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Knowing that this is a piece of unashamedly extreme cinema which graphically depicts sex, violence, death and murder, I knew had to be in the right frame of mind to watch it. I was also aware that it gets panned for being pretentious and indecipherable. People either love it, hate it or (more often) feel totally confused by it. But as the Daily Mail utterly loathed it I knew that, sooner or later, it was something I would have to watch.

Having watched it I have a lot to say about it. This isn’t a review as such, it is an essay on what I think this film actually means. Yes this film has lofty ideas. From its concept to its cinematography and everything in between – Antichrist is aiming high.

With highly artistic works there inevitably comes a great deal of scope for personal interpretation but I found this movie basically had a very simple concept. Once you accept that it operates – almost entirely – on a symbolic level, it all falls into place. The symbolism of this film is founded on feminist ideals, particularly those of Simone de Beauvoir. Often criticised as misogynistic, this piece is only as anti-women as the works of the foremost feminist writer herself could allow it to be (I would love to argue that one out but this is neither the time nor the place).

The film has only two characters – He and She. That they are given no names other than this is the first major sign that they are not characters in their own right but rather archetypes for their genders. At the opening of the film their only child, Nicolas, falls from an open window as the couple have sex in an adjacent room.

She is severely depressed after their child’s death and riddled with guilt. He, a therapist by profession, takes over his wife’s care – ignoring the advice of other professionals about her medication and the dangers of counselling a family member. At the outset, She accuses He of arrogance and pride.

As part of her therapy He takes She back to their cabin in the woods – a place of which she has become irrationally terrified.

What follows is, to my mind, not a depiction of the catastrophic deterioration of a relationship beset by guilt and grief (as some would have it) but a totally symbolic exploration of feminist ideas.

He is the archetypal male. When faced with world shattering grief his response is to fix the situation – he wants to mend his wife. Not primarily because he cares for her but as a way to deal with his own grief and also as a means of proving his own worth. She states that she was not “interesting” to him before her breakdown. She alludes to his arrogance and pride. He dominates her utterly, insisting that he knows what is best for her. His attempts to heal her are an expression of his masculinity, he is sensitive about not being a doctor and angered by the attempts of others to interfere in her therapy. He belittles and patronises her.

She as the archetypal female is overpowered by sexual desire, irrational, excessively emotional, riddled with guilt and anxiety about her role as a woman and mother. She feels ultimately responsible for her child and as a result, for his death. She believes that she watched her son die, choosing reaching sexual climax, over saving him. But the Prologue suggests otherwise.

Sexual symbolism comes thick and fast. The fox hole is a metaphor for the womb – She is afraid to walk near it after the death of her child. The branchless tree is a phallic symbol. The acorns which rain down on the roof and the story of the oak tree only needing to successfully reproduce every one hundred years are all representative of male reproduction. While females invest a massive amount of physical energy and time in reproducing – engaging in an act which is dangerous to them – men do not. At the beginning of the film, it is very important that the child falls as the mother reaches climax. Life is produced through the female impetus for sex. The reversal of this careless creation of life is the equally callous disposal of it – putting desire for a man above the motherly impulse to nurture.

What is at the heart of this film is the notion – first put forth by de Beauvoir – that women are tied to nature while men have for the most part escaped from it. What we see in this film is the symbolic expression of this, coupled with the notion that nature is terrible and cruel. He dismisses She’s sorrow for the acorns raining down on the roof – but He has separated himself from nature and does not understand how closely and painfully She is enslaved to it. He does not allow her the opportunity to express this but ironically attacks her for her attitude toward women.

When She cuts herself, she is either punishing or attempting to free herself from her own sexual desire. When we learn that her abandoned thesis was about Gynocide She expresses her fears that all women are evil. We get a hint at why and how women have subjugated themselves – through guilt over their own nature. The couple are, after all, at a place called Eden and what could be more fitting than the archetypal story or female subjugation and blame?

Women are always tied to nature by their nature – whereas men free themselves from it using tools (think of He finding the wrench beneath the floor to release the metal strut from his leg). Nature is chaotic and ultimately inescapable – chaos reigns.

