Of the many festival awards and critics' prizes conferred on the films of Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, one of the oddest, and, to some minds, the most deserved, came earlier this year, when the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes—the same festival that gave von Trier's Dancer in the Dark its highest honor, the Palme d'Or, in 2000—handed his latest effort an ad-hoc prize for "most misogynist movie." In Antichrist (opening tomorrow in select theaters), a couple known as She and He (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) journey to a remote cabin in the woods after the death of their toddler son, only for the wife to descend into nymphomania, insanity, gruesome violence, and self-mutilation. Grisly and hysterical, Antichrist certainly can be interpreted as a screed against womankind—indeed, the film at times actively encourages this reading.
There's also the director's track record to consider. In Dancer in the Dark, the female protagonist (played by Björk) not only goes blind but is robbed, terrorized into committing murder, and hanged. In Dogville(2003), Nicole Kidman's Grace is collared to an iron flywheel and repeatedly raped; later, she oversees the summary execution of an entire town. And it's not a huge exaggeration to say that in Breaking the Waves (1996), perhaps von Trier's most widely acclaimed film, Emily Watson's saintly, churchgoing Bess is effectively fucked to death. (Sex kills in Antichrist, too: She and He are in the throes of passion when their little boy falls out a window and dies.)
So what is Lars Von Trier's problem, anyway? Glancing over the evidence, it's easy to dismiss him as a sexist purveyor of art-house torture porn, as an "emotional pornographer" (to paraphrase his disgruntled one-time star Björk) who revels messily in women's agony and debasement. (According to this line of thinking, the already infamous clitoridectomy in Antichrist can double as a superconcise director's statement.) Yet a strong case can be made that von Trier's patented brand of female trouble is more richly complicated—or, at least, more compelling in its pathologies—than his detractors might admit.
Mitigating Factor No. 1: He's rebelling against Mum and Dad. But not in the way one might think. Von Trier has ruefully described his parents as "Communist nudists" who prohibited three things: "feelings, religion, and enjoyment." Naturally, their contrarian child's movies are filthy with feelings and religion if not enjoyment. "My family always held martyrs in contempt," von Trier said in 2005. "And religious martyrs in particular were viewed as the worst sort of kitsch." Which only ensured that the enfant terrible would grow up to conjure the mother of all religious martyrs: Breaking the Waves' Bess, who prostitutes herself in the fervent belief that it will help her husband (Stellan Skarsgard) recover from catastrophic injuries. (The Christlike Bess even gets a Via Dolorosa of her own, clad in hooker garb and sobbingly pushing a moped as kids pelt her with stones.)
Breaking the Waves is the first film in von Trier's "Golden Heart" series, rounded out by 1998's The Idiots (like Antichrist, about a grieving mother going to extremes) and Dancer in the Dark, each centered on women who are punished for their innocence and goodness. The trilogy is inspired by a children's tale—one that clearly imprinted von Trier at a formative age—about the Golden Heart, a little girl who ventures into the forest and gives away all her worldly possessions, down to the clothes on her back. As von Trier recalls on his Dancer DVD commentary, his father "ridiculized" the story and used "Golden Heart" as sarcastic shorthand for do-gooders. But little Lars was touched. Ever the defiant son, von Trier dramatizes both his youthful fascination with the Golden Heart and his father's aversion to her, creating a spectacle out of his heroines' vulnerability and naiveté, then stripping them of their defenses, dignity, and, frequently, clothes. In Antichrist, Gainsbourg's She is no holy fool, but just like the Golden Heart, She plunges trustingly into the woods and loses everything she has left.
Mitigating Factor No. 2: He's just copying the master. Though Antichrist could not be mistaken for anything but a von Trier production, its unholy terrors spring from an alchemy of influences: David Lynch (felt in the supernatural grace notes and rumbling, ominous sound design), Edgar Allan Poe (there's a telltale raven!), Ingmar Bergman (She's genius for passive-aggressive button-pushing is worthy of Scenes From a Marriage). But the overriding influence, as always, is von Trier's hero, fellow Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose austere, shattering films, starting with The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927), were usually predicated on female martyrdom and self-abnegation. Von Trier even claimed to be communicating telepathically with the master's ghost when making Medea (1987), based on an unproduced script that Dreyer co-wrote.
If much of the von Trier canon enacts an argument with his late parents, it likewise turns naked, screaming cartwheels to please his spiritual daddy, Dreyer. The cold and joyless self-denial of the Scottish Presbyterian milieu in Breaking the Waves, its clash between ecstasy and doctrine, its yearning for miracles—it's all strung with the same DNA as Dreyer's Day of Wrath (1943) and Ordet (1954), which grappled stoically with faith, desire, mercy, and the power of prayer. A 17th-century witch-hunting melodrama that all but vibrates with repressed eros, Day of Wrath is a stern ancestor of the sex-and-death bonanza Antichrist: She, who's lately abandoned a graduate thesis on witch burnings and other bygone methods of "gynocide," has apparently internalized her beyond-Bosch research. He, a psychotherapist, is duly appalled when She suggests that maybe—just maybe—historical evils committed against women are in fact a logical reflection of … womanly evil. It's an inflammatory, sit-up-in-your-seat moment, one that captures her sorrow and self-loathing. But a line of dialogue is not a manifesto any more than the climactic inferno in Day of Wrath is an endorsement of burning witches at the stake.
Mitigating Factor No. 3: He is woman! Or so von Trier claims. "My main characters are built on my own person," he once said. "I think women are better, more understanding. This is my female side." (Elsewhere, in a more ambitious mood, von Trier reckoned, "I am an American woman. Or 65 percent of me is.") One might suspect the director of placating his critics by conveniently framing his much-abused females as distaff self-portraits, but at least one of his actresses concurs. "I did have the feeling I was playing Lars," Gainsbourg recently told the Village Voice. "In his own fragility, Lars was the female character." Von Trier was mired in a deep depression and beset by panic attacks while making Antichrist—could She's spasmodic despair also be von Trier's own?
A generous interpretation of von Trier might contend that his supposed misogyny is actually misanthropy—after all, his men are no picnic, either. ("My male protagonists are basically idiots who don't understand shit," he explains in the Antichrist press notes.) In Antichrist, the placidly arrogant He shuns professional ethics and basic common sense by seizing control of his broken wife's therapy and dragging her into the forest for hardcore CBT. In Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville, the main men are all somehow enfeebled in mind, body, or circumstance; they are pathetic, weirdly passive creatures who stage-manage the suffering of women for their own selfish purposes (which sounds a lot like a certain director we know).
Whereas, at the very least, von Trier's women are brave. They make things happen; they keep their promises. They are sinned against and sinning. Whether admirable, pitiable, or repellent, they are interesting. Nicole Kidman reportedly once asked von Trier, "Why are you so evil to women?"—but couldn't one ask the same of so many filmmakers who deal solely in shopaholic singles and grasping Bridezillas and buzz-kill spouses? Von Trier has got hang-ups, no question. But his saving grace is that he couldn't give an actress a standard "wife" or "girlfriend" role if his life depended on it.