“Nature Is Satan’s Church”: Depression and the Politics of Gender in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist

by Nolan Boyd Volume 20, Issue 8 / August 2016 40 minutes (9963 words)

In 2009, Danish film director Lars von Trier scandalized the Cannes Film Festival and shocked audiences with his film Antichrist, a hallucinatory art-horror film depicting the psychological breakdown and descent into madness of a couple ensconced in a remote cabin in the woods. Featuring scenes of graphic genital mutilation and with an explicit focus on the psychological instability and moral depravity of women, the film received a special “anti-prize” from the ecumenical jury at Cannes for its supposed “misogyny.” Despite the vocal protests of critics who decried Antichrist as misogynistic, however, I believe the film has important and polemical arguments to make about gender, the silencing and oppression of women’s erotic agency, and the toxicity of hegemonic patriarchal culture. Von Trier enters into a consideration of the politics of gender and of the oppressive symbolic violence enacted upon women by the hegemonic cultural forces of heteropatriarchy through an examination of the film’s lead female character’s depression that follows the death of her child. Through its examination of this woman’s depression and her husband’s arrogant and clinical attempts to pathologize her feelings, von Trier explores the dark depths of melancholia, the struggle for feminine erotic agency within a heteropatriarchal symbolic order, and the apocalyptic stakes of emotional repression. Shocking in its violence, cryptic and surreal in its imagery, and vital in its message, Antichrist exposes the evil of heteropatriarchal paradigms of cultural hegemony and asks its viewer to bear witness to that evil. In such a world, the film seems to say, there is no room for goodness, for beauty, for love, for security, or for feminine subjectivity; the pernicious cultural tyranny of heteropatriarchy is omnipresent, insidious, and, if cultural conditions remain unchanged, ineluctable.

Antichrist begins with a wordless, lyrical prologue set to the aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s opera Rinaldo. As a soprano sings the beautiful, plaintive aria on the soundtrack, we see a series of images shot in hyper-stylized, high contrast black and white proceeding in extreme slow motion. During this sequence, we observe a man and a woman, named in the credits only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) having sex in a variety of locations, beginning in the shower and then proceeding to the floor next to the washing machine, and finally the bed. As He and She have sex, we see their young son Nic (Storm Acheche Sahlstrøm) free himself from his crib, open his baby gate, witness his parents having sex, climb up to the window that has blown open, and fall to his death, all while He and She remain obliviously occupied in their sex. The prologue immediately stands out due to the intensity of the photography, the beauty of the music, and the unnerving juxtaposition of sex and death.

A close reading of this sequence reveals important elements that will inform the film that follows. Strangely, Nic is initially lured from his crib by a teddy bear tied to a helium balloon, floating lazily in the air. When He and She are having sex against the washing machine, the camera changes focus to show a baby monitor in the foreground, a “mute” symbol on its display. The suggestion to be inferred from both the bear and the monitor is that either He or She was responsible for tying the bear to the balloon and for muting the monitor so as not to be disturbed during sex, thereby setting the stage for Nic’s death; as the film continues, it is strongly implied that She is the one responsible for these actions. Considering She’s complicity in Nic’s death through these actions, Amy Simmons asks, “The teddy bear tied to the helium balloon, enticing Nic to reach for it, and the baby monitor switched to silent – was her behaviour a passive-aggressive rebellion against a culture that tells her she must be a mother figure first and an intellectual and a sexual being second and third?” (41). Ultimately, the film does not reveal whether She consciously manipulates Nic’s death through the bear and the monitor, but they clearly come to symbolize, as Simmons suggests, her desire to rebel against the strict codes of hegemonic patriarchy that would have her subordinate her individuality and, particularly, her sexuality to her role as mother. As we will see throughout the film, She’s attempt to reclaim her erotic agency in the face of patriarchal control will lead to eruptions of violence and disaster, as Nic’s death foreshadows.

Also key in this opening sequence is the association of sexuality with death. In a grotesque inversion of the biological act of procreation, it is the sex between He and She that leads, indirectly, to the death of their child, a point emphasized by She achieving orgasm at the exact moment of Nic’s death and by Nic only climbing up to the window after directly witnessing what Freud would refer to as the “primal scene.” Indeed, the scene reads almost as an Immaculate Conception in reverse, a reading supported by the film’s title; if an immaculate, sexless conception preceded the birth of the Christ child, then the raw, animal sexuality of He and She functions in reverse to instigate the death of their son, one possible figure who could symbolize the Antichrist of the title, further suggested by the devil’s traditional association with the moniker of “Old Nick.” On the table next to the window, three little figurines marked on their bases as Pain, Grief, and Despair – we will later come to know them as The Three Beggars – preside over the scene of Nic’s death like an unholy inversion of the Magi. As the snow drifts down outside the window, placing this scene, like the birth of Christ, in the winter, it is difficult not to read the scene as the inverse of the Nativity – if the birth of Christ heralded new hope and the salvation of Man, then the death of Nic portends despair and destruction, and particularly for his unlucky parents, an idea that Larry Dudenhoeffer echoes when he describes Nic’s death as the “birth of tragedy” (194).

The temporality of the prologue also has important implications for the rest of the film. Due to the use of extreme slow motion, events do not temporally unfold “as they should.” Rather, the extreme slow motion disrupts the linear progression of time, opening space within the cinematic frame for the expression of affect. Divorced from the linear progression of plot, this sequence is thus able to revel in affect, in the carnality of She and He’s sex act, in the poignancy of Nic’s death, in the profundity of tragedy, and in the sensual richness of the cinematic image. It is a feminine, even queer, way of experiencing time, a temporality that resists the straightforward masculine development of logical and sequential plot. From the very first, it seems, von Trier is aligning our spectatorial position, and thus our intellectual sympathies, with She. The scene of Nic’s death will ultimately serve as the nucleus of She’s trauma. As trauma is an event that lies outside of time and returns to haunt its victim (and indeed, we will see She return to this scene later in the film), this troubling of time in the prologue is apt. Indeed, like the irreducible kernel of trauma that returns to haunt, this prologue, with its sinister constellation of malevolent sexual energies, will spread out like a pall over the whole film, coloring and informing the psychosexual degradation of She and He’s relationship. As Dudenhoeffer writes, the images of the prologue “sexualize the tragedy to follow, reproducing it before it happens in a way that disrupts and rewrites the orders of time, nature, signification, and storytelling” (194).

