One of the Most Controversial Films of the 21st Century
By Kaleb Morgan
Lars von Trier has been a pioneer in film and a controversy since his first polarizing full length movie “Breaking the Waves” in 1994. While his most recent film “The Houses Jack Built” was shaking at Cannes Film Festival, there is one movie that causes immense discomfort and argument. That film is “Antichrist” released in 2009. The movie has been called sexist and misogynistic, while people on the other side of the audience claim it is groundbreaking in feminist horror. There are valid points to both sides, but one must look at the film’s themes and devices with a more critical lens. This movie was written shortly after Lars von Trier left a mental hospital for being admitted with severe clinical depression. The rawness of that pain is evident in the film as the director tackles topics like ideas of gender, toxic masculinity, internalized misogyny and depression which are portrayed underneath a plotline filled with grief and pain.
An overarching theme and issue in this film is toxic masculinity and sexism. This form of denigration steepens and perpetuates the mental health issues that the main character, She, experiences throughout the film. The other main character, He, who is debatably the antagonist, is a failed psychiatrist who misdiagnoses his wife She. His pride pulls her away from prescribed medications and treatments so that he may satiate his own hubris, all the while manipulating her with his treatment. This arrogance takes the couple to a forest named Eden and He pushes her further into his warped ideas of treatment through exposure. She drowns in her neurotic breakdowns and uses sex as a way of healing, as Wess Haubrich points out, “Throughout She’s treatment, She craves sex with He as a way to temporarily ease her pain and heal. Never mind that we start to see She shatter and He’s treatment do absolutely nothing – unlike a real doctor, He refuses to modify the treatment with the results, believing that his version of exposure therapy is the only treatment that will allay her grief.” (Haubrich). It seems to the viewer and She that He only cares about his wife when he is treating her as a patient, She goes on to say to He, “You’ve never been interested in me until I was your patient…you’re indifferent to whether or not your child is alive.” He cares much more about the outcome of his treatment that He does for the well-being of She. Another example of misogyny is that He treats her work as if it is somehow less than his. She starts the film as someone who is wary of feminism, her major was gender studies and her thesis was titled Gynocide, which is the wrongful killing of people who identify as female. Her thesis was focused on disproving this atrocity in a historical sense and it is evident that He doesn’t recognize this topic as an intellectual thesis. This disrespect of her academics and his manipulation encourages her already brewing internalized misogyny that she fully adopts later in the film.
She is someone who internalizes her emotions and experiences, so as She faces this disrespect and continuous condescension from her husband, it materializes into a reality for her. Throughout the film She is very meek and powerless from her husband’s lack of support, her self-respect dwindles and becomes self-hatred as her husband indirectly calls her delirious. This self-hatred is a seed that we see growing after her hospitalization when we see her slam her head bloody into a toilet seat. The dismission of her thesis and constant demeaning transcends her self-hatred to transform into a hatred towards women, as Kate Hagen aptly points out in her article for Blacklist, “Most disturbingly, He discovers that in trying to disprove notions about historical gynocide, She has become convinced that women are inherently evil. With this, ANTICHRIST explores how She has internalized misogyny to the point where it’s poisoned her entire worldview and her ideas about herself and all women, and He has helped foster and support these ideas in her through daily, casual derision of her entire self.” (Hagen). She has been to Eden before to seclude herself to study her thesis, in her time there she began to dive into the occult. She includes witches and covens in her thesis work, which we discover in the film to be nearly incoherent scribblings. However, in these scribbles we see the ideas of the witches of the forest fleshed out to a certain degree. From this She recognizes that women and nature are interchangeable. This is especially shaking when She says, “Nature is Satan’s Church.” He thinks this is a fear of nature due to his ignorance, but She is claiming that women are inherently evil by saying this. Like many third-wave feminists, She is very in touch with her sexuality and at the peak of her neurotic breakdowns she severs her clitoris as a means to disconnect with her femininity but in doing so she also releases herself from the sexual reliance She has on He and steps fully into her identity of a woman and her solidarity in feminism.
This film adopts a feminist take in the second act. While her progression towards feminism is slow, it also happens in the throes of her internalized misogyny that Lars von Trier uses to highlight the absurdity of chauvinistic sexism. Using this as a satire is a way to have a darkest night before the dawn. She finds her strength in the second half of the film and this is fueled by the anger towards her husband. She uses a wooden log to mutilate his erect penis, which is symbolic of crippling his manhood. She then screws a grindstone into his leg and buries him in the meadow outside of their cabin in Eden. This is when she establishes her femme fatale dominance. After a guilt trip she digs him up and take him back to the cabin, this is when she severs her clitoris, after attempting to have sex and failing. Kate Longworth argues for the feminist motif saying, “Von Trier’s heroine takes the opposite route-she transforms from victim to perpetrator-but her crimes, though born from sexual hysteria, aren’t unjustifiable. Von Trier goes out of his way to depict Dafoe as an unbearably condescending scold who privileges his own professional success to his wife’s while depriving her of basic physical comforts. In classic horror movie formula, desire repressed always comes back as vengeance, and Antichrist defies any viewer with a feel for that formula to not, on some level, get excited by the woman’s revenge.” (Longworth). She stabs her Husband and then He kills her. Her soul transcends mortal form to join the coven she hypothesized. He represents and idiocy of the patriarchal construct, his failings as a psychologist and his lack of understanding is endemic of the patriarchy It is her femininity that takes down her abuser. The movie shows the fragility of traditional, conventional marriage in their struggling relationship. The end shows He being surrounded by hundreds of women that exact their revenge in a moment of vengeance for the wrongdoing of centuries of violence towards women, gynocide.
Despite so many knee-jerk reactions, this film is truly feminist. She is both the protagonist and the antagonist. She is the suspense-inducing killer and the crowd favorite avenger. There are critiques that are worth noting towards Lars von Trier as a director and the gender identity politics in the film “Antichrist” and those are valid, however, this movie tackles topics in a way other movies in the genre are too shallow to. Lars von Trier took a leap to address the intricacies of gender, sexism and mental health, and he did so successfully.
Hagen, Kate. “31 Days of Feminist Horror Films: ANTICHRIST+POSSESSION.” Blacklist, 30 October 2016,
Accessed 2 December 2018.
Haubrich, Wess. “Nihilism, clinical depression, and ‘Satan’s Church’ in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.” The 405,
Accessed 2 December 2018.
Longworth, Karina. “Why ‘Antichrist’ Is A Feminist Horror Film” Slate, 23 October 2009,
Accessed 2 December 2018.