Is Antichrist director Lars von Trier a misogynist?

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Oct. 22 2009 2:56 PM

Is Lars von Trier a Misogynist?

Maybe not!

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

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.

Jessica Winter Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

My Father Was James Brown. I Watched Him Beat My Mother. Then I Married Someone Like Him.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 17 2014 12:02 PM Here It Is: The Flimsiest Campaign Attack Ad of 2014, Which Won't Stop Running
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 17 2014 12:13 PM “For a While Liquidity Led to Stupidity”
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 17 2014 12:19 PM Early Cancer Hospitals Were Modeled on French Castles, Served Champagne
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Behold
Sept. 17 2014 11:06 AM Inside the Exclusive World of Members-Only Clubs
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 11:14 AM How Does That Geometry Problem Make You Feel? Computer tutors that can read students’ emotions.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 11:18 AM A Bridge Across the Sky
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.