Taken as a whole, the prologue serves as an example of what Gilles Deleuze calls “the crystal image,” a cinematic image that fuses the happening of an event in the past with the present moment of its perception. As Deleuze writes, “The actual image itself has a virtual image which corresponds to it like a double or a reflection” (68). In other words, corresponding to every image is a virtual image that constitutes its perception, a ghostly double that haunts the image. For Deleuze, the crystal image is that moment in which the image and its corresponding virtual image collapse into one another, a moment in which the happening of the event in time becomes indistinguishable from our perception of its happening (Deleuze 69). The editing of the prologue certainly suggests this Deleuzian reading. In addition to the slow motion, which has already heightened our awareness of the contours of time, our perception of the “happening-ness” of the event, the sex between She and He seems to transpose itself from the shower to the washing machine to the bed with no interstitial movement. One moment, She and He are on the floor next to the washing machine, and the next moment, He is laying She down on the bed. The elision of movement in the editing here represents a contraction of time, even as the extreme slow motion enacts a dilation of time. The contraction, dilation, and elision of time are all aspects of how time is perceived in the mind – essentially, this prologue, rather than representing Nic’s death in straightforward linear fashion, literally takes the shape of She’s trauma, its mental contours, its psychic heft, and its temporality is the haunting temporality of the traumatic.

Following the prologue, the film is divided into four chapters and a concluding epilogue. The first chapter, Grief, opens with a shot of Nic’s funeral procession, in which She collapses. After She collapses, the camera cuts to the interior of what appears to be a hospital room with She lying in bed; a conversation between He and She reveals that she has been institutionalized for a month. She tells He that her doctor, Wayne, says that her “grief pattern is atypical.” She then goes on to explicitly blame herself for Nic’s death, saying, “It was my fault….I could have stopped him,” before dissolving into tears. This pronouncement of “atypical” grief as well as She’s self-blame immediately calls to mind Freud’s consideration of both mourning and melancholia. Discussing the psychological process of mourning the lost object, Freud writes, “Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hyper-cathected” (245). Freud’s statement here reflects She’s guilt about Nic’s death, an event that for her has become explicitly sexualized through the simultaneity of her sex act with He. The trauma of Nic’s death becomes a “hyper-cathected” moment for She, a moment that draws all of her mental attention and energy, a moment that haunts her. Nevertheless, under a proper Freudian schema, “when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again” (Freud 245). According to Freud, mourning is a normal and healthy psychological process that allows the subject to deal with the trauma of loss and, in the end, be restored to psychological health. She’s pronouncement of her grief as “atypical” indicates that this process is not following its intended course and that mourning has, in this instance, shifted into melancholia.

Freud characterizes melancholia as a “pathological condition,” one that, unlike mourning, does not adhere to normal psychological parameters (243). In addition to this pathological nature, Freud identifies one key element of melancholia absent from mourning, writing:

The melancholic displays something else besides which is lacking in mourning – an extraordinary diminution in his self-regard, an impoverishment of his ego on a grand scale . . . The patient represents his ego to us as worthless, incapable of any achievement and morally despicable; he reproaches himself, vilifies himself and expects to be cast out and punished. (246)

Already, in the hospital scene, we can see the manifestation of She’s melancholia through her blaming of herself for Nic’s death. Even though, as we have already seen, She may actually have been at least indirectly complicit in Nic’s death, this does not cancel out the validity of her melancholic feelings; rather, She’s ambivalence toward her son and her own maternity reveals deep truths of melancholia. Building on Freud, Julia Kristeva sheds further light on this fraughtness of the relationship between subject and object, writing:

Depression, like mourning, conceals an aggressiveness toward the lost object, thus revealing the ambivalence of the depressed person with respect to the object of mourning. “I love that object,” is what that person seems to say about the lost object, “but even more so I hate it; because I love it, and in order not to lose it, I imbed it in myself; but because I hate it, that other within myself is a bad self, I am bad, I am non-existent, I shall kill myself.” (11)

As Kristeva’s insights make clear, She’s emotional relationship to Nic is deeply ambivalent, a mixture of love and hatred, and it is this ambivalence that fuels her feelings of guilt and animates her melancholic desire to be punished. After She and He return home from the hospital, She tells He, “I want to die too.” Later, She kneels next to the toilet and slams her head into it repeatedly, drawing blood, in a desire to wound or perhaps even kill herself, only stopping once He grabs her and physically forces her to stop. She’s genuine love for Nic is now combining and recombining within her psyche with her guilt over her possible role in his death, her guilt surrounding her sexuality, her melancholic self-hatred, and her resentment/hatred of the patriarchal chains of motherhood that Nic represented. It is a toxic, pathological stew of emotions that, as She herself has already noted, refuse to psychologically process normatively. “Will it get any worse?” She asks He through her tears. “Yes, it will,” He responds.

As revealed in dialogue between She and He in the hospital scene, He is a psychologist, and he insists that She be discharged from the hospital so that he can treat her himself at home. He also insists that She discontinue the antidepressants she has been taking. Initially, She protests this decision, saying, “Stop it, please. Trust others to be smarter than you, just for once,” and, when she learns she is being discharged, “You couldn’t leave it, could you? You had to meddle.” She’s protests are ignored, however, as He takes her home and commences therapy. Here, we see the establishment of He’s pattern of psychological and physical control of She, determining her physical location and her regime of medical/psychological treatment as he sees fit. He wields complete power over her, even over her very life; when She confesses that she wants to die, He responds, “I’m not going to let you do that,” and then He physically intervenes during her possible suicide attempt. As She begins to have panic attacks, He responds by physically smothering her with his body, holding her in his arms until her symptoms subside. When She becomes sexually aggressive and attempts repeatedly to initiate sex with He, he rebuffs her, establishing control over her sexuality. He asks She where she would feel most afraid, and she responds that she would feel most afraid in the woods near their cabin, ironically named Eden. Deciding to follow a course of cognitive exposure therapy, He decides to force She to accompany him to Eden in order so that she may conquer her fears and depression.

