Lars Von Trier’s film career has undoubtedly courted controversy, but it is 2009’s Antichrist that has perhaps been the target of most critics’ diatribe, particularly its questionable gendered ethics.
Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a mother driven to distraction, and eventually to the edge of her sanity when her young son dies as she and her husband engage in sexual intercourse. Willem Dafoe plays her arrogant therapist husband, who attempts to intellectualise her grief, informing her of the stages she will experience and conducting exercises for her to undergo in an attempt to help her cope. She rightly points out that she is far more interesting to him as a patient; she is now dependent on him, alarmingly childlike in her dependency.
Arguably it is in the scene in which Gainsbourg mutilates her own genitals that have attracted the most critical derision. Cutting off her clitoris directly attacks her own female sexuality, blaming her indulgence in sex as the reason for her son’s death; she now denies herself any future pleasure.
Yet notably and in Von Trier’s defence, it is Gainsbourg’s character that is most empathetic, most intellectual and most charismatic. She genuinely feels grief at the death of her son. Dafoe’s character shows very little outward sign that the death of his son has affected him. His arrogance in dealing with his wife is entirely unempathetic.
Perhaps then Antichrist can be viewed as a woman struggling against male oppression: yes this male oppression does ultimately succeed, but not before Gainsbourg’s character has attacked Dafoe, mutilating his genitals, leaving him impotent.