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In Praise of Von Trier-ian Excess, Or: Someday, You Will Ache Like I Ache

This is a guest post from the fabulous Annaham! Please note that the post includes some discussions of graphic violence as depicted in the film. 

So here’s my deep, dark, not-quite-feminist secret: I think Lars von Trier has made some great films. Just to be specific from the outset: I’m not here to defend his ridiculous Nazi comments last year at Cannes (why, why, WHY would you think that is an okay thing to say, Lars? WHY), for which he was rightfully blacklisted from the festival indefinitely, or to talk about his totally bizarre and pretty stereotypical approach to disability in most of his work (in the creepy universe of Breaking the Waves, becoming paralyzed means that one’s sex life is OVER FOREVER, and in The Idiots, pretending to be mentally impaired is a way to ultimate “freedom” from societal mores…yeah, there is no way that I am going to defend that), nor to convince you that Dogville, though interesting, wasn’t about an hour and a half too long and majorly laying it on thick with pretension. No: I am here to talk about why some of (though not all—ahem, hi again, Dogville!) von Trier’s women characters speak to me, and why I love Antichrist in particular.

Antichrist is not an “enjoyable” film in the classic sense of the term. But it is powerful. Most significantly, it shows a woman who is struggling with deep emotional pain; one could argue that this film shows too much, that it has an excess of emotion and therefore relegates its leading lady to an essentialist stereotype of what it means to be a woman. At the same time that there has been something of an unprecedented representation of “strong” women characters across different types of media—this differs, of course, by race, class, sexuality, and ability—there has been a disavowal of women characters showing “too much” emotion for a given circumstance.

Unfortunately, sometimes this translates into a sort of Tough Guy mentality wherein actual women—particularly women who are not white, heterosexual, middle-class, cisgender, able-bodied, and/or who live without psychiatric or neurological conditions—are told (very often by other women) to “toughen up” as a means of supposedly improving the overall lot of women in kyriarchal culture. Many of us have been admonished against writing or talking about our experiences with any degree of honesty (and often with some sort of emotion, because talking about difficult issues, believe it or not, tends to make the person doing the telling feel stuff) is “too girly” or “too stereotypical” and makes people with more privilege unable to take us seriously because of all of that emotion and feeling that poisons our otherwise reasonable arguments!

If I may digress for a minute, as a woman with both depression and a chronic pain condition, I have seen this tactic play out quite a bit in some of my experiences with the medical community: either you couldn’t be in that much pain because you are “so articulate” and “describe your symptoms in such a detached way” for a woman who supposedly experiences chronic pain; that, or you must be making up your physical symptoms because women do that all the time for the attention, or your pain must be psychosomatic since women tend to have somatic syndromes where they get emotional and physical “pain” confused. Doctors have pulled the latter out in my presence; so have other women.

Those of us who have been accused of conforming to “stereotypes” of women because of our pain are either not emotional enough when it comes to that pain, or too emotional about it; either way, we’re lacking. Demanding that people take your pain seriously—whether it is emotional, physical, or both—is fraught when you are a member of a group that has, historically, had the pain that some of its members experience connected with the supposed weakness of that group as a whole. (This also tends to play out a lot with regards to how nondisabled people view people with disabilities, regardless of gender.) And yes, sometimes I have felt like screaming at certain people, “If you could feel how I feel every goddamned day, you’d understand.” In short, there are times when that memorable line in Hole’s song “Doll Parts”—someday, you will ache like I ache—is not purely abstract for me, mean as that may sound.

Which is, in part, why I love Antichrist so much and particularly its leading lady’s LOOK AT MY PAIN, LOOK AT IT AND TAKE IT SERIOUSLY, BECAUSE OTHERWISE I AM GOING TO MAKE YOU PAY ATTENTION attitude that runs throughout the entire film, rather like the huge grains of salt that are sprinkled throughout a delicious sea salt caramel gelato. Antichrist (2009) begins with a beautifully filmed and monumentally unsettling sequence—set to the aria from Ronaldo—that depicts a young child falling out of a high window to his death, while the child’s parents are having sex and thus too distracted to be looking after him. “Beautifully filmed and monumentally unsettling” could describe the entire duration of Antichrist, and for this reason, it is not an easy film to watch.

