Friday, 17 July 2009

Is Lars Von Trier really the Antichrist?

"If you see this film you will be putting your money into something which deserves to bomb – and give a grain of validity to the sickest general release in the history of cinema." (From the Guardian)

This is Julie Bindel on Antichrist, the new film by controversial director Lars Von Trier who has been accused of, amongst other things, hating women. The film stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Defoe as parents of a child who dies tragically. They retreat to a cabin in the woods called 'Eden' in an attempt to help Gainsbourg's character, 'She', to exorcise her grief. However, as in all horror movies set in the woods, nature becomes a malevolent force and the rest of the film charts 'She''s descent into madness and self-mutilation. The film has been criticised for its depiction of graphic sex, female madness and, most controversial of all, for the scene in which Gainsbourg cuts off her clitoris with a pair of scissors. Nice.

The Guardian has an interesting article on the film entitled 'Antichrist: a work of genius or the sickest film in the history of cinema?' (which I have linked to above). It features opinions on the film from women and feminists such as Gillian Wearing and Samantha Morton who have a range of views on it, although many of them are favourable. Morton, for example, admires the performances of Gainsbourg and Defoe as well as the cinematography whilst Joanna Bourke, a History professor, is full of praise, even for the way Von Trier has depicted the violence.

However, Julie Bindel seems almost vitriolic in her hatred of this film, likening it to torture-porn movies like, 'I Spit On Your Grave' and condemning it as gratuitous and poorly acted. She says she'd like it to 'sink without trace' and bemoans its likely inclusion on Film Studies courses. I should mention at this point that I have not seen this film yet, and I'm not sure if I will as I'm incredibly squeemish and affected by horror movies. Despite this, I feel compelled to defend Antichrist from some of her heavy-handed criticisms.

Firstly, I don't understand why she would object to film students studying this film and analysing the ways in which it could possibly be a violent male reaction to 'female emancipation'. This seems to be the way Bindel herself is interpreting it. If the film is indeed as abhorrent and problematic as she says, then surely it is important that it is studied critically rather than just being allowed to 'sink without trace'.

Bindel also takes issue with the fact that she finds the violence to be unjustifiable, in that it doesn't teach us anything about why humans commit violent acts. This negates the idea that the film could be about the futility and meaninglessness of human violence. Perhaps the violence in this film doesn't teach us anything because the violence here has nothing to teach. She refers specifically to the genital mutilation scene saying,
If I am to watch a woman's clitoris being hacked off, I want it to contribute to my understanding of female genital mutilation, not just allow me to see the inside of a woman's vagina.
From what I know, this scene has very little to do with the female genital mutilation that occurs in places like Uganda. For one thing, Gainsbourg's character inflicts this upon herself through madness caused by guilt and grief. The act is surely about these themes, not about female genital mutilation itself.

If I see this film, I will probably also argue that it isn't comparable to torture-porn movies like Saw or Hostel. This film may feature graphic sexualised violence like many of these films, but it seems to be symbolic of important themes like grief and guilt rather than contextless like it so often is in mainstream torture-porn movies. It should also be remembered that Von Trier has consistently made films that push the boundaries of what is acceptable, even making a foray into the world of pornography for women. I want to believe there is a degree of artistic merit in this work, just as there is in much of his other work. I don't believe Von Trier would make a film full of gore and sex for the shock alone. Many other reviews point to a sense of desperation in the film, perhaps a desire to convey meaning and emotion that came from the poor state of his mental health whilst writing this film.

I have no doubt that this film is problematic. It features the familiar trope of the mad woman being connected to evil forces of nature which is an idea that has hurt women throughout history, and the gender stereotypes of emotional woman and rational man may turn out to be hamfisted and over-simplified. But I won't be able to tell you until I pluck up the courage to see Antichrist for myself. And I'm not sure when that will be.


  1. Another good post. (Small geek point... Eden Lake was set in the woods but nature didn't turn on them... that was purely human evil and still scares me haha). I like the 'meaninglessness of human violence bit', also the violence could be just expressing emotion? I don't know... so let's go see it. Maybe.

  2. The problem I have with Lars Von Trier's output is that the more sensational aspects of his films tend to drown out the perfectly valid criticisms of their sexism and misogyny. With his baroque aesthetics or lack of any aesthetics (Dogma), not to mention his florid metaphors, he intellectually bullies his critics into submission. But from Breaking the Waves on, I've yet to believe the heaping abuse he loves to trowel upon his female characters is fully artistically justified.

    I think a closer inspection of his work might give lie to your notion that Von Trier is above shock for shock's sake. Really, shock (and the indignation that follows) is his bread and butter as a filmmaker.

    By the way, I like your blog. It reads as both smart and Sassy.

  3. Hey Lydia!!(c'est kuzi)

    so, I read this article that Lars Von Trier might hate women. Not because he said so but because it seems to translate into his films. Apparantly, he is notoriously known for having huge bustouts with the actresses he works with e.g. Nicole Kidman and Bjork. His female leads suffer a great amount of torture in terms of their roles.I also read that Bjork vowed never to work with him ever again upon completion of 'Dancer in the Dark'. Which then leads to my question; do you think Lars Von Trier hates women??

    let me know