d. Lars von Trier / Denmark / 2009 / 104 mins
Viewed at: Screen 5 @ Odeon (Norwich, UK)
It might have lurched wildly towards pretentious wankery in the eau de dead baby perfume commercial that was its Prologue, but Lars von Trier’s Antichrist actually turned out to be a harrowingly brilliant work of cinematic fantasticness. In the most positive way possible Antichrist is riven with contradiction, a proper ‘Lars von Trier Film’ where reality is forced to confront parable, realism is charged with refuting fantasy and humour exists in opposition to horror. Its exploration of grief, depression and the occult throws up more questions than answers, surely the hallmark of a great work of cinematic art (and the antithesis of film as entertainment, and entertainment only).
< Oh, and if you’re that way inclined, you may prefer to be told that thar be spoilers ahead. Ahoy! >
I’ve addressed some of the concerns about von Trier’s misogynistic tendencies in a more straightforward review for Suite101, but I thought it might be interesting to scrutinise Antichrist in reference to a landmark work on the treatment of gender in narrative filmmaking (which I refuse to call seminal, for reasons I think obvious, but which doesn’t seem to bother most people). Appearing in the mid-1970s, Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema – written for the highly influential Screen journal – expanded upon prior theories about the ‘male gaze’ to question the phallocentrism she perceived to be at the heart of all mainstream cinema.
Just as Mulvey appropriates psychoanalytic theory as a ‘political weapon’ in her work, so He (Willem Defoe’s character) uses psychoanalytic techniques in an attempt to control She (as played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) in Antichrist. Indeed, a part of me wonders – albeit partially in jest – whether Antichrist is an accidental (or surreptitious) adaptation of Mulvey’s landmark article. After all, her central thesis suggests that:
The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world.
In the article, Mulvey discusses the predications for the ‘role of women’ in forming the ‘patriarchal unconcious’ as being both the castration threat that she poses to men and her desire to raise children ‘into the symbolic’, which Mulvey relates as ‘her own desire to possess a penis’. In Antichrist, this is manifested when She attacks He, exercising – and exorcising – her ‘castration threat’ via a direct blow, and enacting her ‘penis envy’ in the penetration of his leg, before attaching the grindstone in an act of physical and metaphorical shackling.
The central existential positioning of both characters in Antichrist also throws up an interesting reflection of Mulvey’s theories surrounding the role of women in patriarchal society and the symbolic importance of both males and females within social structures. For Mulvey,
Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other; bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of women still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.
In Antichrist, the ‘linguistic command’ could be interpreted as the male’s role as psychoanalyst, as an interpreter – if not a maker – of meaning, whilst the female’s place as ‘bearer of meaning’ is evident in her own (failed) thesis, a historical examination of gynocide (the deliberate, unlawful killing of females). Throughout the film, He attempts to assert control over She (or her fear) via his ‘linguistic command’, rendering her mute and unable (in his eyes) to make or interpret meaning.
Entitled ‘Woman as image / Man as bearer of the look’, the third section of Mulvey’s article describes the reconciliation of the male gaze and the objectification of the female form, claiming that:
The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. This alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative.
In Antichrist, whilst She may drive the action in so much as being the chief antagonist, it is still left up to the male to take action to ensure that the narrative is able to continue. As such, it is not the death of a child that proves insurmountable in their relationship (and within the film) but the grief and guilt which She has attached to it and which He, as ‘maker of meaning’ must attempt to unravel. The ‘erotic contemplation’ in Antichrist, though twisted in form, is fairly conventional in accordance with Mulvey’s theory and is, in many ways, the only way that She (as a ‘weakened’ woman) feels able to overcome, temporarily, that grief and guilt.
Considering the phallocentrism at the heart of Mulvey’s theory, and her suggestion that the ‘castrated woman’ gives order and meaning to the cinematic world, it is not surprising that the female character in Antichrist faces the fate thus imposed by von Trier. Indeed, it is only once She is both literally and figuratively castrated that the phallocentrism of He is reasserted, restoring his male power, as well as von Trier’s supposedly misogynistic world view.
And yet attaching the misogynistic tag to Antichrist, and von Trier himself, is surely to oversimplify matters in much the same way that Mulvey’s article conveniently disregards a multitude of other ‘gazes’ to further her own thesis. After all, it is not so much a hatred of women that drives this film (and its director), but a fundamental fascination with, and anxiety about, the male-female dichotomy and a central preoccupation with gender roles and the biological and psychological motivations for sexual conflict.