Many critics—and feminists—did not like Antichrist, and it is pretty easy to see why. It is about a woman who falls apart from grief, and who does so rather spectacularly and violently. In the course of nearly two hours, this woman (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, a French musician who also has a pretty impressive resume as an actress) goes from grief-stricken to physically ill to ridden with panic attacks to highly sexual, and finally to stunningly violent—against her husband (portrayed by Willem Dafoe) and herself.

A lot of people point to Antichrist as supposedly irrefutable evidence of von Trier’s misogyny; I wish I could just go with the flow there and agree with most people, but the thing is, I can’t. In terms of Feelings, I find almost too much meaning in this film, and sort of identify with this woman who outright feels so much, and displays those feelings—no matter how ugly, weird and dangerous—in increasingly intense ways.

Certainly, I am not about to go rampaging through the forest after knocking a dude unconscious by hitting him in the genital area with a piece of wood with such force that the pain makes him pass out, attaching a heavy stone to his leg using a drill bit, and then giving him a hand job until blood erupts from his member, but on some level I do understand that severe emotional pain makes you want to do weird shit that is often not entirely healthy—mostly because I myself have experienced (and sometimes continue to! Thanks, depression) some heady emotional issues.

Let me be clear: I do not want to suggest that all people with depression—or all people with mental illness—act out like this, or want to, or commit violence as Gainsbourg’s character does in the film. Most people with mental illness do not hurt others in so graphic a manner, although it is a common stereotype that people with all types of mental illness are crazy and therefore violent. (In fact, people with mental illness are statistically more likely to be victims of violent crime rather than perpetrators of it, though you wouldn’t know it from the way that popular culture portrays people with mental illnesses.) But part of the reason that Antichrist speaks to me so profoundly is that it shows a woman—a woman in pain—fighting back, albeit very violently. She fights back not only against her own fear of that pain, but against the forces that attempt to convince her that her pain is wrong, that she is going about dealing with it incorrectly, and that her feelings about her pain are also wrong.

The other thing that intrigues me about Antichrist is its point that sometimes, people who have good intentions—and who may think that they are the only ones who can solve your problem because of how rational and special and normal they are—end up being the worst at helping you. (I am also pretty sure that is one of the hallmarks of codependency.) Paradoxically, and probably weirdly for a depressed woman, the thing I like about Gainsbourg’s character in Antichrist is that she is so “out of control”; unlike Dafoe’s character, she is not afraid to feel, and act, once she stops being scared of facing her pain. She is the “hysterical woman” taken to the extreme. Dafoe’s character, meanwhile, is convinced that because he is so Rational and Awesome and Has Training in This Anxiety Thing, he can save her (this, even though they are romantic partners!). As it turns out, he tries to “help” her and make himself responsible for getting her back on her feet, and it all goes to shit because he cannot see past his own hubris.

Part of the reason, I think, that so many people hated Antichrist was because of what happens to the dude character. The woman is violent toward him! She’s so crazy! And then she dies at the end, because that is the price she pays for hurting him so graphically! As Roger Ebert pointed out in his early review of the film, however, both of the characters hurt each other in increasingly horrible ways—the dude, known only as “He,” tries to cure his partner of her excessive grief by convincing her that he’s totally in the right and that he can help her get better, and by denying the reality of her pain (“I think [the doctor] is giving you too much medication,” he says early in the film…to which I say, YOUR CHILD JUST DIED BY FALLING OUT OF A WINDOW, ASSHOLE, OF COURSE SOME PEOPLE NEED MEDICATION-BASED HELP, IN ADDITION TO THERAPY BY A PERSON TO WHOM THEY ARE NOT MARRIED, TO DEAL WITH THAT SORT OF TRAUMA); she responds by trying to castrate him and then mortally wound him. Gainsbourg’s character feels, and she enacts those feelings.

