a big raspberry from von Trier to his audience, and only a hint of what’s to come.
While He and She (They?) are having sex in super slow motion, their toddler, Nic, climbs out of his crib and moseys on over to a window that’s been blown open by a draft. With each thrust of Dafoe’s buttocks, the child gets closer and closer to the window. When he finally steps over the ledge while clutching a frayed stuff animal, we’re given copious time to follow him as he plunges to his death. As absurd as the scene is, as Nic plummets the mood instantly shifts—the slow motion and the beautiful aria that made their sex so silly now makes the scene utterly sinister. During much of his slow descent, the child looks surprised by this turn of events, but as he nears the ground a look of horror grows on his face. It’s possible to find a very bleak humor in the scene up until that point, but as soon as he recognizes his fate all of the humor is drained away. There’s never a tasteful cutaway—the camera stays perfectly still at the moment of impact. But there isn’t any of the brutality that would normally accompany the death of a child. Von Trier aestheticizes the event, turning the death into a work of art. “I’ve started my movie by killing a child and made it a beautiful death,” von Trier seems to be saying. “What might I do next?”
After the highly stylized opening, the movie returns to a form of reality. Both parents are now grieving, but the impact is much greater on Gainsbourg’s character. She’s tormented by panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. Dafoe is a therapist who worries that Gainsbourg is being overmedicated by her doctor, so he encourages her to flush all her pills down the toilet and to focus solely on therapy. He wants her to embrace the depression in order to get over it. It’s the first of sign of his patronizing nature. Gainsbourg’s perceptions always seem faulty to Dafoe, and he seeks to explain away her feelings as symptoms of her grief. He also doesn’t respect her enough to follow his normal code of ethics and not treat a family member.
Convinced that exposure is the best therapy, they hike out to a cabin in the woods where She had spent time alone with their son. The horror movie elements of the film start to ratchet up as soon as the characters leave society and head for the loneliness and isolation of nature. It’s presented as a Herzogian hellhole. We see a hawk chick fall out of a tree and be swarmed ants, only to be recovered by the mother—and promptly eaten. While strolling through the woods, He comes across a beautiful doe that stands and stares for a moment, before dashing away and revealing a stillborn fawn hanging from its backside.
The woman’s descent into madness continues in their secluded home. The man discovers disturbing details of possible child abuse his wife may have committed. He also learns more about the thesis she had been writing on gynocide, the killing of women and girls. He rummages through her notes and has a Shining-like moment when they devolve into frenzied madness. Her notes suggest an insanity in which she has come to believe that women are evil and their deaths are somehow warranted.
After this revelation, the woman’s connection to sanity completely breaks. She assaults her husband, then has violent sex with him before knocking him unconscious and hitting him in the genitals with a block of wood. Antichrist continues with some of the most extreme sexual violence ever put on film. While he’s still unconscious, the woman stimulates him until he ejaculates a bloody mixture on her shirt. It’s a horrifyingly disgusting act that ends any possibility of a tasteful resolution. She ends their violent tryst by driving a hand drill through his leg and bolting a heavy grind stone to it.
While alone, the woman has a flashback to her son’s death that suggests she saw him about to fall while she was having sex and did nothing. It’s not clear if that’s reality, or just a manifestation of her guilt, but she punishes herself nonetheless by taking a pair of scissors and snipping off her clitoris. She also stabs the man with the scissors, but he manages to unbolt the grindstone and strangles her to death. In the film’s epilogue, the man trudges through the woods as the diaphanous spirits of thousands of women rise from the earth to surround him.
The final minutes of Antichrist are an excruciating torture to watch. The perversity of its sexual violence is far more disturbing than anything done in the extreme horror films that have popped up in the last two decades. All of this violence is wrapped up with gender, specifically the state of being a woman. Gainsbourg’s character is frightening and repellant, the most extreme version of a violent, homicidal woman, but she’s also someone who has been driven mad by sexism and misogyny, both from her husband and society. Her act of genital self-mutilation is horrendous, but it reflects a forced mutilation that happens to hundreds of millions of women across the globe. This self-violence is a result of an internalized hatred for her gender that has been passed on from society.
Von Trier’s legacy with female actors is difficult to size up. On one hand, he tends to put his female characters through unimaginably difficult scenarios. But he has also given actors like Kirsten Dunst, Nicole Kidman, and Emily Watson some of their finest roles. Gainsbourg’s performance is incredibly difficult to watch because of its raw pain, but it’s also a masterful feat of commitment and technique.
Antichrist teases the audience with possible interpretations. Should we see this film as a deplorable instance of von Trier’s misogyny, 108 minutes of a woman being dragged through unimaginable pain? Or is it just an extreme display of the ways men gaslight women into believing they are evil and worthless? “There’s a fear of women, of course, but I find it more interesting than that,” said Gainsbourg in an interview with The Guardian. “He doesn’t hate women. Also, he’s having fun with all that.” After all the sorrows he lays on his female protagonist, von Trier the trickster ends the film with a critique of rampant misogyny. The spirits of countless women that rise up against Dafoe will have their revenge.
Far more than a standard horror film, Antichrist revels in its own ambiguities. It forces us to struggle with our consciences just to finish the film. I couldn’t fault anyone who doesn’t make it.