Lars von Trier cuts a big fat art-film fart with “Antichrist.” As if deliberately courting critical abuse, the Danish bad boy densely packs this theological-psychological horror opus with grotesque, self-consciously provocative images that might have impressed even Hieronymus Bosch, as the director pursues personal demons of sexual, religious and esoteric bodily harm, as well as feelings about women that must be a comfort to those closest to him. Traveling deep into NC-17 territory, this may prove a great date movie for pain-is-pleasure couples. Otherwise, most of the director’s usual fans will find this outing risible, off-putting or both — derisive hoots were much in evidence during and after the Cannes press screening — while the artiness quotient is far too high for mainstream-gore groupies.
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Admittedly made in the wake of a severe depression two years ago that left the director wondering if he’d ever be able to shoot another film, “Antichrist” starts with a stunning rendition of a tragic domestic occurrence. To the accompaniment of a Handel vocal piece on the soundtrack, gorgeous slow-motion black-and-white widescreen images record how a toddler falls to his death from a high apartment window on a snowy day while his oblivious parents make love nearby. Mindful to warn viewers that they can never know what they’re going to see in a von Trier film, the helmer obliges by sticking one hardcore insert shot in this sequence.
Dividing the narrative into four chapters bracketed by the prologue and an epilogue, the helmer switches to color as the mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) leaves more than a month’s hospitalization and enters into the care of her husband (Willem Dafoe), a professional therapist. In one of her quieter moments in this chapter, entitled “Grief,” the woman triggers a calm argument, accusing her mate of indifference over their son’s death, even as she assumes responsibility for it. So capably does the man seem to guide his wife through her trauma that the line becomes blurred as to whether he’s functioning more as husband or therapist, as he semi-jokes, “Never screw your therapist,” when she gets frisky.
After the woman is pushed to confess that she’s most afraid of their property deep in the forest — where she spent part of the previous summer alone with her son — that’s where hubby take her. This chapter on “Pain” actually charts the woman’s self-proclaimed recovery, but ends unpromisingly with a disemboweled fox rising out of the ferns to announce, “Chaos Reigns.”
The ante is upped, and a climax of sorts is achieved, in “Despair,” reassuringly subtitled “Gynocide,” and if one is uncertain as to what the latter means, rest certain von Trier will graphically illustrate it. Suffice to say the woman’s mental health takes a turn for the worse, she vividly pleasures her man in a conspicuously unwelcome manner and then, apparently inspired by images of medieval torture inflicted upon women, finds a way to impale him that Hollywood’s leading torture-porn experts will kick themselves over not having dreamed up first.
But the woman generously saves the most gruesome, preferably unwatched act for herself in the final chapter, the title of which, “The Three Beggars,” provides no revelations worth waiting for.
Offering the opposite of hope for anyone aspiring to recover from grief through therapy, analytical or experiential, and perhaps distantly inspired by the marital battles in Strindberg, “Antichrist” does not even raise the possibility of healing through religion, leaving the title to seem rather arbitrary and more than a little pretentious. Moreover, the blood-smeared sensationalism smothers what serious thoughts the script serves up in passing, just as the sexual interludes detract from the film by playing peek-a-boo and making you try to figure out what’s real and/or how it was faked.
Looking very good, Dafoe maintains his dignity most of the way with a performance of seriousness and tact, while Gainsbourg veers between sullenness and extreme histrionics. Only people to appear in the film aside from the lead actors are the little boy and some extras near the beginning and at the end.
Pic’s strong physical values include ace lensing by Anthony Dod Mantle in two styles, the shimmering monochrome of the bookends and the more rugged, often hand-held work in the cabin and on the densely green mountain locations; although the film was shot in Germany, the nominal Seattle-area setting is suggested by internal evidence.
End credits dedication to the late Andrei Tarkovsky was greeted by laughs and catcalls in Cannes.