From A Tortured Artist, A High-Concept Torment

W Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg

Paradise Lost: She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and He (Willem Dafoe) have a good thing going until the specter of death shadows their relationship, sending it into an obsessive, abusive downward spiral. Zentropa Entertainments hide caption

itoggle caption Zentropa Entertainments

Antichrist

  • Director: Lars von Trier
  • Genre: Psycho-thriller
  • Running Time: 104 minutes

Unrated: Children in peril, explicit sex, graphic violence

With: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg

Danish cinematic insurgent Lars von Trier always goes too far, yet sometimes he circles back to lucidity. Not in Antichrist, which just keeps pressing deeper into a conceptual thicket.

Both hailed and reviled at the Cannes Film Festival, this two-person drama actually seems designed to draw an ambivalent response. It's beautiful yet assaultive, sometimes smart but often silly, both insightful and glib about the mysteries of desire, grief and fear.

Von Trier has cited the influence of dour Swedish playwright August Strindberg, but another dramatist comes to mind: Bertolt Brecht, whose self-conscious anti-naturalistic style underlies all of von Trier's work.

Antichrist doesn't delay its first onslaught. In the opening sequence, He and She (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) make slo-mo love in the shower, their bodies filmed in black and white while a Handel aria plays and snow falls outside an open window. This might be an upscale perfume ad, except for one X-rated shot. (The actors were doubled by porn veterans at such moments.)

Then the couple's toddler son climbs from his crib, sees his parents in rut and tumbles out the window to a snowy death. Freud couldn't have envisioned a tidier sex-and-death scenario.

The images switch to muted color as the psychodrama begins. She has suffered a breakdown, and He is a psychotherapist. He decides to treat his wife, even though he admits he shouldn't, and takes her to the place that scares her most: the ironically named Eden, their cabin in a Grimm forest. (Although set in the Seattle area, the movie was mostly shot in Germany.)

Charlotte Gainsbourg in a forest i i

When her husband takes her to their gloomy forest retreat for treatment, Gainsbourg's character begins to see him as the enemy — and takes brutal action. Christian Geisnaes/Zentropa Entertainments hide caption

itoggle caption Christian Geisnaes/Zentropa Entertainments
Charlotte Gainsbourg in a forest

When her husband takes her to their gloomy forest retreat for treatment, Gainsbourg's character begins to see him as the enemy — and takes brutal action.

Christian Geisnaes/Zentropa Entertainments

In the woods, nature is embodied by malevolent trees and dead and dying animals — including a wounded fox that delivers a warning in a demonic growl that's right out of a '70s horror flick, a noise more goofy than ominous.

As He puts She through "exercises" meant to banish her sorrow, the woman's resentment grows. She has been writing a thesis on "gynocide," and He becomes the personification of all men who have ever brutalized women. She attacks him savagely, then mutilates herself; because the couple's antagonism is entangled with desire, much of the violence is directed toward various genitalia.

Then the frenzy abates, and the Handel and the black-and-white return. The movie's final moments, which introduce a group of spectral extras, are more dream than nightmare. But they're no less enigmatic than what came before.

Since von Trier began making English-language films with 1996's Breaking the Waves, most of his features have been set in the United States, a country he's never visited. (He doesn't fly.) They also tend to focus on women, who are generally abused and debased.

Yet Antichrist can't be dismissed simply as anti-American or misogynist. The story was inspired in part by von Trier's own severe depression, and She is clearly closer to the writer-director than He. The husband is a smug, sententious fool, a type that appears in many von Trier movies. (In the genuinely anti-American Dogville, he's called Tom Edison.)

The writer-director may truly believe that women are evil, as She declares shortly before she terrorizes her husband. But then so is he — at least artistically. Perversity is one of his trademarks, and this movie's handwritten credits attribute its direction to "Lars von Trier Antichrist." The hell of Eden is his as much as Hers.

Antichrist is most notable for Gainsbourg's unbridled performance and for the photography of Anthony Dod Mantle (who shot Slumdog Millionaire in a very different mode). For a hymn to panic and hostility, the movie is curiously artful. But only the most sympathetic viewers will find that its poetry outweighs its belligerence.

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