In horror cinema, we are caught up between the prospects of good and evil where the audience is inclined to find the light at the end of the tunnel. As modern cinema evolves we have come to find that more often than not, it is chaos that ultimately reigns. Happy endings are lost and final girls often become as guilty as their killers. However, it begs the question, are these portrayals of complicated women equivalent to empowering feminist discourse or are they an excuse for misogynistic depictions perpetuated by the male gaze?
As you know I’m trash for horror and suspense and diving deeper fuels my obsessions. I will be analyzing Laura Mulvey’s theory of psychoanalysis and castration through Lars von Trier 2009 film Antichrist to deconstruct phallocentrism.
Antichrist is the first film of Von Triers Infamous Depression Trilogy where its name becomes the main theme. The film is divided into six chapters following a couple’s journey, He and She, coping with grief from the loss of their only child. He, being a therapist, tries to comfort and treat his wife through her growing depression and self-blame. They decide to go to a cabin in the woods in a place called Eden where she once spent a summer working on a thesis about gynocide. It is through this journey that everything begins spiraling out of control as she falls into a psychotic depression causing her to have delusions and act on uncontrollable sexual urges that often turn violent with her partner. Through her delusions, she becomes fixated on the central idea of genocide in which “nature is the church of Satan” and therefore, women are inherently evil. As the film progresses it appears as they begin to experience a case of folie a deux.
She begins to accuse him of wanting to leave her and forcefully haves sex with him after knocking him unconscious by smashing a piece of wood on his testicles. As he lays unconscious she bolts a stone through his leg and buries him. After a while, she regrets what she has done and unburies him helping him back into their cabin. She tells him that someone has to die when the three beggars arrive as she has a flashback to the day their son died. The audience is able to witness that she saw her son climb onto the window but did nothing to stop him. Consequently, taken by grief, she grabs scissors and mutilates her sexual organs. She then stabs her husband with them but is unable to kill him which results in him overpowering her and strangling her to death.
Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema” explores psychoanalysis as a political statement where she exposes how the patriarchal paradigm has structured the role of women in society. We are easily able to correlate Mulvey’s theory with the role of She’s husband where her suffering becomes unable to be justified unless given purpose through a male entity thus suggesting to the reality of her grief being caused through her role as a mother from the death of her child. This is where a “woman’s desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound, she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it.”
As she is engulfed by her psychosis she has the need to take revenge for the oppression and subjection she has faced as a woman, mother, and wife from her husband’s lack of support and constant dehumanization as his patient. This leads her to physically attempt to castrate him in order to free herself from the “frustration experienced under the phallocentric order.” The death of her child works in relation as a symbol of her personal castration, she stands powerless as a women “in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other… in which a male can live out his fantasies and obsessions.”
In the film, the audience is able to experience these fantasies through conventional scopophilia by the male gaze portrayed through violent scenes of sexual intercourse and masturbation. Her body and self, are explicitly objectified in the “traditional exhibitionist role, [where] women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” However, the Triers female character challenges this voyeurism and pleasure from spectacle by purposely drawing the gaze to her sexualization and then abruptly destroying the objectifying gaze through the explicit and graphic castration of the male characters phallic member.
Her self-inflicted physical castration evolves from her symbolic castration being the loss of her child and will. It is in the cabin where she mutilates herself that Von Trier captures pain and suffering as a truth of life rather than a violent act towards women. Antichrist shows no redemption from both male and female characters, they become both at fault for their own delusions and actions. He is a victim of his own ego and subjugation towards her that in return she harms his seed and unintentionally kills the only connection that holds them physically. While showing no form of physical violence prior to their child’s death most of their suffering is seen through mental anguish through the black and white images of sexual intercourse leading up to the child’s death.
Mulveys analyzes that “the silent image of [a] woman still tied to her place [sunjects her ] as the bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” thus characterizing women to be untamed, unteachable, and barbaric. It is this belief of women being bound to an animalistic nature that the female character falls victim of. It is her growing anxiety from her personal life and her fixation in her studies on Gynocide that she begins to believe that perhaps if she was able to commit destructive crimes against her child and partner willingly then perhaps the concept of women being naturally evil was the ultimate truth.
. The female character challenges the final girl trope, she is not a victim of the misogynistic society trusted at her but rather an executioner of her own demise and that of those around her. She does not seek to surpass her psychological pain but rather make it tangible as punishment. Her mania as we come to learn began before the death of their child where she purposely deformed her his feet by putting on his shoes wrong to harm a part of her partner in solitude. She then perpetuated the violence committed against her in Eden to justify and punish the psychological misconduct of her partner.
Through her studies and actions, we see her being succumbed by the idea that her sexuality and her ability to reproduce are to be held responsible for the evil in the world and the evil directed at women. It is her castration and that of her partners that act as liberation from nature. As Mulvey states, “The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world”. She is taking justified revenge not only for her but for all women who have been affected by the patriarchal paradigm and the objectification that curses their existence. His intention was not to comfort her through her grief but to be placed on a pedestal for being the one held responsible for curing her. Her death while at the hands of a male it rationalizes that toxic masculinity and the fragility of the ego is legitimized. It centers the oppressor as the ultimate evil and holds men responsible for their actions against women.
Antichrist has had mixed reviews on whether it’s one of Von Trier most misogynistic piece of work for the sexual and mental misconduct the female protagonist faces or whether it defies it. However, while analyzing Mulvey’s theories on psychoanalysis and castration we are able to determine that Von Trier’s female character is acting against the male gaze and not for it.
She uses her objectification as bait to draw in the male gaze and bring the expected pleasure of voyeurism in the film. Finally, she ultimately destroys it by the gruesome castration of the male character thus inciting pain and discomfort to the viewer and taking back her humanity.
Antichrist beautifully crafted cinematography and its imagery are uncomparable to most of the Von Trier’s films in his Depression Trilogy. It is visually exhilarating, psychologically stimulating and unlike any other modern horror film. Its underlying message and the potential for further analysis is a great example to continual growth in the feminist discourse.
Antichrist. Dir. Lars Von Trier. Perf. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. 2009. Netflix.
Mulvey, L. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” 198-209 . Web.