Is Antichrist anti-women?

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Lars von Trier's graphic new film has been labelled misogynistic. Sadly, that's true of so many contemporary movies, says Sheila Johnston

It has a wild, witchy woman, it has self-inflicted female genital mutilation, it even has an official "misogyny researcher" listed in the closing credits. Yes indeed: that old master-provocateur Lars von Trier has done it again with Antichrist, currently being described as one of the most vicious movies ever made. It was crowned at this year's Cannes Film Festival with an "anti-prize" for being "the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world". British audiences can now make up their own minds, with the film released here this weekend. The Cannes jury, which bestowed the award, accused Von Trier of suggesting that "woman should be burnt at the stake so that man can finally stand up."

The director certainly has well-known form when it comes to treating females harshly, both in his fictional creations and the actresses who have played them. Björk and Nicole Kidman – who worked with him on Dancer in the Dark and Dogville respectively – described their collaboration as a gruelling experience. But Von Trier is fully capable of grinding his male characters and actors through the mill with equal relish (remember the indignities visited on Jorgen Leth in the The Five Obstructions, for instance?) And, whatever his mysterious private psychosexual motives, it can't be denied that he creates compelling parts for women.

Nobody who has seen Antichrist could argue that Charlotte Gainsbourg's character – a woman who goes violently mad out of grief and guilt after her small son dies in an accident – is not immeasurably more interesting than her husband, a smug, misguided psychotherapist, played by Willem Dafoe. As Von Trier says in the film's production notes, "My male protagonists are basically idiots who don't understand shit."

His female characters, on the other hand, are showcase roles. Gainsbourg – who spoke warmly of their work together – was named Best Actress in Cannes for Antichrist, as was Björk for her performance as a blind factory worker falsely accused of murder in Dancer in the Dark (2000). Breaking the Waves (1996) launched Emily Watson's international career; she played a young woman who prostitutes herself and, eventually, dies for her crippled husband.

In any case, how extraordinarily short people's memories can be. Antichrist is momentarily being flagged as one of the biggest scandals in the history of Cannes. But the festival would not be complete without some fracas of this sort. In 2001, Isabelle Huppert – the president of this year's jury – was seen engaging in her own extreme acts of self-harm in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher. The same year, a woman's genitals were eaten in Trouble Every Day (directed by a woman, Claire Denis).

In 2002 Monica Bellucci was treated to a subterranean nine-minute rape in Gasper Noé's Irreversible, and the year after that Chloe Sevigny performed three full minutes of on-screen fellatio (Vincent Gallo was the beneficiary) in The Brown Bunny. And the talk of Cannes back in 1976 was Nagisa Oshima's Ai No Corrida (In the Realm of the Senses), which featured an obsessive sado-masochistic love affair, a destructive heroine, asphyxiation, murder and castration. That landmark film is now being re-released on 28 August and must surely be over-ripe for reassessment.

Elsewhere in the Cannes competition this year, the vigilant feminist would have been spoiled for choice in finding things to be outraged at. She could have watched a prostitute being kidnapped, raped, tortured, murdered and dismembered in Kinatay by the Filippino film-maker Brillante Mendoza, who was rewarded with the prize for Best Director for his pains. Noé was back with Enter the Void, featuring a graphic abortion scene and coitus shot from inside the vagina. Isabel Coixet's Map of the Sounds of Tokyo kicked off with a sequence of lascivious Japanese businessmen eating sushi off naked women's bodies. So pretty much everyone was at it.

Von Trier is an easy target for charges of political incorrectness, but his are clever, complicated characters who demand our attention. In Antichrist, Gainsbourg, an unconventionally beautiful actress in her late thirties, is writing a PhD thesis on witchcraft. He pays his women the major compliment of taking them seriously. And, as we know from the classic studio era, when women flocked to see Bette Davis playing spoiled Southern belles or power-crazed matriarchs, these crazy, flawed role models are so much more appealing than the inspirational heroines.

