Lars von Trier. Antichrist.

10/21/2009 4:00 AM |

Directed by Lars von Trier

From the moment the opening credits hit the screen—”Lars von Trier.” Cut. “Antichrist“—it’s on.

By now everybody knows all about Antichrist‘s épater le bourgeois transgressions: the opening “prologue’s” glossy, graphic sex scene, cross-cut with the super-slo-mo death of a defenestrated infant; a speech-blessed fox exclaiming “Chaos reigns!”; genital mutilation; severe genital mutilation; a closing dedication to art cinema untouchable Andrei Tarkovsky. So powerful and/or ridiculous are these intermittent shocks that they threaten to overshadow the movie entire. A von Trier film, after all, is nearly always inseparable from its maker’s puckish attention-seeking, and Antichrist takes the provocation cake: it’s a work from the gut, but a gut always calculating an audience’s vulnerabilities. That’s the pity of Antichrist, both in our reception of it and in von Trier’s approach.

After their passionate act of coitus accidentally leads to their child’s death, unnamed married couple Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg go through the stages of mourning as a psychosexual grudge match, with Dafoe’s chilly therapist breaking down Gainsbourg’s anguish into treatable chunks of shame, fear and self-loathing in their forestal retreat, the ironically named Eden. Trier and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle conjure imagery alternately voluptuous (the operatic prologue), intimate (choppy handheld depictions of connubial angst), and surreally gothic as deer birth dead offspring amid mist-shrouded landscapes—nature is Satan’s church,” says Gainsbourg.

All seems to be building to an earth-shattering expression of despair pitting uncontrollable female sexuality against systematic male tyranny, but as much as I want to side with the film’s defenders over the knee-jerk majority, Antichrist sinks into facile incoherence: if it remains an upsetting and depressing experience, that’s largely because it represents an upsetting and depressing failure of artistic imagination. The extreme torture and self-disfiguration of the last act seem to be von Trier going medieval against the modern, rationalizing psychobabble Dafoe so overconfidently represents—”So you want catharsis, eh?” Lars taunts both him and us—yet there must be more interesting objective correlatives for hateful gynophobia than having one’s heroine snip off her clitoris. The horror flick showdown becomes symbolically and tonally muddled, the battle for sexual domination a zero sum game of vague, unredeemable evil.

From Dogme 95’s “vow of chastity” to his incomplete “USA” trilogy’s skeletal sets, von Trier has spent the “mature” phase of his career stripping down aesthetically in order to get psychologically and emotionally naked. His most beautifully, embarrassingly and brutally direct film, Antichrist would have truly been something had it been as thematically unified and intellectually honest as it is viscerally intense. Great art, in the end, is the hardest shock of all.

Opens October 23