Fancy a Tree-some? Dafoe roots around in Gainsbourg.
Fancy a Tree-some? Dafoe roots around in Gainsbourg.

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Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is pretentious. Its kick-start tragedy, a boy who falls out of a window and dies while his parents are having sex, is filmed in slow-motion and accompanied by an aria. The movie is also explicit, with the aforementioned scene including an extreme close-up of the negligent penis thrusting into the negligent vagina and several subsequent shots of angry sex, grieving sex, masochistic sex.

And when, in what hopefully is meant to be a dream sequence, a fox turns to the father and growls, “Chaos reigns!” Antichrist is unequivocally ridiculous.

Bundle these characteristics together and you have a film that some viewers may consider art but most will find insufferable. Which shouldn’t be surprising: With a résumé including unpleasantries such as Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville, von Trier is skilled at punishing both his characters and his audience. And in this case, he’s unapologetic, offering a statement in the production notes that he “can offer no excuse for ‘Antichrist’”—he claims to have written it while in a deep depression—though he also calls it “the most important film of my entire career.”

Shocking festivalgoers at Cannes is not the same as being important, however, and even if you do buy that there’s a message in the madness, it’s not a pretty one—just check the credits, which give a nod to those who did “research on misogyny and evil.” The story starts out being one about grief, when the characters pompously called only She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and He (Willem Dafoe) dealing with the death of their son. She is overwhelmed by it, spending a month in a mental hospital before he, a therapist, decides to check her out and treat her on his own.

When she does nothing but wail, hyperventilate, and repeatedly hit and attempt to rape him in her anguish, he tries to find out what she’s afraid of in order to do a little exposure therapy. When she can’t pinpoint a thing, he asks for a place—which ends up being Eden, a cabin they own in the woods. So they go there, where she says bizarre things such as “The ground is burning,” claims to be all better one day, and then proceeds to do nothing but wail, hyperventilate, and repeatedly hit and attempt to rape him.

Once the couple enter the woods, Antichrist morphs from drama to a sort of art-horror, with a bit of pornography mixed in. Emotional torment manifests itself in physical abuse, some of which would seem de rigueur in a slasher flick but is jaw-dropping here. (Genital mutilation, though—I’m not sure where that has a cinematic place outside of documentary.) Von Trier goes heavy on the theme of the “three beggars”—pain, grief, despair—which are shown on statues during the scene in which the boy dies and then are used as chapter titles. Without giving too much away, the point of all this agony, as well as the title itself, seems to be best hinted at in a line Gainsbourg delivers: “A crying woman is a scheming woman.”

One impressive aspect of Antichrist is its visuals. Whenever Dafoe’s character is leading his lover through guided imagery or they’re dreaming/hallucinating, Slumdog Millionaire cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle presents the images like a painting, with scenes nearly Impressionistic in their soft, foggy lines and muted, otherworldly palette of green, blue, and gray. But a breathtaking appearance is not enough to salvage a work that’s definitely not film-as-entertainment and only marginally film-as-art. Antichrist’s other plus is its 109-minute length, practically a blip to an auteur who prefers to be leisurely. But by the time Chapter 3: Despair (Cyanide) comes along, that parenthetical will sound pretty good, if only in hope that the characters will immediately use some to put everyone’s misery to an end.