Where the wild things really are: ‘Antichrist’ is a psychosexual challenge
By any and all measures you care to come up with, “Antichrist’’ is the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s most extreme work yet. Reasonable and literate moviegoers - those who’ve been moved by and/or suffered through “Breaking the Waves,’’ “Dancer in the Dark,’’ and “Dogville,’’ among other assaults to the sensibilities - may take this as a cue to head for the hills. In fact, all I have to do to get you to turn the page and never go anywhere near this film again is say two words: ejaculated blood.
There. Is anybody left?
To you hardy band of survivors, representative of the 1 percent of the filmgoing population that really does want to be challenged, “Antichrist’’ may (I say may) be a psychosexual drama of profound and primal impact. Or it may strike you as Lars’s nasty little joke on us all. Like a nightmare you recall during waking hours, and then only in its vast outlines, “Antichrist’’ has the power to haunt beyond words. For better and for worse, it is exactly the movie von Trier wanted to make and a piece of staggeringly pure cinema. On at least one level, it’s also hateful.
Divided into four chapters plus a prologue and epilogue, “Antichrist’’ begins with a toddler falling from a window to his death while his parents make love in the next room. In slow-motion black-and-white, with Handel blaring on the soundtrack. Pretentious? You bet, but no risk, no reward, and at least the gloves are coming off early.
In the first chapter, titled “Grief,’’ He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) relocate to a cabin in the woods to work through their sorrow. He’s a therapist, the very model of enlightened male rationality, ecstatic at the notion of helping his wife. She’s an academic whose area of study is the persecution of witches in medieval times. The cabin is called Eden, nudge nudge, but if Dafoe’s character is our Adam, Gainsbourg is channeling someone much older and more primeval - Adam’s mythological first wife, Lilith.
The details of where “Antichrist’’ goes from here are not my business to tell you, and, anyway, how do you quantify a fever dream? The mystery of what’s ailing Gainsbourg’s character deepens further and further, into nature and prehistory, and von Trier’s command over his craft is unyielding. The images have the silvery patina of a grim fairy tale; the pacing tugs you forward like a current; in some scenes the edges of the screen itself seem to buckle.
There’s a foxhole out in the woods that leads to a place Alice would never go, a dark pit that’s both nurturing womb and ravenous maw. By the time the couple find themselves at its lip, the natural world is in insurrection. This is a film where animals speak of chaos and beasts gnaw on their own entrails, where we devour our young and foolishly think ourselves above the fray. “Nature is Satan’s church,’’ Gainsbourg’s character says, and in “Antichrist,’’ church is in session. If you handed Hieronymus Bosch a camera, this might be what he’d come up with.
The actors both give performances that are either brave or foolhardy, depending on your tolerance for envelope-pushing, but they’re never ridiculous even when the demands von Trier places on them reach unbelievably punishing levels. Dafoe has martyred himself for his art before - “Platoon,’’ “Body of Evidence,’’ “The Last Temptation of Christ,’’ you name it, he’s taken it - but Gainsbourg’s willingness to go the Jungian distance and beyond is at times astonishing. Hers is an empathic, instinctual portrayal, one harrowingly in tune with the filmmaker’s ideas about women.
Which, as it turns out, are pretty heinous. Not for nothing does a “misogyny consultant’’ get a credit on this film. Von Trier is mulching through major issues here - woman as creator, as destroyer, as man’s devil and nature’s goddess - and he finally, consciously goes too far, barreling toward an image of violence that’s almost cosmically offensive in the way it turns a real-world social tragedy into one man’s aesthetic masturbation.
Can profound art be made from profound misogyny? Yes, but here’s the catch: It doesn’t make the artist’s terror of women any less pathetic. “Antichrist’’ is a provocation and a confession, evidence both for and against its maker. The film’s a Freudian hash (if von Trier relates to anyone here, it’s probably that little boy, betrayed by mommy and taking a header out the window) and an excellent argument for Prozac. It’s an evil joke and devastating art; an act of audience abuse and proof of film’s ability to access the most subterranean levels of experience. It’s unlike any movie ever made. For that, be thankful.