Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist" is a curious mash-up of cutting-edge torture-porn and good old porn-porn that fails on both fronts. Despite some wild gore touches that might draw gasps of admiration from the likes of Eli Roth, the picture is too preoccupied with Von Trier's dismal deep thoughts to exert the crass visceral grip an effective splatter flick requires. And despite a few graphic sex shots, the movie is coldly anti-erotic. What it most precisely evokes are the art-film pretensions of the early 1960s, when European auteurs could get away with a line like "acorns don't cry" and American aficionados were disinclined to complain. (Imagine how those old Resnais and Antonioni head-scratchers might have been enlivened by a few strategically placed insertion shots!) The movie's most problematic aspect, though, is its beautiful and often breathtaking imagery, which makes the picture difficult to dismiss entirely.
You know you're in Artville when a movie's only two characters are called He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg). He's a psychotherapist; She's some kind of writer working on a book called "Gynocide," which is about the torture and murder of women through the ages. In the opening sequence — a gorgeous weave of stylized water and snow imagery — we see the couple having sex in their apartment while, in another room, their young son totters from his crib and out to an open window, where he falls to his death. The guilt-ridden woman is driven half-mad by this event; her mate views it more coolly — as a psychological trauma of the sort he's eminently qualified to treat. He suggests they decamp for their vacation cabin — Eden, they call it — which is way out in the woods somewhere. (The picture is arbitrarily set in Seattle; the director, who numbers air travel among his phobias, actually shot it in Germany.)
The cabin turns out to be a decrepit shack of a sort that might have been designed to propel a troubled individual over the edge. There's some alarming wildlife, too. Poking around in the brush, He comes upon a dead baby bird crawling with ants. (There ought to be a sign next to its little feathered corpse saying, "David Lynch was here.") And there's a startling shot involving a doe and a stillborn fawn that I doubt I'll ever forget. But then, unfortunately, there's a scene in which He happens upon a dead fox, with its guts spilling out onto the ground. The unfortunate part is that the fox suddenly lifts its head and speaks. It says, "Chaos reigns." And then, marking the point where the picture tips over into complete gaga absurdity, rain starts pouring down!
We haven't seen the last of these uncanny animals. Before their preposterous return, though, there's a lot of shouting and a lot of carnal grappling. He becomes convinced that his mate's "Gynocide" project has led her to believe that women are inherently evil — that they deserve the abuse to which they're eternally subjected. She begs her partner to hit her; he complies. Then there's an extended and truly ridiculous sequence involving a power drill and a metal wheel that would fit seamlessly into one of the "Hostel" movies. On the other hand, there's also a close-up clitoridectomy — self-administered with a pair of rusty shears — that would be unlikely to find a home in any other movie of any kind anywhere ever. After a while it becomes impossible to respond to this picture; you just stare at it.
"Antichrist" contains fearless performances by Dafoe and Gainsbourg. And it was sleekly photographed by Anthony Dod Mantle, who also shot Von Trier's "Dogville" and "Manderlay." But Mantle's expertise compounds the picture's oppressiveness. The director's visual design is so dank and claustrophobic, the movie might as easily have been shot in a tool shed. Von Trier says the story came to him during a bout of deep, disabling depression, and after seeing it — there's no avoiding this limp wisecrack — we know how he must have felt.
"Antichrist" arrives on a wave of foaming notoriety. Von Trier premiered it at this year's Cannes Film Festival (where he also proclaimed himself "the best filmmaker in the world"). The picture's reception was explosive. I don't know if it's really true that four people fainted at the screening, but the general response was apparently one of outraged hostility. The picture was even awarded a special jury prize for "most misogynist movie."
And now here it is, opening in America — although what "opening" might mean for a film that's pugnaciously unrated (the death knell for newspaper advertising) remains to be seen. Von Trier is the sort of director who claims he makes movies for himself — who cares if anyone wants to see them? I don't think anybody buys this kind of line anymore (least of all his investors, you'd imagine), but it is in fact hard to envision how much of an audience there might be for this film. Or how many people there could possibly be who would ever sit through it twice.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "(Untitled)", also new in theaters this week.
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