“The definition of women as demonic beings, and the atrocious and humiliating practices to which so many of them were subjected left indelible marks on the female psyche and in women’s sense of possibilities. … For the witch-hunt destroyed a whole world of female practices, collective relations, and systems of knowledge that had been the foundations of women’s power in pre-capitalist Europe, and the condition for their resistance in the struggle against feudalism.”Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (2004)
Last week I happened to watch two films in the space of two days that both depicted a very gendered kind of violence, both interesting in their own way. So I’m going to compare and contrast their approaches, and see where that takes us, as I enjoy so much these serendipitous encounters.
We’ll start with the immediate uncanny similarity. Both films feature a traumatic incident in the very first scene that colours the subsequent psychology of the characters, interestingly both involving a loved one falling out of a window to their deaths: in Antichrist it is the couple’s young son, in MEN it is Jessie Buckley’s character Harper’s husband who may or may not have been intending to commit suicide. The child’s death and the parents’ grief in Antichrist is gradually overcome by supernatural forces to the point you have pretty much forgotten about little Nicky by the end of the film; by contrast, Harper’s grief only builds and builds into forming the conclusion of the story in MEN.
Both films also use a folk tradition/pagan language of images as a backdrop (MEN’s Green Man and sheela na gig carvings discovered in the village church). Both references connect the story to larger cultural narratives, such as witchcraft and devil-worship, rural and urban relationships towards nature and the landscape. Additionally, both films feature almost exclusively characters of a Western, highly educated, bourgeois background (psychotherapist, PhD student, high powered executive). There are also no external characters beyond the family in Antichrist; in MEN the male characters are portrayed by the same actor (Rory Kinnear) so that they cannot be considered ‘real’. However, the female characters such as the best friend and the police officer retain their individuality.
Both films share a countryside or woodland setting; an obvious Freudian retreat into nightmares, the id, into deep psychological fear and desire untouched by societal conformity. In MEN Jessie Buckley has a superficially civilised setting in the village and picturesque manor house run by the landed gentry, which actually proves more sinister than the complete isolation of Charlotte and Willem’s cabin, as the forces that act against Jessie are societal and those in Antichrist supernatural. Finally, both films are written and directed by cis-men which I think is unfortunate, no matter how wonderfully nuanced they may convey medicalised patronisation (Antichrist) or sexual harassment (MEN).
So first, let’s talk about Antichrist. Immediately what is obvious is that Lars von Trier has Charlotte Gainsbourg naked and sexual at pretty much all times (though almost as much as Willem Defoe to be fair). It is actually quite tedious, though I admit I have a bit of a love/hate thing with Charlotte as an actress: she’s fascinating visually but also irritating when she’s just staring into space in ecstasy (who wouldn’t be) and I don’t think her sexualised nudity is the most interesting aspect of her acting (I could not stand Nymphomaniac). However much Charlotte is sexualised though, Antichrist is definitely not as tedious as Paul Thomas Anderson’s glorified wet dream of Alana Haim called Licorice Pizza (2021); I definitely prefer Antichrist to that.
Actually, I really enjoyed Antichrist. I’d been put off from watching it for a long time by reading the Wikipedia synopsis for fear of being traumatised. My summation of von Trier’s later film Melancholia is that it exactly expresses an experience of depression, and for Antichrist I feel like this extreme creative depiction of grief is again exceptional; to the point where I don’t think any other 21st century director has ever really conveyed the experience of these psychological torments like von Trier, which is undoubtedly his greatest attribute as a filmmaker.
My favourite part of the story of Antichrist were the Three Beggars: a folkloric pagan symbol of a demonic view of nature, a malevolent force that controls the behaviour of the two protagonists. The deer, the fox and the crow appear to Willem in different chapters of the film, and only when the three appear together can someone die, and the story be resolved. Charlotte Gainsbourg here becomes the antagonist as well as protagonist. Willem’s character before the Three Beggars appear was very worthy and therapist-y; and I felt quite satisfied by Charlotte then fucking him up a bit. He didn’t listen, he never understood; he didn’t see. Then she drilled a millstone into his leg and I was kind of for it. It was nice to see her have a project.