He’s establishment of psychological control over She is inherently gendered. As He and She lack names, we are invited to read them as allegorical emblems of masculinity and femininity, and He’s smug and domineering attempt to pathologize and treat She’s depression connects to centuries of medico-scientific patriarchal hegemony that has attempted to classify and contain the “hysteria” of women. That She ends up violently resisting this patriarchal control at the end of the film is illustrative of Christopher Sharrett’s assertion that the film functions as an “unequivocal [dismissal] of bourgeois society and patriarchal capitalism” (19). Indeed, von Trier’s sympathies are clearly aligned with She rather than with He, as He’s domineering control of She consistently reads as infuriating. As Sharrett writes, “Von Trier sees depression as a signifier of the person (of either gender, but for him most figured in the female) who is most perceptive, most sensitive, most intolerant of the ‘normal’ standards of patriarchal capitalist society” (21). Although She is clearly suffering, that suffering is figured as a sort of clairvoyance, an ability to see into the soul of culture and to see the evil of misogynistic patriarchal hegemony lurking within. Although She confesses to He that she is afraid of nature, it is the changing terms of She’s relationship to nature over the rest of the film that will provide key insight into the film’s feminist philosophy. On the train ride to Eden, He asks She to imagine herself lying on the grass and slowly melting into it, and we see this occur inside her mind. As external nature becomes refigured as emblematic of internal, human nature, She’s growing perception of and alignment with traditional heteropatriarchal epistemology will serve as the catalyst for the disintegration of her relationship with He and of reality itself.

Chapter 2 of the film is entitled Pain (Chaos Reigns) and begins with He and She’s arrival at Eden. Initially, She expresses her continued fear of nature, her breath frantic and shallow as He forces her to walk across the grass, from one stone to another. Before arriving at Eden, as He and She are walking through the woods, She sits on a fallen tree and claims, “The ground is burning.” She then takes off her shoe and sock to reveal a small mark on the bottom of her foot. Whether or not the ground is truly burning, She clearly experiences the natural world as malevolent and perceives herself as a victim of its negative forces; indeed, as She fearfully runs across a bridge in the woods during her approach to Eden, we see the texture of the photographic image itself twist and ripple like water, an effect we will see repeated in other scenes in which She moves around outside. The very fabric of her reality, von Trier seems to suggest, is under attack from the forces of nature.

In a conversation with He, She reveals that she has experienced fear at Eden before, the previous summer when she and Nic traveled to Eden alone so that she could work on a thesis she has been writing. We see shots of this summer vacation in flashback, revealing that the topic of her thesis is gynocide, or the killing of women throughout history. In the flashback, She hears the cry of a child and, assuming the cries are Nic’s, bolts outside and runs through the woods, the image twisting and warping as before, searching for him. When She discovers Nic in the wood shed, he is not crying, but the cries continue. The camera pans up, and we see an aerial shot of the entire forest as the cries continue, suggesting that the cries are somehow emanating from the forest itself. This is the moment, it seems, that She develops her fear of nature, a fear that, through the cries she hears, is explicitly linked to her experience of motherhood, echoing Simmons’ assertion that, for She, “the very task of motherhood has been an explicitly traumatic experience” (44).

Indeed, as She and He spend more time at Eden, nature itself seems to be sending increasingly strange signals that the entire process of propagation, fecundity, and sexuality is corrupt. As She hyperventilates on the rock, having crossed the grass, a baby chick falls out of a tree and onto a pile of dirt where, struggling to breathe, it lies crawling with ants. A hawk, presumably the chick’s parent, swoops down, picks up the chick, and carries it to a tree branch where it begins to eat it, tearing its flesh with its beak. It is a brief but horrific image of parental cannibalism and destruction, one that clearly upsets She as she clings tightly to He after witnessing the scene, a reflection in nature of her ambivalence and potential violence toward her own child. The more time that She and He spend at Eden, the more She seems to pick up on these coded natural signals and to interpret them as signs of nature’s inherent evil. As She and He try to sleep at night, acorns from the oak tree next to the cabin rain down steadily on the metal roof. Listening to the rhythm of the falling acorns, She says:

Oak trees grow to be hundreds of years old. They only have to produce one single tree every hundred years in order to propagate. It may sound banal to you, but it was a big thing for me to realize that when I was up here with Nic. The acorns fell on the roof then too. They kept falling and falling and dying and dying, and I understood that everything that used to be beautiful about Eden, it was perhaps hideous. Now I could hear what I couldn’t hear before – the cry of all the things that are to die.

Although her pronouncement in this scene is cryptic, it makes sense when considered within the framework of the film’s consideration of nature and sexuality as a whole. Whereas the falling acorn represents the oak tree’s natural attempt to propagate, to bring forth new life, She has come to view the process as not generative of life, but rather generative of death, imagining that she can hear the cries of all of the acorns that, condemned to die rather than to germinate, fall fruitlessly from the tree, echoing Simmons’ assertion that “in von Trier’s Eden…everything is a type of abomination, where the seed of life is always dying, if not dead” (36). It is a concept that explicitly connects to Nic’s death in the prologue, in which the sex act between He and She seems to generate only death, rather than life. Nature itself, rather than the generative fertile ground of life, has become nothing more than a mass grave, an insight that She clearly intuits when she states that everything she used to find beautiful about Eden, she now finds hideous. Infuriatingly, He dismisses She’s observation, saying, “That’s all very touching if it was a children’s book.” Perturbed, She responds, portentously, “Nature is Satan’s church.” He scoffs at this warning, but he ignores her at his peril, for as the next section of the film will make clear, the concept of “nature” extends far beyond the plants and animals of the natural world. Indeed, “nature” in this film comes to reflect the nature of humanity and the gynocidal legacy of heteropatriarchal cultural hegemony that has stifled, deadened, and murdered female erotic agency throughout history, converting the beautiful into the hideous and existence itself into a living death.