It's in the lightweight arena that you find the prime offenders against women: affable multiplex confections which insist, with a laddish laugh and a nudge, that anyone who objects is a killjoy. These are the comedies populated with anarchic, pudgy man-boys with smelly feet and cranked out by Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen and their cronies. Spiked with subtle nastiness, Knocked Up, Old School, Wedding Crashers and, most recently, The Hangover, barely give quarter to the female of the species – the last includes yet another of the controlling bitches of which these film-makers seem especially fond. The recent Rogen movie Observe and Report was widely attacked for including a date-rape scene. "I'm so grateful I was cast," said the actress involved, Anna Faris, rather pathetically, defending the scene while promoting the film. "When I read the script, I thought, 'Well, this is Warner Brothers. This is a studio movie, so this is all gonna be softened up. It's a comedy, right?'"

The recent round of chick-flicks is scarcely better (once, not so long ago, they were called "women's pictures", and the new name surely reflects their diminished status). Few can fail to cringe at the sheer sense of belittlement while watching the ritual humiliations inflicted on the rival friends in Bride Wars, the airhead fashion victims in Confessions of a Shopaholic and the man-mad desperadas in He's Just Not That Into You. There can be little doubt that the most depressing news last week was not the advent of Antichrist, but the announcement that Renée Zellweger is about to bulk up again for a new installment in the Bridget Jones series, wherein Bridget agonises over having a baby in her forties.

Jane Campion, still the only woman ever to have won the Palme D'Or, for The Piano in 1993, presented another acclaimed competition entry in Cannes this year: Bright Star, about the romance between John Keats and Fanny Brawne. The director has often in the past attacked the misogyny prevailing in the film industry and on this occasion she spoke out again against the "old boys' system" that keeps women down (around six per cent of directors are female according to the latest figures). Yet Campion also suggested that women unconsciously colluded in the discrimination against them. They should "put on their coats of armour" and enter the fray, she said.

That applies to film-goers too. The business is being increasingly forced to acknowledge the power of women's box-office dollars. "Females are galvanizing and turning out in huge numbers, just like young males," says Bruce Snyder, the president of distribution at 20th Century Fox in a recent Variety report. "They are turning movies into event titles." Chuck Viane, his counterpart at Disney, concurred. "Females will go to a movie again and again. The number of repeat viewings is incredible. If you overlook females, you are ignoring a huge segment of the audience." This is what built films like Titanic, Sex and the City, The Devil Wears Prada and Twilight into major hits; and what made Mamma Mia! the top-grossing British movie of 2008. Women should have the whip hand in dictating what films are made, and perhaps they already do.

Look down at the list of forthcoming movies and you will be struck by the fact that this summer is distinctly light on testosterone-charged blockbusters but teeming with an astonishing number of major movies aimed at, and about, women (a sizable proportion of them are directed by women, too). They include the sci-fi romantic drama The Time Traveler's Wife (14 August), Meryl Streep and Amy Adams in Julie and Julia (11 September) and three rom-coms The Proposal, The Ugly Truth and 500 Days of Summer (opening this week, 5 August and 4 September respectively). The September Issue (opening 11 September), a documentary about the Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, should be a real-life version of The Devil Wears Prada.

On the arthouse side, the line-up includes Audrey Tautou in Coco Before Chanel (31 July); Mid-August Lunch, an Italian comedy about a group of doughty Roman matrons, and Catherine Deneuve in a re-release of the musical charmer Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (both 14 August). Meanwhile, Penelope Cruz stars in the new film from Pedro Almodovar, Broken Embraces (28 August). Andrea Arnold's Cannes prize-winner Fish Tank opens on 11 September. Some of these offerings are more – shall we say – progressive than others (The Proposal and The Ugly Truth are both about female high-flyers whose wings are clipped by male subordinates, while the Chanel film depicts the doyenne of high fashion as a love-struck ingenue). Which of them will be a hit and set the tone for the future ? Ladies, the choice is yours.

'Antichrist' is released 24 July

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