However, obviously, he killed her at the end, and I’m not even going to say unjustly; it was completely justified. But I still was unsatisfied by the ending. I don’t think Charlotte should have been killed and set on fire; I don’t think Willem should last be seen amongst a ghostly crowd of women as a lame kind of penance (referencing those killed by historic campaigns of gendered violence such as the witch-hunts of 16th to 17th century Europe). I thought Charlotte’s ‘crazy’ take that women are actually evil and violence against them is justified actually really interesting, which I’ll come back to later. Willem defends the victims of the witch trials as a slightly annoying pragmatist but then later is driven to strangling his wife.
Let’s now return to MEN. The men in MEN that feature prominently are as follows; the weird policeman (the law); Jeffrey the landowner (the aristocracy); the masked schoolboy (the educational system); the horny vicar (the church). The young boy with the plastic Marilyn Monroe mask could probably be unpacked further, but I’m just going to skip past it for now. However all these institutions are related to the hundreds of years of what Antichrist calls ‘gynocide’ i.e. the systematic torturing and killing of non-conforming women across Western countries from the 16th century into the 18th. And, indeed, in some parts of the world and certain contexts, still continuing. The Red Scare and the Lavender Menace in the US in the 50’s and 60’s are a good example of this kind of ‘witch hunt’ surviving into modern times.
Antichrist did not cross any gendered binary lines; other than weakening Willem physically (by aforementioned millstone to the leg), but then giving him crazy feats of strength such as dragging himself up and down a hill with no food or water while bleeding out … this plot device served to turn him into a superhero fighting against the evil woman in the final scenes of the film; he also had divine guidance in terms of the Three Beggars, one of which (the crow) showed him where the wrench was hidden so he could retrieve it, thereby freeing himself and somehow then having the strength to strangle Charlotte who didn’t put up much of a fight. This is either because she wanted him to kill her or she had no strength left which are both inherently misogynistic propositions. If she wanted to, she could have killed herself easily (I mean she did cut off her own clitoris, which only a certain kind of man would ever, ever write and also could be unpacked further), and if she managed to screw a millstone into her partner’s leg, dig him out of a foxhole and then drag him up a hill back to the cabin, she is not lacking in strength. If one of these Charlottes is supernatural, then both are. That’s the real (unfortunate, because there’s so many great things in Antichrist) misogyny in this film, the unbalanced and erratic sources of strength and weakness for the two main characters.
I do sadly after much deliberation come down on the side of ‘misogynist film’ for Antichrist, despite enjoying its originality so much. But compared to the cathartic ending of MEN, where Jessie Buckley proves triumphant, and even smiles in the last frames of the film, bathing in morning sunshine where her friend has found her, the difference is clear. Willem in Antichrist finally becomes a hero who is assisted by the sinister forces in the woods and kills Charlotte, and then (somehow) manages to walk down to safety. There is a tame sort of nod to the historic victims of systemic gendered violence in the spectral figures who walk past Willem in the final scene; but this feels very much like an afterthought and they seem to just ignore him and go on their way.
I want to finish by discussing the importance of endings. The ending, across all media, is the most important part of any story. The ending is what tells the listener what the lesson is or isn’t, what to take away from the experience; the ending can subvert their expectations and open imaginations. This is why I have no patience for those US television shows that go on and on and on, and eventually get cancelled and have to finish with a really boring sad end. That goes against the whole art of storytelling. The most difficult, and the most important, part of storytelling is the ending. So, in terms of the ending of both of these films, they have a clear binary resolution; one bad, one good. One woman gets killed, one woman triumphs and smiles. But it’s not as simple as all that, and in other arenas other than the gender ‘divide’ which these filmmakers are perpetuating or dismantling, Antichrist is immensely powerful and valuable.