In his review of Lars von Trier's Antichrist, Roger Ebert, asks at one point, "Who can say what von Trier intended?" and, he points out that von Trier's "own explanations have been vague." My response is this: why should any artist need to explain his work, especially if you have been moved? (And maybe, as much as we resist this sort of thing, what is inferred is what was intended.)
That being said, I am not recommending this film to just anyone. Most people will not like it, some might not get past the explicit sex in the very first scene. In black and white, in slow motion, with opera playing over it. (Sample lyrics, translated into English: "Leave the thorn, take the Rose; you go searching for your pain.") And a baby walks out a window and dies. That's the PROLOGUE.
Hell, even a lot of von Trier fans won't like this film, I'd wager. But, I love von Trier's stuff, have since Breaking the Waves.
(Plus, I'm the person--maybe the only person--who gave A Serbian Film a... Well, maybe it isn't a positive a review, but it's far from negative, and far more explanatory than the few "reviews" of that film you can find online. If you a) don't know what that movie is, or b) don't want to click through to that review, it's a movie about a porn star who is manipulated into starring in snuff films. There's explicit sex, graphic violence, and no redeeming message.)
CHAPTER ONE: GRIEF
She (Charlottes Gainsbourg) is in the hospital. She's been there for a month. She blames herself for their son's death. She's heavily medicated. He (Willem Dafoe) doesn't approve; her doctor, He says, is just out of medical school. Echoes of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (backward, though, since this movie came first) in this setup, except He is a psychiatrist and wants her to embrace her grief. "No therapist can no as much about you as I do," He tells her. And their fucked up therapy gets under way. It will turn quite brutal later, and the film will not shy away from showing it.
(In the meantime, I'm drawn to what She just said about her thesis, how last summer she went to their cabin, Eden (and I'll get to that name below), with their son to finish her thesis, but the thing didn't feel as important when she was up at the cabin. She stepped outside her usual life and this particular detail of it got lost. I know that feeling. Last summer, when our family was going through some stuff, I lost track of my thesis. That's why it couldn't be finished in the fall. So it was delayed to winter, and for practical reasons, I've extended it to this upcoming spring quarter. I have to turn it back into something important as I finish writing it.)
The boundaries are broken from the start, obviously. A husband should not be his wife's therapist. Sex should not be a part of that therapy. And, isolating themselves from the world is an almost painfully obviously wrong move. They go to Eden, their cabin. So far from civilization that they have to hike to it. And She is afraid there. Eden has a garden. Eden is the garden. The Adam and Eve reference is overt. This is some twisted reversal of Genesis.
And, She just bit him. Drew blood. This is the least of his injuries.
Think about what the Eden story is about. I mean beyond the basic creation myth. I mean, Adam and Eve and the Serpent. Her thesis had to do with witchcraft, by the way. Witchcraft, in the world, and especially in stories, is often invoked as a trespass of women into the world of power reserved for men. So, too, is the Eden story. Adam's supposed to be in charge, but Eve talks to the Serpent and makes her own choices and, yada yada yada, she ruins the world for everyone who has come since, especially the women. She is not Lilith, deliberately taking power. Rather, Eve is manipulated into it, and this detail is vital because it is the beginning of so much of our justification for subjugating women. They're weak. They're easily manipulated. So, we not only want power but can now believe we deserve it.
The thing is, here in Antichrist, while He is trying to help her, he does it by separating her from objective assistance, by isolating her from the world, and by telling her what to do at every turn. He is trying to turn back time, so Eve can be frail and useless again.
He sees a deer. Seems innocent enough. But it has a half born fawn hanging out of it.
CHAPTER TWO: PAIN (CHAOS REIGNS)
Essentially, this film becomes a struggle between all men and all women as much as between this nameless man and woman. He tries to control her, ostensibly to help her, and she rebels. Eventually, she emasculates him--and there's no way to describe this but explicitly--hurting him so much that he ejaculates blood, and she even penetrates him, drilling a hole through his leg... And I'm reminded of Dionysus born for the second time from Zeus' thigh. But, now I'm getting ahead of the film.
First, take some systematic desensitization--
A baby bird falls from a tree, ants swarm upon it, then a hawk swoops down and takes it, tears it apart to eat. The metaphors are not subtle, here.
--and in her therapy, She details how last summer she heard crying outside, thought it was her son but it wasn't. The camera rises up to show the lush green hills, as if the wilderness itself is crying. (Not long after recounting this, she references acorns crying. Acorns fall incessantly onto the roof of Eden.)
She grows violent. She calls nature "Satan's church." Assuming the usual version of the story, the Serpent is Satan, and it was in nature, in the garden, that Eve believed in his words.
She abruptly gets over her fear of the woods, of nature. He sees another animal, a fox eating itself. It speaks to him, says, "Chaos reigns."
CHAPTER THREE: DESPAIR (GYNOCIDE)
In the attic, He finds her research. Her handwritten notes become increasingly unreadable.
She tells him that the nature of all human beings, "the kind of nature that causes people to do evil things against women" was the subject of her thesis. Somehow she twists the texts she was studying into proof that women were the evil, rather than the victims of it.
She asks him to hit her while they have sex. She leaves, wanders out into the woods naked and masturbates up against the roots of a tree. He shows up and hits her. And they continue having sex there among the roots. Briefly, among the roots, there are hands, many of them.
Turns out she deliberately deformed their son's feet. To prove herself evil, perhaps? Or because she is evil? Or simply because she is insane. The danger here is not in what She necessarily thinks about herself but whether or not we are supposed to agree with her. Given the violence she perpetuates, and numerous reports of von Trier's misogyny and mistreatment of his actresses, maybe we are supposed to believe women are evil. Or maybe hobbling her husband is justifiable under the circumstances.
The film has plenty to say about the interactions of men and women. But, I'd almost rather come back to the ambiguity of Ebert's line than assume that this film is an exercise in von Trier's misogyny... except, taken along with Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Manderlay, Melancholia, Nymphomaniac--it's a bit too much of a pattern. Individually, one could (and almost must) forgive these films because they invoke important subjects in meaningful ways and however cruel von Trier's may be as a director, he knows how to get a good performance, he knows how to generate pain.
CHAPTER FOUR: THE THREE BEGGARS
At a certain point, a film about horrible people doing horrible things, in order to do well what it is doing, must become as horrible. Maybe that is the point.
She helps him after attacking him again when he hides from her. Is this redemption or is von Trier making a point about how this gendered conflict never ends? When von Trier intercuts her last attempt at sexual intimacy with her husband with the opening scene, is he simply showing us how she blames herself because they were having sex when their son died (and she saw it happen), or is von Trier reminding us so that we blame her? When she mutilates her own genitals is it fair play after what she has done to her husband? It is at once difficult to be definitive about answering any of these questions and entirely easy. Lars von Trier is a misogynist who builds stories around women being mistreated, and Antichrist is like his magnum opus, putting the blame for that mistreatment on the women themselves.
Unless he's just manipulating us to think that so we question our own views on men and women. In this movie, as it is the evidence in question at this time, maybe he is just using all of this to demonstrate how much She hates herself because She let her son die. Misogyny to veil psychology.
Or, he's a horrible person who just happens to know how to exercise (or exorcise) his horribleness on film.