The best movies Lars Von Trier has directed (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville) are the work of a cunning provocateur — a dramatist who relishes torturing his audience for more than just hollow effect. Watching those films, you knew you were being played, but the manipulation didn’t matter, because Von Trier treated you with intelligence, grace and dignity. His best pictures leave a huge emotional imprint and endure in your memory the way literature does: They are humane masterpieces.
Antichrist, Von Trier’s scandalous new movie, is a different beast altogether (and when I say beast, I mean 666). This is the first film he’s made that is an outright provocation. Von Trier conceived the project while in the throes of a severe depression, and, like a foul-tempered person who wants everyone around him to feel just as rotten, the movie emanates only bad vibes. This is the sort of picture that goes so far over the top, you wonder if Von Trier isn’t secretly punking you (the film was vociferously booed at Cannes, where some critics claimed the director had finally lost his remaining marbles).
But taking Antichrist at face value is a mistake. Von Trier makes the fable aspect literal with the already-infamous moment in which a fox eating its entrails turns to the camera and growls “Chaos reigns.” The shot is unintentionally comical when you watch it out of context on YouTube, but it is creepy and unnerving in the film, a nihilistic fairy tale that posits Mother Nature as a merciless force of evil and destruction.
Antichrist opens with a lovely, lyrical prologue — scored to Handel and shot in gorgeous black and white — in which a married couple, He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), are enjoying torrid sex while their young son climbs out of his bed and falls from a window. Right from the start, Von Trier is messing with the audience. The dreamlike, beautiful sequence is interrupted by a sudden pornographic shot of sexual penetration (whoa — where did that come from?), and the camera pans past three plastic toy soldiers named Pain, Grief and Despair, as if the director were introducing the movie’s main players (later in the film, Revulsion makes an unbilled but unforgettable cameo).
Von Trier breaks up Antichrist into chapters, a device he often uses, charting the couple’s attempt to grapple with their inconsolable grief. He happens to be a psychiatrist, which comes in handy, since She clearly is slowly going insane with guilt. As a means of therapy, the couple retreats to a cabin in the woods, conveniently named Eden, in which She spent the previous summer alone with their son, working on a book documenting instances of gynocide throughout history.
The subliminal inserts of screaming, distorted faces Von Trier sneaks into a shot of trees rushing past are the first clue the couple’s commune with nature is not going to have the intended benefits. Acorns constantly fall on the roof of the cabin with loud clunks (torturous as a leaky faucet, only worse), and He wakes up one morning with his hand covered in leeches. A beautiful doe emerges from the woods, then retreats, revealing a still-born fawn stuck in its hind quarters. The couple is clearly not wanted there, and She is inexplicably terrified by simple things such as grass. But He refuses to pay attention: He trusts and loves his wife — and thinks he knows her.
There are strong echoes of The Shining throughout Antichrist, only this time the wife is the one who is driven insane, and the world entire, not just some hotel, is haunted. There is even an exceedingly creepy moment, in which He finds the book She’s been working on for so long, that is an homage to the “All work and no play” bit from Kubrick’s film). Gainsbourg, whose performance is so fearless she won the Best Actress prize at Cannes despite the film’s notoriety, gives her character’s mental disintegration dimension and gravity. When She starts taking out her crazed anger on her husband in excruciatingly painful ways, Gainsbourg depicts unhinged, lunatic fury more believably than any other actress I’ve ever seen.
Antichrist works better if you don’t know what’s coming, although its violence, which includes some unwatchable bits of sexual mutilation, has been discussed incessantly since the Cannes premiere. Von Trier has never been much for ambiguity — a chief strength of his films is their directness — and there is a quick, late flashback that clearly and pointedly explains the trigger for She’s descent into a guilt-fueled rampage. The real darkness in Antichrist rests not within her actions but in the cold and uncaring natural world around her: Von Trier, never exactly an optimist, has never been this gloomy and pessimistic. Antichrist is the feel-bad movie of the year.
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Writer-director: Lars Von Trier.
Producer: Meta Louise Foldager.
An IFC Films release. Running time: 104 minutes. Vulgar language, frontal nudity, explicit sex, extreme violence, graphic gore, strong adult themes. Not suitable for children under 17. In Miami-Dade: Cosford, Miami Beach Cinematheque.