The two scenes that seem to confuse most people are the scene where the couple have sex in the wood and the female arms are visible amongst the roots of the tree. The other is the scene where the faceless women walk past He as he leaves the wood. The other thing that confuses is the meaning of the film’s title.

What most people seem to overlook with regards to the first scene is that the women amidst the roots are clearly dead. The meaning is simply that women are sacrificed for men to flourish. Human society is built upon the sacrifices of women – all condemned by their nature. The underground in this film is symbolic of the womb, but the womb also traps women and allows men – symbolised by the phallic tree – to flourish.

As for the Epilogue, the multitude of faceless women represents the idea that, in feminist writing, all women are as one woman to men. He remains an individual but She is one of a host of sisters – and that her death and subjugation is as the death of all women, her fight is the fight of all women destined to be played out over and over again. This is the reason why when He frees himself in the cabin her look is one of resigned inevitability.

The film hints at female culpability in her subjugation – but it is never expressed fully because He refuses to allow She a voice. He talks over her, he dismisses her academic endeavours and refuses to listen when she attempts to express herself. Her violence toward him ends, inevitably, with her destruction – but it is his arrogance and attempts to shape her that ultimately lead to her destruction. He wants to control nature but he cannot do so in his counterpart because chaos reigns and woman’s nature is inextricably linked with this chaos and any attempt to tame it, will ultimately destroy her. In the end, He is able to walk away from the forest – but the multitude of women who have always been destroyed in this unending confrontation – will remain.

And why is it called Antichrist? As I have already mentioned, this film is set in Eden and is about the struggle between men and women. It is the devil who tempts Eve to eat the apple in the Old Testament story. Woman is the instrument of the devil and that is what woman has been taught to believe of herself. This film explores the struggle between masculine and feminine nature, using religious and natural symbolism to represent feminist ideas. The Antichrist is not She or He but the inescapable, untameable reality of Nature. Religion is a tool of man, Nature is all that remains untameable by man, destined to destroy and perpetuate itself – just as the fox eating its own flesh, this is a barbaric and perpetual struggle. He watches this and fails to understand it. In the end, it is his attempts to tame this nature that will ultimately destroy it.

Addendum

This post attracts more attention and more comments than any other on this blog. And having read those comments over the past few years, I have some additional ideas about what Von Trier was doing.

I’m really interested in how many people are convinced that She watches her son die in The Prologue.

Go back and watch the scene again. She does not watch him fall from the window. Her eyes are closed. The child goes to the doorway of his parent’s room, then turns and goes to a different room, where he jumps from the window.

It’s also made clear throughout the prologue that there is a lot of noise in the apartment. The washing machine is on. The extractor fan is running in the bathroom. They are making a lot of noise in bed. And the baby monitor has been muted. They don’t hear their child.

I think Von Trier made the scene this way very deliberately. He invites people to lay their prejudices upon it – but at the same time, with careful, dispassionate viewing, he makes it very clear: she never opens her eyes. She does not watch him fall.

You see the child in danger – you immediately ask: where is the mother? She is having sex. The assumption then is that she is negligent. Wicked. Evil. And blame is heaped upon her. It’s not enough to say she wasn’t there – now she is also condemned for watching him die. She is callous. Selfish. Evil.

But actually – no. She doesn’t see him fall. And it doesn’t matter that his father is right there too. It is acceptable for him to be satisfying his needs while his child dies – but not her. She alone is evil. And the viewer becomes convinced that she watched the child fall, and so condemns her falsely. Or perhaps they don’t care that she didn’t really watch it happen – she was a woman having sex when she should have been caring for her child. That is enough to condemn her.

She doesn’t watch her son die because she is evil. She thinks she’s evil because her son died and she (understandably – but wrongly) believes she was responsible. And so do many viewers.

And what that hints at, is that She is not alone in this feeling that women are somehow inherently evil – when so many viewers want to condemn her too. But much like He, none of those viewers are willing to engage with her fears. They are dismissed. No one thinks this way. She is delusional. But actually – perhaps – we do.

There exists an uneasy friction about women, or more specifically – mothers. How can a creature bring another life into this world, nurture it, care for it – and then be so selfish as to continue to have a life and needs entirely separate from it? And that’s the crux of Antichrist – the cruelty of nature, inherent within us, that we cannot escape. That we cannot tame.

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