Serial provocteur Lars von Trier surely expected and welcomed an extreme reaction when he put out Antichrist in 2009. Aside from its scenes of graphic unsimulated sex and even more graphic simulated sexual violence, there were the political implications of a force-of-nature woman driven to insanely destructive behavior despite the efforts of her rational husband to maintain control. That Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character is named “She” implies that the maniac she portrayed represents her entire gender. Same situation for Willem Dafoe’s “He.” With such surface elements in place, it’s no surprise that a lot of critics branded Antichrist an extreme piece of misogynistic trash unworthy of deeper examination and its creator a monster.
When I placed Antichrist on Psychobabble’s list of the 150 Essential Horror Movies back in 2011, I joined a small group of viewers who saw the film not as a work of misogyny but an unflinching examination of misogyny. Von Trier refused to explain which side of the fence on which his film actually stands despite the tactless demands he do so from interviewers at its notorious Cannes screening. I personally believe it is the artist’s right—perhaps the artist’s duty—to remain mum on his or her intentions, allowing the viewer to do a little work to uncover meaning, and though I also tend to lose patience with the over-analysis of art, Antichrist is a film that most definitely demands deeper analysis than it received in the mass of reviews (including my own slight 580-word write up in that “Essential Horror Movies” piece). So I’m grateful that Amy Simmons both selected Antichrist for her installment of The Devil’s Advocates series and had the insight to jab her X-Acto knife deeper than the film’s skin of misogyny and into its underlying themes about the patriarchy’s monstrous control (one of the most consistent controlling threads throughout the work of a filmmaker regularly accused of being a misogynist).
While I largely read the book yelling “Right on!” to opinions I already held, Simmons also helped me gain new insight into the film’s more mysterious elements, like the roles of the three animal “Beggars” and the implications of She deliberately allowing the film’s tragic initiating event to happen. Simmons also respects art enough to allow certain seemingly impenetrable elements, such as the film’s rapturously haunting final scene, speak for themselves without wielding her analytical knife sloppily. I only hope that the legions of anti-Antichrist viewers open her book and have the open minds to revisit an unfairly maligned and immensely powerful film with fresh perspectives.