Emotional Creatures: Excess, Restraint and Deliverance in Antichrist


Eve Ensler recently spoke at a TED conference in India, where she introduced the metaphorical concept of the “Girl Cell”, which she argues is found in every person, man or woman, girl or boy. The “Girl Cell” represents compassion, empathy, passion and emotion, and Ensler argues that these feelings have been, and continue to be, squelched by a patriarchal culture which views these traits as inferior to traditionally masculine ones. Compassion is still viewed as a sign of weakness, and we learn from an early age, whether we are male or female, that emotions are dangerous and not to be trusted.

The term “Girl Cell” is problematic. After all, if everyone has these traits, why refer to a cell as if it is embodied in only one gender? Nonetheless, I find Ensler’s underlying message important. The fact is, traditionally feminine traits tend to be discounted and dismissed, even in a culture which gives women themselves more choices than any other time in history. We just encourage the more-masculine choices; our daughters are ushered into offices, while our sons are still encouraged to resist the urge to cry.

I’m thinking about the Girl Cell in the aftermath of watching Lars von Trier’s most recent film, Antichrist, which was met with considerable controversy. Von Trier trafficks in a brand of emotional honesty which is deliberately uncomfortable, and perhaps it is for this reason that hes gained a reputation as a provocateur. Certainly von Trier’s films aim to provoke. His most heralded work, Breaking the Waves, tells the story of a simple, childlike woman named Bess, whose new marriage is brought to a halt when her husband, Jan, an oil rig worker, gets hurt in an accident and becomes paralyzed. He urges her to have sex with other men, as he is no longer able to sexually perform, and she decides to become a prostitute in order to fulfill his wishes. Bess believes that she is performing these acts of sacrifice in order to save Jan, and in the end, we are asked to consider whether Bess’s belief system may in fact actually have been true. Breaking the Waves was the first in von Trier’s “Golden Heart Trilogy,” followed by The Idiots and culminating with Dancer in the Dark.

Many of von Trier’s films share a common thread: a female protagonist who ends up degrading or sacrificing herself to some greater cause. It’s unclear whether or not these women are martyrs. In Breaking the Waves, for example, whether or not you view Bess as a martyr depends heavily upon the way in which you interpret the conclusion. Was God really asking Beth to debase herself for her husband? Has her wish really been granted by the end, as we see her husband, with regained strength, walking outside? Do the bells which appear inexplicably in the sky represent an omniscient perspective or merely Bess’s desires? It’s equally valid to interpret Bess’s actions as ultimately futile, and to see the clanging church bells as a manifestation of God’s will. What is most impressive about von Trier’s work is that he is not afraid to place viewers in the uncomfortable position of reconciling their emotional response with a logical understanding of what is actually happening in physical world.

Women are often the subject of von Trier’s films, and some view his depiction of them as misogynistic. Why else, they argue, would von Trier be so willing to drag his female characters through the mud? To display their vulnerability so unabashedly? These criticisms reached a head in the response to Antichrist, though in this film it can be argued that both the male and female protagonists are equally debased. The film is about a couple who are grieving the death of their child, who falls from a window while they’re having passionate sex in the other room. The man and woman are never given names, referred to only as He (Willem Defoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The wife is completely shattered by their child’s death, and her husband, in an attempt to rescue her from her grief, becomes her therapist. They journey together to their cabin in the woods, the place where She had spent last summer writing her thesis on “Gynocide,” a place which both He and She refer to as Eden. He is convinced that exposure therapy will cure her of her intense sadness. In reality, upon reaching Eden they each descend further and further into madness.

The film is divided into four chapters (Grief, Pain, Despair and the Three Beggars) with a prologue and an epilogue. Though He and She and their child are the only real characters in this film, the natural world itself is anthropomorphized. The world is chaotic and strange, full of real and unreal creatures, and the line between the emotional and physical reality blurs constantly.

For the majority of the film, Antichrist deals directly with sex and pain, but with restraint. The wife wants to mask her pain with sex and the husband does not let her.  In the final quarter, the film descends quickly and unabashedly into madness. The wife briefly overpowers her husband and the graphic sexual violence which ensues is terrifying. When the wife had initially begun working on her thesis in Eden, her intent was to show how events like the witch trials sought to demonize women. When she comes back to Eden she explains to her husband how her research actually led her to conclude the opposite and determine that women actually are evil. Just as the final scenes in Breaking the Waves beg the viewer to determine whether or not Bess actually is a martyr, the final scenes of Antichrist beg the viewer to determine whether the wife’s violence is proof that women really are evil, or whether the wife’s violence is proof of the frightening power of the human consciousness to reinterpret the world in order to try and make sense of a tragedy.
It is von Trier’s insistence upon leaving this question open that makes Antichrist terrifying and, to many critics, infuriating. Many deal with this descent into chaos by labeling the complex symbols found throughout the film as mere shock tactics. In Newsweek, David Ansen claims that:

in the age of Saw IV, Internet pornography, and unending real-life reports of torture and terrorism, aren’t these bad-boy outrages looking a little tired? The shock of the new, after all, is now an old idea. But does it still carry a punch? It’s not that we’ve become inured — you’d have to be half-dead not to shudder at von Trier’s grisly visions. But the artist’s assumption that depicting these violations will open our eyes to mankind’s vile nature — a lesson that can be learned almost daily on the front page of a newspaper — often seems smug and vainglorious, a clichéd subversion. Shock is too easy a shortcut to significance.

Even critics who praise the film feel a need to qualify their admiration, as when Salon.com’s Andrew O’Hehir states that:

it’s tempting to respond to Lars von Trier’s Antichrist purely as an act of provocation, when it’s really a cry of pain, and as such not fully articulate or comprehensible… I’m not here to tell you that Antichrist is a great film, however much I admire its beauty and daring, because I think it’s too damaged and crazy to be a great film. I’m also not here to tell you that it’s a misogynistic abomination made by a sadist, even though that’s one of the reactions von Trier has set out to provoke, and even though many women (and many men) may well decide they don’t want to travel down the dark road into these particular deep woods.

O’Hehir claims that Antichrist is not a great film because it is “damaged,” starting bravely and then collapsing into mere torture porn. To me, this seems like a misreading of von Trier’s achievement. The last scenes of Antichrist are as deliberate as the opening ones. She’s violent assault upon He does not detract from the issues of grieving manifested earlier in the film; the scene, in fact, connects with one of the main subjects wrestled with early on: anxiety about female sexuality. Throughout the time She is mourning, she yearns to fulfill her emptiness with sex, and her husband resists and will not let her. In one particularly telling scene, She attempts to mount her husband and He covers her face with his hands. In the film, the husband’s attempts at calming his wife are coupled with his desire to control her wanton eroticism. The final scenes of sexual sadism have two potential readings, depending on whether you read the film as portraying an objective perspective or shifting between the perspectives of He and She. They either confirm the horrors of unchecked female emotion and sexuality, or else illustrate just how far He has sunk into his own pit of emotional and existential despair. By the end of the film it is unclear what is real and what is not real. Is the wife actually sexually assaulting her husband, or is He imagining his wife to be doing so? I tend to agree more with the latter, since there is a slow change as the film progresses, wherein the husband begins to slowly lose control over his environment and his logical understanding of the world around him.

There are many films, heralded as great art, which look at male sexuality as brutal, for example, as an effect of trying to cope with the traumatic stress of war, for example. But when we see a truly complex and emotionally resonant female character engaged in the same type of behavior, we tend to discount the images as some kind of violent spectacle, rather than something worthy of further investigation. One of the main reasons I believe that these critics regard Antichrist as a mere blip of sensationalism in the history of filmmaking, rather than a work of great art, has to do with this subject matter; the fact that, in essence, Antichrist is not merely a film about grieving, but a film about confronting anxieties about female sexuality that we as a culture are already convinced we have worked through. It’s an anxiety that not many male filmmakers in a post-Freudian, post-Feminist world deem worthy of investigation.

In my opinion, Lars von Trier’s films are effective primarily because he is not afraid of creating complex female characters. Von Trier’s female protagonists refuse to be either good or bad, smart or dumb, sexual or virginal; they are neither reduced to mere sex objects, nor crafted into some kind of paper-thin Girl Power archetype. Likewise, he refuses to say that the emotional lives of his characters are, in any way, less important to investigate than something like politics or war. In a year when a female director won a Best Picture award for telling a compelling and interesting war story, I wish a male director would be heralded when telling a story which is a compelling, emotional investigation of grief. The Academy (as well as film viewers) clearly still view one story as more important than the the other.

The final scene of the film (post-sexual sadism) depicts the husband, alone, desperately trying to make his way home through the woods, suddenly confronted by rows and rows of faceless women. The end of this film is not frightening simply because it’s gory; it is frightening because it takes an unflinching look at the power and complexity of our emotional lives, a power so great that it might in fact destroy us. It is the unconscious mind, rather than any external demon, that ultimately leads to the couple’s downfall, and what is ultimately so unsettling about it is is the recognition that this inner world we experience every day is something beyond our control.

Arielle Bernstein's writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and AV Club. She teaches writing at American University and is working on both a novel and memoir. More from this author →