The Christian legacy Inverted:
Gender and Theology in Lars von Trier's Antichrist
What is the sign of the Satanist or the Antichrist? The inverted cross. The inversion of the entire Christian story is a motif of the film Antichrist, though not for the reasons we’d first assume. Despite director Lars von Trier’s atheism (at least the atheism in him at the time he wrote Antichrist), he is not in the least Satanic, and certainly did not name his film for its literal or spiritual implications. To think of this film as Satanic – or misogynist for that matter, is to make the same perilous mistake that the protagonist “She” (Charlotte Gainsbourg) made while researching her thesis on gynocide. Instead of reading her historical texts on violence against women critically, she lost the intellectual distance and embraced the teachings of her enemies. In the same way, a reading of this movie as a celebration of violence against women or immorality would release the critical distance from the text we as readers must uphold: or at least, it would be to confuse subject matter with its treatment or subtext. (After all, movies about gangsters are not movies promoting gangsterism.)
In the case of von Trier’s tale of fantastical disturbia, the subtext is one that bridges two subjects of modern and prehistoric concern: theology and gender, the title itself encapsulating the first, and the masterfully placed female symbol on the ‘T’ in the logo representing the second. In fact, the simple naming of the characters as “He” and “She” reveals the two of them not as individuals, but instead as archetypes for their sexes. Dafoe as the rational, ruling, arrogant, goal-driven male; Gainsbourg as the nebulous, emotional, dependent female. Of course, these are absurdly unfair caricatures, but von Trier did not leave it simply at that.
As another surrealist filmmaker, Luis Buñuel, once said: “Eroticism is a diabolical pleasure that is related to death and rotting flesh.” This type of inversion of regular logic is present in Antichrist as well. From the film’s prologue, sex is instantly associated with death instead of birth (as it is in the sex scene at the dead tree littered with pale corpses). And unlike the Christ myth, the child is not conceived without sex, but instead dies as a result of sex. The inversion of the Christian myth appears to work backwards chronologically, beginning with the death of the Son and returning and focusing on an upside down Genesis tale in, of all places, Eden. However, this inverted Christian paradigm is not clean cut, and the child as well as “She” both resemble an ‘antichrist’ in their own right. “She” is even crucified in her own way, burnt like a witch. The child, however, is seen playing in a shed with wood, like a young carpenter in the making.
The film is imbued with cases of reversed images, some as simple and yet as haunting as the child’s backwards shoes. Von Trier replaces the “three kings” of the nativity story bringing gifts to a newborn messiah with the “three beggars” who have come to a grieving couple demanding a sacrifice. Instead of walking on water, “She” walks on burning earth – making the return to Eden not a redemption and reunification with God, but a descent into the subconscious symbolized by Hell. The trajectory of death is clearly attached closely to life and reproduction in the curious falling acorns. As “She” says, scores of them will fall, but only one every hundred years needs to grow for the tree to perpetuate itself. Death is present throughout Satan’s church of nature, the falling baby bird; the dead deer still attached to its mother; the fox who directs its violence inward; the crow who continuously dies. These last three animals, known as the Three Beggars, are of particular interest, and perhaps underscore the third theme in von Trier’s film: modern psychology. Grief, pain, and despair represent the three parts of the mind in their disrupted state of depression. The ego, the deer, carrying the surface tragedy of the child’s death, is skittish and flees confronting the true problem. The superego, the fox, associated with speech, destroys itself and cannot converse rationally. And finally, the dark raven, hidden in the dark cave, is the disturbed subconscious, which cannot be pounded out of existence, and will draw the attention of danger.
The Antichrist title may reflect another of the films themes: antifeminism. This may, by a large stretch I’m unsure was intentional, justify the odd dedication of the film to the late great Andrei Tarkovsky. In his 1972 science fiction masterpiece Solyaris, Tarkovsky gives form a specific idea of radical antifeminism. By having the protagonist’s dead wife in Solaris be resurrected out of his memory of her, she comes to represent an idea of women merely as “man’s guilt manifest.” (This is not to imply that Tarkovsky, or author of the source text Stanislaw Lem, are antifeminists, which is a discussion for another article.) This thread is picked up by von Trier in that between the two (“He” and “She”) it is “She” that carries all the of the guilt, it is her that needs psychotherapy, and it is she who comes to symbolize an entire aspect of humanity itself associated with sexual guilt by removing her source of pleasure with a pair of scissors. The film picks up on a number of antifeminist threads, from Nietzsche’s claim that “When a woman has scholarly inclinations, there is usually something wrong with her sexuality.” The ties to the film with this quote are obvious enough, but it may be coincidence that Nietzsche also wrote a book entitled “The Antichrist.”
All of this antifeminism results in the film’s anti-thesis that, as Aristotle says, “The female is, as it were, a mutilated male.” (Oh, what poor choice of words…) That man is the natural, and that woman is the secondary, the anti-man, the mistake, is the thesis that von Trier confronts, not promotes. Nature is, in this view, female, but women are not natural.
The ending attests to this. “He” is haunted by the ghosts of women who died at the hands of male irrationality: the same irrationality men project onto women. Although we are unsure whether the faceless crowd is coming at him with malice, for revenge, or if they are simply prowling around throughout nature, where they belong. This ambiguity gives rise to a second conclusion.
When “He” frees himself of the shackles of his proverbial “ball and chain”, or his literal weight drilled into his leg, the rationality that characterized his type vanishes. He sharply looks up with disgust at the monster before him and lets his inner chaos reign. His adrenaline is cued, triggering his fight or flight response, and he destroys “She”. The inner chaotic nature of women explodes within himself. Nature wins, and von Trier reveals to us that men are in fact mutilated women and not the other way around. And as the film concludes with a sea of faceless femininity floating across nature, we can see that this vision represents the triumph of unreason and chaos in nature. Yes, “He” lived and “She” died, but it was the spirit of “She” who reigns victorious. Despite His struggle to keep nature out, to remove the fungi that grows on him in his dreams, it exists within him too. It’s no wonder in the final shot, Dafoe is nearly impossible to spot among the faceless sea of femininity: he belongs to that sea, too.
If the film is indeed the Christian mythology running backwards, then the death of "She" was God's creation of her from Adam's body. And, the conclusion, is the Oneness with God which existed in Genesis. However the twist here is that God is female.