In 2009, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist was awarded an anti-award (or should it be anti-awarded and anti-award?). Where a jury at Cannes often gave out a special prize to a film selected for espousing humanist values, Antichrist received something of a talking to for its supposed misogyny. This was very shortsighted and revealed that the jury had mistook scrutiny for perpetuation. Antichrist is many things, mostly an unwavering shriek of anguish, but on the subject of misogyny, it follows in the tradition of a great work of feminist literature: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper.
Willem Dafoe, the star of the film, famously argued against Mark Kermode live on BBC radio that the film absolutely was not about misogyny, but however you slice it, whether the subject was discussed on set or not, as a text, Antichrist is at least partially about misogyny and patriarchy invading mental illness. Besides, as Dafoe continued, this is the sort of film that lends itself to open interpretation, and both the general premise and motivation of its lead (internalized misogyny explored below) contribute to a reading of von Trier’s film as a critique of patriarchal mishandling of women in need. Let’s compare.
A woman suffers a crippling bout of atypical grief brought on by the death of her infant son, an accident which happened whilst the women and her husband were distracted having sex. The nameless woman, She, seeks treatment from her therapist, who is also her husband, who insists that the care she is currently receiving is insufficient. He prescribes exposure therapy and takes her to stay at their cabin in the woods, called Eden, where they had stayed with their son, as she wrote a dissertation on gynecide. Despite She’s clearly manic response to the treatment, and though she wishes to leave, He presses on, convinced of the validity of his own psychotherapeutic method. He discovers She’s writings on witch hunts and it is revealed that she has come to conclude that women are inherently evil. Things do not work out well.
The Yellow Wallpaper
A woman suffers a nervous breakdown brought on by post-partum depression, and seeks treatment from her doctor, who is also her husband and therefore her keeper. The narrator, a nameless She, wants to get better, and her husband John insists that her faculties are better left under his control, not that she would have much say in it in any event. John prescribes a rigid regiment of pills, tonics, and exercise, no writing, no work at all, and no socializing whatsoever. Despite feeling that this routine may be detrimental, She concludes John would know better. He minimizes her condition, insisting that following his treatment, she’ll be rid of her “temporary nervous depression… slight hysterical tendency.”
This of course places a certain amount of pressure and psychological self-flagellation onto the narrator as her condition obviously does not improve, having to perform civility for her husband tires her further. She begins to hallucinate figures, women trapped behind the flamboyant and garish yellow wallpaper. She asks for the wallpaper, “an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions”, to be removed, but John insists that once that goes, next would be the bed, and so on, and that “you know the place is doing you good”, and presses on, believing in the validity of his “rest cure”. Things do not work out well.
There are transparent differences. The Yellow Wallpaper‘s narrator must put up with her husband’s mishandling of her condition partially because of the restrictive nature of marriage, and her position as woman, given the 19th century setting. Antichrist’s She is mostly at He’s will because of her state of vulnerability and the assumed fear of her own sex’s innate make-up only revealed later in the story. The traumas the women undergo are not the same, the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper is suffering from postpartum depression, and any guilt or paranoia which follows are born of her unpleasant marriage and confinement, whilst Antichrist’s She suffers from grief she cannot alleviate because it is compounded by her own guilt (an acute example of her internalized belief in the inherent evil of women).
What they do share is a demonstration of the detrimental authority men can have over women and their inner lives, and an eye for the way that a spiraling mix of self-doubt, constraint and suffering play out.
Eden in Antichrist, once a haven for the couple and now a waking nightmare, echoes the corruption of the mundane brought on by their pain, just as the narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper begins to project her mental collapse onto the pattern of the walls, even personifying the ends of its curved lines as “plunging… committing suicide” well before she begins to hallucinate. And of course, the women of both stories grow resentful of their partners, to disastrous results. Both of these works, however respectable you find one or the other, are playing out a scenario which asks us to consider the relationship between the two partners, a sort of relationship which will always need to be considered so long as one partner leverages power over the other, whether that power be institutional or presumed.
The Yellow Wallpaper, to one degree or another, did have a tangible effect on the popularity of rest cures; some families avoided them, some doctors altered them. Antichrist cannot be said to have had so great an impact, maybe because of how slavishly its discourse is tangled up in discussions of its visceral elements, but to viewers, as to readers of Gilman’s story, it articulates in ways that only art could the pain of mental illness, and the harm of the isolation and constraints placed on people who need help, “for their own good”.