18 Jul 2009: Does Lars Von Trier really have a problem with women? And if so, where does that leave the rest of the movie industry, asks Amy Raphael

What is absolutely not in doubt is Lars Von Trier‘s considerable talent to offend and enrage. What is less clear is where his intentions actually lie. His latest film, Antichrist, is divisive even by his high standards. Those declaring it a masterpiece acknowledge its outré weirdness, but most who dislike it talk of Von Trier’s blatant misogyny. One critic was so enraged after Antichrist’s Cannes outing, she was moved to write, “Lars Von Trier, we get it. You really, really don’t like women.”

  • Antichrist
  • Production year: 2009
  • Country: Rest of the world
  • Cert (UK): 18
  • Runtime: 108 mins
  • Directors: Lars von Trier
  • Cast: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Dafoe
  • More on this film

The offending scenes in this story involve a Charlotte Gainsbourg mutilating her own genitals with a pair of scissors and pounding those of her husband Willem Dafoe with a log. There’s more, but we’ll stop there. Von Trier talks of being driven to make Antichrist during the depths of a lengthy depression and has said: “My only defence is: ‘Forgive me, for I know not what I do.'”

But if Von Trier didn’t know what he was doing, why did he hire a “misogyny consultant” on Antichrist? Apparently the consultant’s job was to “furnish ‘proof’ of ‘the fact’ that women are evil, beginning with Eve and the apple, through Shakespeare and in modern society”.

It’s possible, though, that Antichrist is not a film by a misogynistic director who’s tumbled into the abyss and more an exercise in alternative theology. Von Trier, who converted to Catholicism at 30, might be “simply” revealing a world created by Satan and not God – and as such, it’s a fantastical world based only loosely on reality.

Antichrist certainly looks amazing – it’s atmospheric, lush and spooky and, near the end especially, not unlike Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden Of Earthly Delights – but it’s not easy to watch. Even Gainsbourg found it tough to see the self-mutilation scene on screen, but she has also consistently said that she trusted Von Trier and found him to be generous and respectful, which is interesting because he has a reputation for putting his female leads through the wringer. Björk won the Best Actress prize in Cannes for Dancer In The Dark, but the story goes that she grew so frustrated on set she tried to eat her own cardigan. For much of Dogville’s three-hour running time Nicole Kidman is beaten, chained and raped. And poor Emily Watson gradually became a brutalised prostitute in Breaking The Waves. Can you see a pattern here?

On the other hand, one can think of dozens of movies that would have benefitted far more from the services of a misogyny consultant, both high-testosterone action wank-offs in which the women’s wardrobe department contains only various styles of bikini (eg Crank), and sugar-coated chick flicks in which the female brain is solely occupied with shoes, chocolate and the eligibility of men (eg Confessions Of A Shopaholic, Bridget Jones’s Diary, etc).

At the very least, Von Trier should be applauded for acknowledging and confronting his demons so honestly. Whether you think he’s God or Satan is up to you.