What I like about her, strangely, is that she so desperately wants to be heard and taken seriously at any cost. Ultimately—and troublingly, particularly at the film’s end—that’s exactly what happens. The end of the film is the part that I have more traditional, capital-I feminist Issues with, mostly because it seems to imply that a.) women’s emotions are dangerous when allowed to run “wild,” and therefore must be controlled by more “rational” forces, and b.) women are inherently connected to nature to the point of disaster. There’s that beautiful shot [NSFW] of Gainsbourg’s character—nude from the waist down after she mutilates her own genitals—lying next to some animals that have mysteriously appeared in the cabin. I simultaneously love this image for its composition and loathe it for what it implies: that Gainsbourg’s character, despite the fact that she will face her pain head-on and she will feel All the Feelings, is ultimately too wild, too dangerous, and in too much pain—and therefore must be contained. I am also not sure that I would call her a “heroine” without reservation.

A large part of my reluctance in calling her a “heroine” is because we’re not really used to “heroines” like this, as a movie-going public. At least in popular cinema, we’re used to “strong female characters” who are conventionally attractive, who know just the right moment to deliver a funny quip (but not too funny, usually), who are “Hollywood awkward” or “Hollywood ugly” as if those two depictions are ever realistic. They usually look pretty good most of the time, and get their happy ending after some sort of “struggle” or conflict that is not really either. Gainsbourg’s character in Antichrist gets ugly. She struggles. She spends a large portion of the film weeping, staring blankly, having panic attacks, having sex, or becoming covered in dirt and scratches from wandering through the forest. She is by turns sad, angry, messy (both emotionally and physically), spookily quiet, jubilant, frustrated, anxious, pissed off, loud, bloody, sexual, and extremely dangerous. She is, at times, grief personified.

She is, in other words, excessive. She’s not going to go down without a fight, and oh, how much excess there is in that fight. Her sexuality is excessive, as is her grief and emotional pain. And part of what is so unsettling about her character is that some of us can relate to being told that parts of us are excessive, too much, too emotional, too confrontational, in too much pain to be taken seriously, or something equally horrendous and sexist. The thing about Antichrist that excites me—even with the gross ending—is this: it reminds me that we can fight back. To some it may be yet another entry, albeit with great cinematography, in the oh-so-gory and misogynistic cannon of “revenge flicks”—think of the critical response that “trashy” woman-wronged films like I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Baise-Moi (2000) have received—but to some of us, Antichrist means something more. It means possibility, even with the complex Feelings it inspires and even with (or perhaps because of!) decades of academic feminist film theory. The great cinematography helps too, though.

Annaham is a cartoonist, writer and occasional blogger with feminist leanings and a chronic pain condition. You can keep up with her thoughts on a variety of different topics at her blog.

12 Comments

  1. Aimee wrote:

    Great post, Annaham, especially following Flavia’s post about anger, another “excessive” feeling.

    I won’t defend his behavior at Cannes either, but I’ve been saying for years that von Trier’s films call attention to misogyny, and for me that does not equate to their being misogynist. (I don’t know if the same applies to the ableism in Breaking the Waves or Dancer in the Dark, and I haven’t seen The Idiots. You’ve given me something to think about.)

    I just wanted to mention that, in my reading of the film, the woman’s thesis on witch-hunts is extremely important. As she internalizes the misogynist ideas she’s researching, compounding her husband’s disapproval and her own feelings of guilt, her grief and pain become twisted into violent acts of despair. What was natural has become monstrous, like the uncanny and horrific animal imagery in the film.

    (Of course, there’s much more going on in the film, but this comment has to end sometime.)

    Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 10:26 pm | Permalink
  2. Annaham wrote:

    Thanks for your comment, Aimee. That is a GREAT point about the witch-hunt motif and the animal imagery–the internalization of misogyny is, I think, a really important aspect of the film that a lot of the reviews left out.

    Sidenote: I also think Dancer in the Dark is better with regards to its treatment of disability than, say, The Idiots. It’s not perfect, of course, but I think Selma’s coping mechanism in the face of her encroaching blindness is super interesting.

    Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Permalink
  3. Brenda wrote:

    Love this! When I saw Antichrist I really struggled to express why I didn’t think it was (necessarily) misogynist; this (and Aimee’s comment, OMG) helps a lot.

    Friday, February 24, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink
  4. erika wrote:

    Heyya Anna :) Erika from LJ here!

    I thoroughly enjoyed this read…Von Trier’s films speak to me in ways that other white, male film directors’ works do not.

