Lars von Trier's Antichrist may be the one film that only solidifies in its vexing, frustrating, offensive effect after sleeping on it. Oh, movies often lose their sheen after a good night's sleep separates one from immediate reactions, sure, but never have I been faced with a film that has remained so firmly in the middle, so deeply entrenched in the netherworld of a shrug and a singsong grunting of "I dunno," as Antichrist. I suppose it makes sense: I've seen two other von Trier films, one of which (Breaking the Waves) I loved and the other (Dancer in the Dark) completely repulsed me even as I tried to admire his original and occasionally innovative work in the musical genre. How perfect, then, that I should be so unsure of what I've just seen.
Therefore, let's focus on identifiable reactions and see where it takes us: Antichrist is a beautiful movie, final proof that Von Trier's connection to the Dogme movement he helped found limited one of the most interesting visual stylists in contemporary cinema. Its opening sequence, shot in pristine, crisp black-and-white, depicts a married couple engaging in vigorous sex (there's even a shot that comes about as close as one can to penetration without becoming pornography; if shooting sex scenes are like guessing on the price is right, von Trier guessed within a cent) in slow-motion as their baby crawls from its crib and accidentally falls out of their apartment window to his death. Like a perfume commercial gone horribly wrong, the sequence juxtaposes the couple's steamy lovemaking with the product of fun times past falls to his death due to their negligence. It suggests that Antichrist will be an intensely dark comedy, a label I'm not entirely sure doesn't apply.
Naturally, the couple are devastated. Referred to in the credits only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), they attempt to sort out the immeasurable grief of losing a child. But She reacts stronger than most, collapsing in the funeral and waking up a month later in a hospital. He, a therapist, distrusts the psychiatric care the hospital provides and breaks some of the fundamental ethics of his profession by deciding to help a relative. Further lines are broken when She turns to aggressive sex for distraction and solace from the unrelenting pain. Making no breakthroughs with her, He decides to use exposure therapy, believing her reaction to be the product not only of her grief but her fears; thus he takes her to Eden, an eye-rollingly titled cabin deep in a forest where She took their son in a failed attempt to write a novel that now terrifies her.
At this stage, Anitchrist moves from a devastating portrait of inhuman suffering to a literal cabin-in-the-woods horror film, albeit filtered through the prism of arthouse pretension. At times, that intellectual drive serves von Trier, such as the constant tension of acorns raining on the cabins tin roof like gunfire; She discusses with He how the oak drops hundreds of acorns, and it lives so long that only one needs to survive and grow into another oak to ensure the continuation of the plant. Compared to She's own grief over her child, the constant rain of acorns does not simply serve to ratchet up tension but to remind her (and the audience) that each of those acorns is a baby, one that most likely won't bloom just like her own.
Slowly, however, things start to go wrong with the picture. We discover that She's planned book concerned the topic of gynocide, which she abandoned as her research, combined with what she felt was an evil presence in the woods of Eden, convinced her that, if nature was inherently evil, then women must be too. Now, the subject of von Trier's alleged misogyny has dogged him for much of his career; personally, I've found the dubious treatment of the women who suffer in his films less a reflection of a hatred of women than a reflection of his deep cynicism in general (though the injustices heaped upon Björk's character -- and Björk herself, according to reports -- in Dancer in the Dark threatened to turn me off the director forever). In other words, von Trier's unbridled contempt ran far too deeply to be confined by so narrowly defined a term as misogyny.
Here, however, he may finally have slipped off the ledge*. Von Trier uses gentle pans set to overbearing, howling music to manipulate the audience (the effect of this, of essentially filming the dark essence of the forest, plays like an artier version of the Raimi cam effects in the king of all cabin-in-the-woods franchises, the Evil Dead series), but any pretense at subtlety disappears in the final 20 minutes, in which She loses all grip on reality and engages in a series of actions I don't care to repeat; von Trier apparently buys his character's nonsense that women are evil, forcing the audience to endure a barrage of torture porn filth whose potential metaphorical and allegorical meaning becomes incidental to the onslaught.
So much graphic content hits the screen in the last act that it numbs the audience; Dancer had the air of sincerity of Breaking the Waves, which made its content so ultimately repulsive. Antichrist, on the other hand, edges into the realm of comedy which, as I said before, may be the point. Like A Serious Man, it ends with perhaps its boldest joke, in this case a dedication to the great cinematic spiritualist Andrei Tarkovsky, who might have beaten the Danish enfant terrible to death with his irradiated hands had he known what von Trier would attach his name to after he died. Yet any explanation that would call the film funny evidently does not care about its bold-faced misogyny, evidence clearly in its epilogue, which presents the film with a sort of happy ending that's as perverse as anything that came before it. If, as von Trier has said, Antichrist was the director's way of overcoming his depression, why has he tied that optimism to a story of gynocide and female insanity? Whatever else the film has to say about the empty pleasures of sex, the trauma of motherhood and the nihilistic proposition that "Chaos reigns," I cannot move myself to look beyond what is so glaringly ugly to me.
Again, though, the numbing quality of von Trier's exploitation film allows us to view it in perspective. Charlotte Gainsbourg absolutely redefines what it means to give a fearless performance and, frankly, no one else should ever have the qualifier attached to a role ever again on the basis of it. She's over-the-top without ever chewing scenery; her rail-thin, bird-like frame allows us to see every wired muscle react to grief and, later, rage, much the same way you could see every tic on De Niro's body back in his younger, slimmer days. Dafoe's work is far more reserved, but Gainsbourg's white-hot nova of a performance would not allow for another manic performance anyway (plus, it's always fun to see Dafoe in a less-explosive role). Too, von Trier's direction, coupled with Anthony Dod Mantle's stark, muted cinematography, makes the best case yet for the director's visual acumen. Who knows, maybe this really is one big joke; von Trier is certainly trying to provoke the audience into some sort of reaction. However, while I will likely check out his next project to see if he's expunged his demons, I doubt I'll return to this silly piece of art/grindhouse trash any time soon.
*After mulling over the film further, I've come to the conclusion that Antichrist ultimately doesn't represent a misogynistic attack, and actually it may be von Trier's most heartfelt work. He brought out something within himself that is within us all, and maybe that is what troubled so many critics, who frankly oversold the extremity of the film's violence. I still find myself surprised at how tepid and ambivalent my overall reaction to the film was, but I contend that I do not find its more contentious aspects quite so offensive anymore.