Chapter 3 of the film is entitled Despair (Gynocide), and it is during this chapter that the malevolent and destructive sexual energies that have underlain the whole film violently erupt. The next morning, following the conversation about the acorns, She awakens and seems calm and happy. She runs through the woods and the grass without incident and declares, “I’m cured.” She no longer, it seems, experiences nature as a malevolent threat. Rather than taking this moment as antithetical to the malevolent energies of nature, however, the film makes clear that what has occurred is a re-orientation of her subjective perspective; rather than envisioning nature as a malevolent external force juxtaposed against her subjectivity, she has accepted that she is part of nature and accordingly aligned herself with what she perceives as the evil of nature, as a conversation between He and She will make abundantly clear.

While She sleeps, He ventures into the attic and discovers her research materials, including many disturbing images depicting the historical persecution of women, and particularly of witches. He finds her handwritten thesis on gynocide and examines it, noting that the handwriting, at first neat and closely packed, becomes increasingly sloppy and widely spaced until it eventually, at the end, disintegrates into an unintelligible scrawl. Disturbed, He decides to engage She in another therapeutic exercise. I will reproduce the resulting conversation in its entirety, as it contains many elements key to deciphering the gender politics of the film:

HE: Um, I’d like to do one more exercise. It’s like roleplay. My role is all the thoughts that provoke your fear. Yours is rational thinking. I’m nature – all the things that you call nature.
SHE: Okay, Mr. Nature. What do you want?
HE: To hurt you as much as I can.
SHE: How?
HE: How do you think?
SHE: By frightening me?
HE: By killing you.
SHE: Nature can’t harm me. You’re just all the greenery outside.
HE: No, I’m more than that.
SHE: I don’t understand.
HE: I’m outside, but also within. The nature of all human beings.
SHE: Oh, that kind of nature. The kind of nature that causes people to do evil things against women.
HE: That’s exactly who I am.
SHE: That kind of nature interested me a lot when I was up here. That kind of nature was the subject of my thesis. But you shouldn’t underestimate Eden.
HE: What did Eden do?
SHE: I discovered something else in my material than I expected. If human nature is evil, then that goes as well for the nature of . . .
HE: Of the women. Female nature.
SHE: The nature of all the sisters. Women do not control their own bodies; nature does. I have it in writing in my books.
HE: 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 texts; that was your thesis. Instead you’re embracing it!

He’s protestations here are reminiscent of those of the critics who decried Antichrist for supposedly being misogynistic and advocating the theory that women are inherently evil, but those critics, just like He, have missed the point that She is trying to make. Crucially, this is the first moment in the film that nature becomes aligned with maleness as well as femaleness. Up until this point, She’s fascination with/dread of nature has been juxtaposed with He’s embrace of rational thinking, suggesting a female/nature vs male/reason binary. This binary, however, is a false binary, for rather than being aligned with/in control of nature, women are, in fact, controlled by it. As She states, nature controls women’s bodies.

As He role plays “Nature” in their conversation, the gender politics underlying the film become clear. “Mr. Nature” is human nature, gendered male, “the kind of nature that causes people to do evil things against women,” the kind of nature that controls women’s bodies. The implication here is that male nature is human nature because, under a heteropatriarchal cultural system, it is maleness that is privileged as humanity, whereas femaleness, rather than being elevated to the level of subjecthood and full ontology, is viewed as a commodity to be controlled, a force to be tamed. Luce Irigaray echoes this idea when she writes, “Women’s bodies – through their use, consumption, and circulation – provide for the condition making social life and culture possible” (171). Humanity itself is gendered male, and women are merely goods to be traded, in Irigaray’s terms, “on the market.” If women are indeed evil, as She asserts, it is not because they are inherently so, but rather because the entire system of heteropatriarchal cultural hegemony, through its suppression of female erotic agency, is itself evil; and as women are part of that system rather than full subjects in their own right, they are necessarily evil too. Women are evil, she suggests, because men have made them that way. Irigaray again gets at the heart of the matter when she writes, “The exploitation of the matter that has been sexualized female is so integral a part of our sociocultural horizon that there is no way to interpret it except within this horizon” (171). It is impossible to break free of the paradigm of heteropatriarchy; women are mired within it, and She’s changing relationship to nature, her newfound calmness in the face of the natural world and her ability to move through the woods without anxiety, is indicative of her realization of this fact. She has fully recognized the evil of a heteropatriarchal cultural paradigm and her own subjective evil within it.

