Oh, that Lars von Trier, what will he do to women next? If his new film “Antichrist” is any indication, it will be off-with-their-heads and all their erogenous zones, but slowly, painfully and with a very dull knife.
The psychosexual side of women never fares too well in the filmmaker’s vision of the world. There was his 1996 treatise on sex as penance for Emily Watson in “Breaking the Waves,” then there was sex as punishment in 2003 for Nicole Kidman in “Dogville.” And now comes “Antichrist": Female sexuality has evolved into pure evil here with Von Trier looking ever so much like the Marquis de Sade of filmmaking.
The story of “Antichrist” is a tangled mess of sex, evil and death, with Von Trier making a stab at allegory and old-fashioned horror, but ultimately failing on both fronts. The two central characters are called He and She, portrayed by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. They are a couple broken by the death of innocence, specifically their toddler Nic, a beautiful boy played by Storm Acheche Sahlstrom. Nic has fallen in what appears to be nothing more than a tragic accident, but there are dark forces and demons gathering.
There is a Botticelli beauty to the film that can be seductive. But the artistry that made Von Trier, a founding member of the Dogme 95 movement that has captivated European cinema elite for years, so compelling as a filmmaker with a great deal to say is nowhere to be found here. The mesmerizing provocation of “Breaking the Waves,” with Watson’s conversations with God a powerful indictment of religion in the hands of a rigid mankind, feels like exploitation in “Antichrist,” with the couple wandering aimlessly through a random universe in which logic has ceased to exist. It feels neither avant-garde nor experimental -- just misguided.
There is a prologue to get us into the story; then, using a technique he’s fond of, Von Trier moves the action along by dividing the film into chapters, which in “Antichrist” he’s titled Grief, Pain and Despair (if three chapters starts to feel endless, keep in mind that “Dogville” had nine).
She is nearly comatose in the wake of her son’s death, and haunted by nightmares. He begins trying to deconstruct the feelings that are paralyzing her in hopes of helping her heal. Like a modern-day inquisition, they sit in the shadows of their house and parse through the devastation of their loss. She’s on the rack; he’s tightening the screws.
The film initially seems as if it will be a smartly done, if dark, intellectual excursion, but it quickly turns into a Freudian house of mirrors. Dafoe represents the ego, the rational and controlling side of things, while Gainsbourg is pure id, emotionally tortured and increasingly unhinged. Meanwhile, Von Trier as super-ego hovers above it all, his deeply conflicted and increasingly disturbing interpretation of the male and female of the species more nakedly on display than ever.
There is a lot of before and after in the story too, primarily scenes of the couple’s intense lovemaking, her last memory of their life before Nic’s death. He decides they should return to their cabin in the woods. It is a place called Eden, and if you know Von Trier’s work at all, you know that if it’s biblical, it’s going to be bad.
You might think, given the He, She, Eden, etc., that the film is allegory. It is not. “Antichrist” never rises to the symbolic; instead, it looks like nothing more than a reflection of one man’s unresolved issues with the sexual liberation of women.
The horror in this tale comes not in apparitions or irony, but in the things humans are capable of doing to themselves and others. In She’s case, her desire for sex, her need for it, is the demon. When it comes to He, the evil is hate masquerading as love. As they turn against each other, the movie shifts from philosophical debate to a level of graphic gore that renders the meat hooks of “Hellraiser” preferable by comparison.
What makes Von Trier’s vision particularly troubling is how powerfully he tells his stories. Actresses give themselves over to this director, with performances so physically and emotionally naked, it’s as if you could see inside their soul. Gainsbourg has done that and more in “Antichrist.” So deep does the actress disappear inside She, and so completely does Gainsbourg embrace the demon Von Trier has given her, that she earned the best actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
“Antichrist,” Von Trier has said, was an exercise he used to write himself out of a deep depression a few years ago, a “glimpse into the dark world of my imagination.” If the menacing fog of this film is the antidote, it is a wonder he emerged at all. It is worth noting that the credits include therapeutic consultants for cast and crew; none, unfortunately, are available to us.
MPAA rating: Not rated (no one under 18 admitted)
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: In limited release, locally at the Landmark Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles