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.