All of this, of course, is operating in tandem with She’s crushing and overwhelming guilt over Nic’s death, the self-hatred and desire to be punished that Freud highlights in his discussion of melancholia. In the very next scene, during sex with He, She begs him to “hit me so it hurts,” and when he refuses, says, “Then you don’t love me,” to which he, baffled by her behavior, responds, “Okay, maybe I don’t love you.” Disgusted, She flees the cabin and goes into the woods, masturbating in the roots of a tree as strange noises echo through the forest all around her, her body lit by moonlight. It is a strange and surreal portrait of her sexual communion with nature, reminiscent through some operation of the cultural unconscious of the sexual, auto-erotic rituals used by witches to commune with dark forces or the Devil. He follows She and hits her as he penetrates her and she asks him to hit her again. As they have sex, she whispers in his ear, “The sisters from Ratisbon could start a hailstorm,” a direct quotation from the Malleus Maleficarum, the infamous 15th century treatise on witch hunting that directly informed the persecution and murder of countless women, as the camera cuts to a close up of an engraving or illustration of a witch conjuring a hailstorm. This seeming non-sequitur situates the moment more explicitly within the tradition of nocturnal witchy communion with dark forces and further indicates She’s own alignment with, as she perceives it, the feminine evil. Nevertheless, the statement also connotes the possibility of resistance or power, as by embracing their evil nature as witches, the sisters from Ratisbon were able to wield great supernatural power and manipulate the weather. Perhaps there is the possibility for resistance against the confines of heteropatriarchy from within that very place of feminine “evil” dictated by heteropatriarchy, the moment seems to suggest. As He and She have sex, the camera zooms into the back of He’s head, and as it zooms out again, we see that the roots of the tree have become filled with arms, the hands twisted at strange angles, as if in agony, giving the mise-en-scène the surreal, nightmarish quality of a Bosch painting. It is the film’s most surreal and violent intrusion into the visual field, again linking the sex act with suffering and death, indeed with the persecution and death of women if the arms, all seemingly smooth and lithe, are taken to be the arms of the suffering, victimized women piled up throughout the detritus of history. This is, however, ultimately unsurprising, for heterosexual rape has been the chief mechanism of terror and control mobilized by men against women throughout time, and the act of insemination and impregnation of a woman binds her body into a capitalist economy of reproduction that then conspires to subdue her erotic agency, domesticate her, and chain her to her role as wife and mother – exactly what She implicitly notes when she states that women are not in control of their own bodies. This dark communion complete, and She now completely aligned with a position of feminine evil, the stage is set for the film’s notorious eruption of graphic violence.

Rummaging through a pile of old newspaper to feed the furnace, She comes across Nic’s autopsy report, which He had read earlier and discarded without showing it to her. We see a flashback of He reading the report and hear, in his voiceover, “The only abnormality in the victim is a slight deformity of the bones in his feet, of an earlier date.” This deformity of the feet, when considered alongside Nic’s name, is highly suggestive of the devil’s cloven hooves, another possible connection to Nic as an “Antichrist” figure. We cut from the flashback to a new scene in which He confronts She with a photograph of Nic showing Nic wearing his shoes on the wrong feet; She reacts with surprise, saying that she must have had a “slip of the mind that day.” He walks to the wood shed where he examines several more pictures, each of which shows Nic’s shoes on the wrong feet. He then realizes that She was responsible for putting Nic’s shoes on wrong, thereby causing the deformity. He is visibly startled and experiences an epiphany; he takes out the folded piece of notebook paper on which he has drawn She’s “fear pyramid,” in which the top of the pyramid represents that of which She is most afraid. Next to the scratched out entries of “nature” and “Satan,” he writes in the top segment of the pyramid the word “Me” and speaks, “Herself.” The moment is ironic, for as much as She is afraid of herself, she is so “through” He and the forces of heteropatriarchy that he represents; in this way, the word “Me” does refer to She, as He intends, but it also refers to him.

That She has been harming her child should hardly come as a surprise, given her deep resentment of her maternal role and her possible complicity in Nic’s death. In an earlier scene, lying in bed with He, She remembers the previous summer she spent at Eden with Nic and says, “Nic drifted away from me the last time. He was always out and about. He might have made more of an effort to be there for me.” That She would be capable of saying such a thing about her toddler son clearly speaks to a lack of perspective on her part and to a deep seated narcissism within her. Discussing this scene, Simmons writes:

Her disdain for maternity is . . . intriguingly linked to her narcissistic need for her husband and son, and her extreme fear of abandonment . . . Indeed, as a woman who is completely absorbed by her own needs and pleasure, this crucial line of dialogue certainly suggests not only a fear of rejection, but also a lack of tolerance for what may hinder the fulfillment of her desires. (44)

Nic’s hobbling, as it were, clearly resembles an attempt to prevent him from moving through the world, and thus moving away from She. It is an action that, as Simmons notes, speaks to She’s ultimate fear of abandonment. Although it may seem paradoxical that a woman so invested in rebelling against the cultural confines of heteropatriarchy may also crave and cherish her roles as wife and mother, this is a paradox that is central to She’s psychology. She abused her son and possibly allowed for his death to occur, yet she genuinely loved him. She resents her husband’s officious arrogance and his attempts to establish control over her, yet in the early part of the film, in the initial stages of her grief, she begs him to help her, and when she initially seems to be cured of her symptoms, tells him, “I just wanted to say how happy I am that you’re here. I love you, darling.” She’s genuine love for her husband and son clashes and collides inexorably with her resentment of the heteropatriarchal social structure that they represent, the irreconcilability of these emotions fueling her self-hatred, her desire to be punished, and her ambivalence as to her own subjective nature. As we shall see, She’s fear of abandonment manifests itself insidiously in the film’s bloody final act.

As soon as He finishes writing the word “Me” in the fear pyramid, She hits him in the back with a large block of wood, screaming, “Bastard! You’re leaving me, aren’t you?” The moment seems to come out of nowhere, as we have not seen this kind of physical violence in the film before, but when considered within the context of She’s psychology and her fear of abandonment, the violence begins to make sense. After He confronts She with the picture of Nic and leaves the cabin, we see a several second long shot of She staring contemplatively into space. In this moment, She is aware that He is aware of the violence she perpetrated against their child, itself an act of rebellion against her patriarchally scripted maternal role. When She accuses He of leaving her, it is because she cannot believe that he would choose to stay with her now that he has discovered the extent of her “evil,” the evil that not only defines the entire cultural operation of heteropatriarchy and women’s place within it, but now specifically as well the evil that is the patriarchally dictated subjective position assigned to any woman who would dare to rebel against the hegemonic cultural tyranny of heteropatriarchy. The moment of the attack recalls Simone de Beauvoir when she writes:

The chains of marriage are heavy . . . a wife has to find a way of coming to grips with a situation she cannot escape . . . [Some] perpetuate the narcissistic behavior we have described in relation to the young girl: they also suffer from not realizing themselves in any undertaking, and, being able to do nothing, they are nothing; undefined, they feel undetermined and consider themselves misunderstood; they worship melancholy . . . She ends up trying to kill [her husband]. The symbolic behavior into which the wife escapes can bring about perversions, and these obsessions can lead to crime. (583)

Now fully aligned with her subjective position as an “evil” woman, a modern day witch, She fully adopts and inhabits this subjective position and, like the sisters of Ratisbon, decides to launch an attack against the hegemony of heteropatriarchy from within that subjective position. Unable to escape her “situation,” as de Beauvoir terms it, unable to free herself from the insidious commodifying forces of Irigaray’s heteropatriarchal culture market, She embraces the only avenue of resistance that remains to her, which is to seek some dark power within the subjective position of “evil” into which she has been forcibly confined by the cultural forces of heteropatriarchy and, as best she can, to mobilize that power against the forces that would oppress her, a process that Linda Badley describes when she writes, “She, understanding female abjection all too well and pushed to the limit by masculine denial, internalizes and performs it on an apocalyptic scale, unleashing it (through reactive, ritualized male violence) once again throughout the world” (149). The sequence of graphic violence that is to follow will be the most shocking part of the film and will instigate the “apocalyptic” disintegration of gender, of self, and of reality.

After knocking He to the ground, She grapples with him, eventually mounting him and initiating sex with him. As He tells She, “I love you,” she responds, “I don’t believe you!” She dismounts, grabs the block of wood, and hits He with it directly in the crotch with enough force to make him lose consciousness. She then straddles He and masturbates him until he ejaculates blood. Finally, She bores a hole in He’s leg with a type of hand crank drill, graphically palpating and penetrating the wound with her finger before bolting a grindstone to his leg, taking the wrench necessary to unfasten the bolt with her as she leaves and tossing it underneath the cabin. The violence in this scene is graphic and shocking, but it holds many interesting implications. That She should attack He’s genitals makes perfect sense given the nature of her violent rebellion against heteropatriarchy, as what is more emblematic of heteropatriarchal cultural hegemony than the phallus? By causing He to ejaculate blood, furthermore, She inverts and feminizes the phallus into a menstrual canal, a further affront to the heteropatriarchal symbolic order represented by the phallus. When She bores a hole in He’s leg and sticks her finger in, it reads as a visual echo of rape. Although She earlier asserted that nature (read, men) is in control of women’s bodies, in this instance, it is she who is in control of a man’s body, subjecting He’s body to the same kind of sexualized violence that has been the tool mobilized by the male forces of heteropatriarchy to terrorize and subdue women throughout history. The bolting of a grindstone to He’s leg also echoes the violence She enacted against Nic by hobbling his feet in that, by restricting He’s movement, she is literally preventing him from leaving her as she fears he will do.

After She leaves, He crawls into a foxhole in the woods to hide from her; it is here that He encounters the last of the Three Beggars, the crow that represents despair. Earlier, when He rummages through She’s research material, he comes upon a star chart depicting the constellations of the Three Beggars – grief the deer, pain the fox, and despair the crow. At the end of the Grief chapter of the film, He encounters a deer in the forest with an aborted fetus hanging out of its vagina; at the end of the Pain chapter, He discovers a fox tearing at its own entrails that, as He approaches, looks up at him and speaks the words, “Chaos reigns.” Now, in the foxhole, He encounters the crow that squawks loudly, giving away his location, and refuses to die no matter how many times he attempts to bludgeon it with a rock. Drawn by the noise, She digs into the earth above the foxhole, eventually unearthing He and dragging him back to the cabin. It is here that the final confrontation between He and She will take place and the nature of the Three Beggars will become clear.

The film’s fourth chapter is entitled The Three Beggars and begins with He and She’s return to the cabin. He asks, “Do you want to kill me?” She responds, “Not yet. The Three Beggars aren’t here yet . . . When the Three Beggars arrive, someone must die.” Although the nature of the Three Beggars is mysterious, their meaning within the film becomes clearer when we consider the previous times they have appeared. All three of the animals have appeared to He rather than to She, aligning them and the emotions they represent to his psychological perspective. Throughout the entire film, we have only seen He express emotion one time, weeping as he follows behind the hearse carrying Nic’s casket in the funeral procession. Throughout the rest of the film, He has remained stoic, throwing himself into the analysis and “treatment” of She’s emotional state. Early in the film, before He and She travel to Eden, She throws this clinical detachment in He’s face, stating, “You’re indifferent to whether your child lives or dies.” It is clear that He has repressed his emotional reaction to Nic’s death, channeling his psychic energy instead into controlling She and her emotional reaction to the situation through the implementation of cognitive therapy; Simmons notes this when, considering the symbolic weight of the Three Beggars, she writes:

The Beggars are symbolic of a return of the repressed, signifying the man’s self-inflicted mental and spiritual collapse, triggered by his refusal to openly mourn his son’s death. Thus, what appears to have been a rupture in Antichrist’s narrative is revealed to have been a cinematic method of imitating how the unconscious itself ruptures consciousness at moments when the repressed returns. (56)

For Simmons, the strange, even supernatural elements of the Beggars’ manifestations to He are not incongruent with the film’s narrative logic, but rather represent a cinematic visualization of Freud’s concept of the uncanny, or the familiar made strange. Considering the relationship between the uncanny and the mechanism of emotional repression, Freud writes:

If psychoanalytic theory is right in asserting that every affect arising from an emotional impulse – of whatever kind – is converted into fear by being repressed, it follows that among those things that are felt to be frightening there must be one group in which it can be shown that the frightening element is something that has been repressed and now returns. This species of the frightening would then constitute the uncanny, and it would be immaterial whether it was itself originally frightening or arose from another affect. (147-148)

According to Freud’s logic, the frightening and strange images of the animals – the deer trailing the grotesque dead fetus, the self-cannibalizing talking fox, the malevolent and immortal crow – do not deviate from but rather are representative of the emotions of grief, pain, and despair proceeding from Nic’s death that He has repressed. Key here is that it is this repression, this refusal to mourn Nic and deal with his own emotions of grief, pain, and despair, that leads He to throw himself into She’s cognitive therapy. In other words, it is because He represses his emotions that he then attempts to establish emotional and psychological control over She in a vicarious attempt to access and process his own emotions through her; the repression of masculine grief, pain, and despair – emotions that are crucially gendered feminine and traditionally denied to men under cultural systems of heteropatriarchy – becomes the catalyst for the establishment of gendered modes of heteropatriarchal oppression mobilized by He against She, and therefore also the catalyst for She’s eruption of violent resistance against this oppression. Just before He finally attacks She and strangles her to death, we see a repetition of a montage of images – black and white close-ups of eyes, of the back of the neck, of twitching fingers, of a heaving chest – that have previously been utilized to represent She in the throes of an anxiety attack. This time, however, it is He’s body that is subjected to the scrutiny of the camera, twitchily registering the physical manifestations of anxiety as he chokes the life out of She. Considering the scene, Robert Sinnerbrink writes:

This time, however, it is not her body we see manifesting this anxiety (as in the earlier sequence) but his eyes, ears, veins, fingers and flesh. It is his fear and anxiety that has been at issue all along . . . The cognitive therapy that He has imposed upon his wife/patient has been nothing but a symptom of his own grief, pain, and despair. It is He who ends up acting out the violent misogyny that was the subject of her abandoned thesis. (172)

As Sinnerbrink’s observation makes clear, the consequences of He’s psychological repression of his emotions of grief, pain, and despair are dire. The implications of the choice to cut together the close-up images of He’s anxiety with He’s murder of She are clear. It is this anxiety, the film seems to suggest, the anxiety caused by masculine emotional repression, that gives rise to misogyny, to violence, to heteropatriarchal oppression, to gynocide. As we see the Three Beggars enter the cabin and lie down next to She, it is clear that only death can follow.

Before He murders She, she engages in an action that produces the most notorious image from the film. Lying down beside He with a pair of scissors, She grabs his hand and thrusts it between her legs, masturbating herself with it in one final effort to achieve some sort of happy or satisfying sexual communion. Nevertheless, while she does this, the film cuts to a flashback of the prologue in which She, in the midst of her sex act with He, with her eyes open, witnesses Nic climbing on the chair and approaching the window, the implication being that rather than getting up and stopping Nic, she chose to continue with her sex so that she could achieve orgasm. This scene directly contradicts the prologue, in which She’s eyes remain closed the entire time, opening only at the very end of the scene, after Nic has already fallen out of the window and she has climaxed. Because the two scenes are in conflict, it is unclear whether She truly did open her eyes and see Nic approaching the window. Whether She saw Nic or not, however, the implication is clear – her entire sexual identity has become unbearably tainted by the guilt she experiences associated with Nic’s death. After the flashback, the camera cuts to She with He’s hand between her legs, sobbing with guilt and shame, devastated by what she perceives as the futility, the evil, of her sex. “Hold me,” she asks of He; He complies, wrapping his arm around her, as she slides the scissors in between her legs and cuts off her clitoris.

The moment is shocking, violent; we see the act happen in graphic close up, see the blood flowing out of the wound as she screams. The graphic violence of the scene aside, however, the act is hardly surprising. As Sharrett writes, “Female castration is the logical consequence of life for woman under [patriarchal] rule – pleasure is denied or subjugated, the woman contained and ultimately destroyed. She, in this film, enacts upon herself what her civilization – right down to the male most proximate to her – has insistently demanded, and continues to demand” (26). On one level, Sharrett’s masochistic reading of the scene is eminently applicable. The flashback showing She witnessing Nic’s approach to the window explicitly codes her castration as an act of guilt, a self-punishment for violating her maternal duties, for failing to properly incarnate her patriarchally defined role as mother. As Freud’s consideration of melancholia specifies, She has an intense need to be punished, and her self-castration functions as the ultimate reproach of her subjectivity and her sexuality, an expression of hopelessness and of the misogynistic cultural perspective that she has internalized. If women’s sexuality is evil, a cog in the larger machine of evil, heteropatriarchal human nature, then it deserves to be punished, it seems.

While I agree with Sharrett’s perspective here, I do not believe that this is the only way to read this scene. Indeed, I believe She’s self-castration functions on multiple symbolic wavelengths. While the act is certainly a response to She’s guilt and her desire to self-punish, I believe that it is also an act of resistance. In a way, by “un-sexing” herself, She removes herself from the larger economy of sexual exchange described by Irigaray – by excising the physical embodiment of her womanhood, she symbolically de-ontologizes herself as a woman, thus liberating her from her status as a sexual commodity to be traded on the culture market. This is a point that Simmons notes when she writes, “By literally cutting off her access to sexual desire, her final violent outburst is an act of rebellion that is aimed at severing the social, psychological, and emotional frameworks that have dominated her world. It is a result of her confrontation with her own values and desires and it is aimed at the very core of her being” (70). She’s castration is, in fact, a desperate attempt to free herself from the cultural hegemony of heteropatriarchy, to remove herself from the system that has persecuted, victimized, and vilified women throughout history. As the blood from the wound runs down her thighs and curls into patterns on her legs, the image recalls Hélène Cixous’ appeal to woman to “write her self” in her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa.” As Cixous writes:

By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her, which has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display . . . It is by writing, from and toward women, and by taking up the challenge of speech which has been governed by the phallus, that women will confirm women in a place other than that which is reserved in and by the symbolic, that is, in a place other than silence. (880-881)

For Cixous, woman must develop a new style of writing, a style of writing that draws its primal energy from woman’s physicality, an écriture feminine, in an attempt to undermine the patriarchal hegemony of phallogocentrism – that is, of the heteropatriarchy’s ownership of language and the symbolic. By embracing her physical and erotic agency, Cixous suggests, woman can free herself from the realm of symbolic abjection in which she is bound under phallogocentric symbolic regimes. Cixous’ vision for feminine liberation is ultimately hopeful, envisioning a new symbolic order in which women could achieve full erotic and subjective plenitude free from the stranglehold of the patriarchal symbolic. This is not a dream that She, in Antichrist, is able to share, for her sexuality is complicit in, rather than resistant to, her symbolic incarceration in the realm of the abject. Nevertheless, as She lets flow her blood and “writes” her body, taking ownership over her sexuality by destroying it, she enacts a similar resistance to the stifling and oppressive cultural forces of heteropatriarchy that Cixous imagines in her essay. As She and He struggle in the wake of her self-castration and he wraps his hands around her throat, she seems to acquiesce, to stop struggling, to accept his destruction of her. As Simmons writes, “By the end of the film, she has literally emptied herself of the feminine, embracing the only means of true liberation for her, obliteration itself” (81). Tired of her struggle, She allows herself to be murdered, to be written into the long history of gynocide, for, as she proclaims to He, “None of it is any use.” Her act of self-castration notwithstanding, She is ultimately unable to free herself from the misogynistic history of gynocide that, for millennia, has sought to silence the voices of women who dared to speak out against the tyranny of heteropatriarchal cultural hegemony. Although She ultimately succumbs to He’s murderous rage, her furious symbolic resistance is not without its own value, as the film’s epilogue will make clear.

After He murders She, he burns her body outside on a makeshift pyre, an echo of the burning of so many historical witches before her. As He limps out through the woods on a makeshift crutch, the scenery eerily flickering in the light from the fire, we see dozens of nude female bodies materialize throughout the forest, sprawled in strange and contorted positions, the record of the history of heteropatriarchal gynocide into which He and She have now been written. As He moves through a grassy field, stopping to eat some wild berries, he looks back and sees the Three Beggars following him at a distance, their bodies now seemingly transparent. If the implication here is that He has internalized and integrated his repressed emotions of grief, pain, and despair over Nic’s death, this has only been able to be achieved at a terrible price. In the film’s final scene, however, the mise-en-scène makes explicit the cost of heteropatriarchy’s symbolic murder and oppression of women. As He stands at the top of a hill and looks out over the forest, he sees a seemingly endless stream of women approaching through the woods and climbing the hill, their faces no more than anonymous smears. He stands, stunned, as the horde converges on him. The camera cuts to the bottom of the hill where we see the women, continuing to stream up the hill, as the image fades to black. Whether the women mean to kill He or simply to condemn him, the message is clear – these are the victims of gynocide, these are the victims of heteropatriarchal oppression, these are the women of the world, and as long as women like She are willing to confront and challenge the pervasive and insidious power of heteropatriarchal cultural hegemony, they will continue to protest, to climb the hill, to bear silent witness to the plight of woman and to the evil of man. Ultimately, this bearing witness is what the film asks of us as an audience, regardless of the spectator’s gender. Although the film is graphic and at times difficult to watch, we must watch, we must not turn away. As Lori Jo Marso writes, von Trier “[exposes] the regularity and invisibility of everyday systemized violence by forcing us to witness its excessive forms.” Through watching Antichrist, we become aware of the pervasiveness, the violence, the insidious power of heteropatriarchal cultural hegemony, we see the murderous, gynocidal, and symbolic violence it wreaks on women and the violence of emotional impoverishment that it enacts upon men, we see that the stakes of the symbolic are all too real, and deadly. The film draws our attention to these problems and asks us to resist them, to change our world for the better, to recuperate the evil of human nature, to create a new world in which women are not commodities to be traded on the culture market, in which men can be free to experience the full range of their emotions, and in which women’s erotic agency is no longer confined to abjection by the symbolic tyranny of phallogocentrism. And the critics called this film misogynistic? What film were they watching?

Works Cited

Antichrist. Dir. Lars Von Trier. Perf. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Zentropa Entertainments, 2009. DVD.

Badley, Linda. “Theatre of Cruelty: Antichrist (An Epilogue).” Lars Von Trier. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2010. 140-54. Print.

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. Signs 1.4 (1976): 875-93. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 11 May 2016.

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevalier. New York: Vintage, 2011. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles. “The Crystals of Time.” Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1989. 68-97. Print.

Dudenhoeffer, Larry. ““Little Children, It Is the Last Time”: The Ovolutionary Trees of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist.” Embodiment and Horror Cinema. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014. 193-214. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works. Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1957. 243-58. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” The Uncanny. Trans. David McLintock. London: Penguin, 2003. 121-62. Print.

Irigaray, Luce. “Women on the Market.” This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. 170-91. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. “Psychoanalysis – A Counterdepressant.” Black Sun. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1989. 1-30. Print.

Marso, Lori Jo. “Must We Burn Lars Von Trier? Simone De Beauvoir’s Body Politics in Antichrist.” _Theory and Event_18.2 (2015): n. pag. MLA International Bibliography [EBSCO]. Web. 11 May 2016.

Sharrett, Christopher. “Woman Run Amok: Two Films by Lars Von Trier.” Film International 10.6 (2012): 11-36. Film and Television Literature Index with Full Text [EBSCO]. Web. 8 May 2016.

Simmons, Amy. Antichrist. Leighton Buzzard: Auteur, 2015. Print.

Sinnerbrink, Robert. “‘Chaos Reigns’: Anti-Cognitivism in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist.” New Philosophies of Film: Thinking Images. London: Continuum, 2011. 157-76. Print.

“Nature Is Satan’s Church”: Depression and the Politics of Gender in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist

Nolan Boyd is a third year PhD candidate in English at Miami University. He received his BA in English and Spanish from Davidson College in 2012 and his MA in English from Wake Forest University in 2014. His work focuses primarily on issues of gender, sexuality, and disability in the cinema and 20th Century literature. He is currently mulling over ideas for his dissertation which will focus on uncanny representations of the queer other in cinema.

Volume 20, Issue 8 / August 2016 Essays   antichrist   art-horror   danish cinema   lars von trier