“The crying woman is a scheming woman.”
-She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Antichrist
Since hearing about Antichrist last spring, I’ve been eager to see the film and gauge the hype in relation to the content. This week, my “Gender and Horror Films” class was charged with watching the film after a failed attempt (technical difficulties) to watch it as a group. Tired from travel, I watched it in a daze which resulted in a very disturbing first viewing (note for future reference: slipping in and out of consciousness during scenes of genital violence burns these images into your brain). To be sure I’d grasped it in all its complexity, I rewatched the film a second time in the light of day. It proved less traumatizing and more easily digestible this time around, but still troubling for its ideologically problematic content. Find the film’s trailer below:
First things first, a brief run-down: the film opens with a highly stylized, melodramatic sequence in which a toddler falls from an open apartment window while his parents (Charlotte Gainsbourg, unnamed and credited as “She,” and Willem Defoe, likewise listed as “He”) have sex. Burdened with grief and guilt over her child’s death, She receives psychiatric treatment including powerful meds. He, who happens to be a therapist, disagrees with this regimen, insisting that She cut out the pills and focus on confronting her emotions. This inspires the couple to take a trip to their cabin out in the woods, a space that He identifies as one that She greatly fears. After several attempts to get her to face her fears, She seems to respond positively to the exercises claiming to be no longer afraid. Soon thereafter, however, He discovers some disturbing notes and pictures when looking over her research materials and She attacks him. After some grueling scenes of genital mutilation and torture, He strangles her before hiking up the mountain and away from the cabin. Following closely behind him: a swarm of women with pixelated faces, presumably out to finish what She started.
The question for me: can Antichrist possibly be interpreted as a feminist film in any sense? On the surface, I would say no. The film clearly aligns women with nature and its indifferent (scratch that, evil) power, suggesting that women compulsively harm men. The primary female character even recognizes this essential female evil after researching witchcraft for her master’s thesis (thank god I didn’t take my thesis topic so literally). Can a feminist reader work around these problems to develop a coherent progressive reading?
The misogyny is self-evident from the plot trajectory, but the narrative structure also lends itself to this interpretation with flashbacks that suggest She watched her son approach the window before plumetting to his death. He also discovers multiple pictures taken by his wife in which She put her son’s shoes on backwards (an accompanying flashback indicates this caused her son pain, as does a medical examiner’s report that notes foot deformities in the child). This newly-aquired knowledge on the viewer’s part puts earlier scenes in which She expresses regret for her son’s death in a different light.
Still, I’m willing to entertain the possibility that Antichrist contains the seeds of an alternate reading. One of my fellow classmates suggested that Antichrist could be read as a “reimagining” of the Charlotte Perkins Stetson short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.” That tale also features a wife treated for depression by her husband. His insistence that she remain confined against her wishes leads to her madness, despite her protests. Re-reading “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I can see my classmate’s point: like the husband in the short story, He regularly dismisses his wife’s concerns as irrational, calling upon his authority as a therapist and as a husband (He in Antichrist: “No one knows you better than I do”; the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper”: “It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.”) to disempower his wife. For these reasons, the husbands cause their wives’ psychoses more so than the initial depression.
But while “The Yellow Wallpaper” generates sympathy for its female protagonist by showing how her madness results from her treatment for post-partum depression due to its cruelty, Antichrist seems to suggest that by forcing her to confront her fears and embrace nature, He awakens a dormant evil inherent in all women. As a result, the film tranfers blame from the husband specifically to womankind as a whole. Few films have depicted a hatred for women so blatantly.
The only means of salvaging the film for a progressive reading would be to suggest that either a) the violent expressions of She consitute an act of resistence on the wife’s part or b) the events that unfold late in the film represent a kind of projection on the part of the husband. In both cases, the film might be seen as a critique of the very thing it portrays. The interpretative acrobatics required to make these readings work, however, weaken their plausibility.
Of course, I would welcome others to see the film and tell me what they think about it. Please post any of your ideas in the comments section below!