When Lars von Trier's new film Antichrist screened at Cannes, it was met with whistles, boos, and horrified laughter. It's obviously and blatantly offensive. But, as a profile of von Trier in Sunday's New York Times asks, is it misogynist?
Von Trier describes Antichrist, which he shot while in the midst of battling a severe bout of depression, in strange terms: it is a horror film, but not "a real horror film." He says it is about "the maximum of dying and living," the creations of God and the church of Satan. It is about a couple, grieving over the death of their son, who retreat into the wilderness in attempts to work through their loss. In a role that won her best actress at Cannes, Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a guilt-stricken mother, who blames herself for the accidental death of her child. Her husband, portrayed by Willem Dafoe, is a cognitive therapist who hopes that the woods will provide her with a safe space in which to heal. Instead, the forest becomes a horrible surreal landscape of "grisly death and feverish reproduction," complete with a self-cannibalizing, talking fox. The New York Times' Dave Kehr writes:
Seeing herself as another "bad mother," Ms. Gainsbourg's nameless character identifies with this nature, red in tooth and claw, and descends from depression to insanity. "Nature is Satan's church," she proclaims, before moving on to acts of worship that will have some viewers looking away from the screen (if not fleeing the theater).
We can only guess that the "acts of worship" are the same ones detailed in this article (spoiler). For those of you who don't want to be sickened by the New York Magazine description, here is the short version: Gainsbourg uses a hand drill on Dafoe's leg, mutilates his genitals, and jerks him off. She later does a similar number on her own parts in "an extreme closeup" that seems guaranteed to make every woman in the theater involuntarily cross their legs and/or vomit.
As for the charges of misogyny, von Trier brushes them off, saying that they arise from his "kind of romantic thing [he] had with Strindberg," a Scandinavian playwright famous for his troubled relationships with women. However, von Triers comments about Strindberg illustrate pretty clearly that he doesn't have a firm grasp on what constitutes misogynistic behavior:
"I do not hate women myself," Mr. von Trier said, "and I doubt that he did. Strindberg spent all his life fighting with his wives and pushing them down stairs and whatever he did, but in a strange way he was just a little ridiculous. Which you can say that this film might be also.
"But my problem is of course also that I'm the son of my mother, who was the feminist movement chairman of Denmark at a certain point. So I think that I made many of my films just to provoke her, even though she's dead."
After reading the synopsis of the film, I find von Trier's comments more disturbing than any cinematic gore. Dismissing domestic violence as a "little ridiculous" says a lot of von Trier's attitude toward the female sex. But Gainsbourg defends the director against these charges, claiming that he identifies with the evil he instill in his female characters. "He puts women on a pedestal and then pushes them off... I can see fear of women, but there's no hatred," she said. Famous last words.