    He has certainly said some really shitty things, even in jest — “[Von Trier] explained how he got the idea for the upcoming project: ‘my DP on [Melancholia], Manuel Claro, at one point voiced a surprising prejudice. He urged me not to fall into the trap that so many aging directors fall into – that the women get younger and younger and nuder and nuder. That’s all I needed to hear. I most definitely intend for the women in my films to get younger and younger and nuder and nuder.’” –

    But his female characters are so deep, and so much more fleshed out than other directors’. Melancholia in particular deeply moved me, because Kirstin Dunst’s character’s depression and the way she is in the end really was realistically portrayed and I could relate to it so much, due to my own bouts of depression.

    Friday, February 24, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  5. Annaham wrote:

    @Brenda: I’m so glad it cleared some stuff up for you!

    @Erika: HEEEEEEY. :D I personally think that Claro was right on in pointing that out, and von Trier’s response is…well, pretty disturbing! I was also going to cover Melancholia in this post (it was my favorite film of 2011), but sort of got carried away with Antichrist. WHEE.

    Friday, February 24, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink
  6. Lovisa wrote:

    I have to say that I really liked the ending of melancholia, because I saw an element of revenge in there, of the “rational” man who tried to contain women, make them hold back, heal into what he wanted, and how he failed so much. Ok that nature has all those connotations of mother earth and so on, but I still liked the idea of generations of women standing up and more or less saying that no, you are wrong, you do not understand this better then us.

    Monday, February 27, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink
  7. Catherine wrote:

    on a side topic

    “either you couldn’t be in that much pain because you are “so articulate” and “describe your symptoms in such a detached way” for a woman who supposedly experiences chronic pain;”

    I have built my chronic pain beginner’s kit. When you are in chronic pain, you have *time* to work out how it hurts, might even make a game of it in hopes to make the pain a bit more bearable, and some of us (like me) live in hopes that an articulate and detached description might help someone in the medical profession make it go away. thank yo for letting me know this may indeed be a fail.

    I return you to your director.

    Monday, February 27, 2012 at 11:14 am | Permalink
  8. Tamarind wrote:

    I haven’t seen this movie but loved your post. In your description of the ending I thought of Atwood’s Surfacing – might that have been an influence do you think?

    Monday, February 27, 2012 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  9. Annaham wrote:

    @Lovisa: Yes, that is a FABULOUS point about Melancholia! I especially liked how the trope of the oh-so-rational dude character was in there, again–and yet when shit started to get real, he was the one who simply could not handle it.

    @Catherine: I think that the whole being articulate thing is really a huge fail on the part of the people who are not in pain (sometimes doctors, sometimes friends and relatives) who *demand* that we be articulate, “rational” and detached about our pain, even though it REALLY REALLY REALLY hurts. There’s no way to win: If we’re articulate and detached about it, it can’t be bothering us *that* much, but if we’re not (or, Cthulhu forbid, GET EMOTIONAL about it!) we’re just hysterical wimminz looking for attention, or something. Good comment!

    @Tamarind: I should probably read Surfacing again. :)

    Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  10. Sarah wrote:

    I think you are forgetting a significant moment in the film. What I believe is incredibly poignant is when Willem receives his son’s autopsy and sees the broken feet. Charlotte had been putting her son’s shoes on the wrong feet. You see a flash of her tying a shoe on the wrong foot and not paying attention while the son weeps. Willem then finds her crazed journals full of ideas about the evil of women from <> the accident.

    This is the punchline of the film. Although She goes “insane with grief” after her son’s death, the game changer is that she has always been cruel / “evil” (as Lars seems to think). It is just the son’s death that brings this cruelty to the surface.

    Thus, it is not a particularly feminist message. It is not about a woman experiencing her feelings in a world where she is denied being allowed to feel. It is about the inherent evil of women, inherent since she had it before the accident. This idea is furthered in the final hill, as the wild faceless women storm the hill and surround Willem.

    Honestly, I love the movie but it is mad sexist, brah.

    Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink
  11. Sarah wrote:

    **from before the accident

    Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink
  12. Hi sarah! As I remember correctly, she started putting the shoes on the wrong feet after her first trip to Eden, where the internalising of misogyny really started getting to her. So the message still stands.

    Sunday, March 18, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Permalink