The universal eventuality of death is at the darkened heart of "Antichrist," a wounding, psychologically complex piece of work written and directed by Lars von Trier (2004's "Dogville
"). The film, sharply dividing critics and audiences at the Cannes Film Festival for its unflinching blend of graphic sexuality and violence, has been widely touted as Trier's first true foray into the horror genre. Anyone who is familiar with the Danish writer-director's work, however, will know not to expect conventional genre fare with all the usual scare tactics. No, his aims are much more encompassing and auspicious than that, turning a tale of grief and despair into one that pulls those very emotions from the viewer, as if he or she were living it. "Antichrist" is as difficult as it is mesmerizing, an open invitation for personal interpretation made all the more fascinating for its heavy coating of symbolism. It also wouldn't be a bad idea for theaters showing the picture to hang signs at the door reading, "Abandon all hope ye who enter here."
When their toddler son, Nic (Storm Acheche Sahlstrom), falls out a window to his death while they make love one room away, a married couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) are left shattered by the tragedy. He is a therapistand a cocky one at thatunder the belief that he can check her out of the hospital and better treat her bereavement than they can. "Where are you most afraid?" he asks her. "The woods," she replies, and more specifically Eden, a secluded location in the wilderness of Washington State where they keep a summer cabin. It is here that he works with his wife day and night, hoping to ease her through the painful stages of mourning so that they may eventually be able to move on with their lives. What they find, though, is anything but peace, either spelling the end of their sanity, or, quite possibly, the end of days.
The troubled man and woman in "Antichrist" pass through the film unnamed, credited as only He and She. If the biblical Eden was the garden of God where Adam and Eve were ultimately cast out, then the Eden in "Antichrist" is no less than the garden of Satan, and He and She are staying put until their own destruction. He and She exchange precious few faith-based conversations, but from the title, to the ironic location name, to the horrific events that guide us to its bitter culmination, it is very clear that writer-director Lars von Trier has devised a mirror image of all that is good and light. The results are powerful enough to haunt a person's conscience, perhaps no line more shattering and frighteningly true than the wife's proclamation that the sounds of nature are like "the cry of all the things that are to die." Death for humans, for animals, for plants, for minerals and everything else is imminent and unavoidable, and it is this notion that weighs down all the heavier on her as acorns ceaselessly pelt their cabin roof and she mentally deteriorates.
Or, could it be that she is actually reaching newfound clarity? Without giving away all of the revelations and turns within the story, it can at least be noted that not everything is as it seems, both in the past and in the present that she has made for herself. As the various pieces of the puzzle mounti.e., he finds her abandoned thesis on genocide in the attic of the cabin, her writings from the previous summer when she stayed there with Nic increasingly erratic; his son's autopsy results report a slight bone abnormality in his feet that he thinks nothing of until he comes upon photographs that may explain the causeshe begins to confuse her original study of the evil done against women with the evil of
women. She has her reasons.
Carnal and surreal, "Antichrist" is a dream-turned-nightmare (the turn, for those keeping track, arrives in the prologue, a slow-motion montage of He and She in the throws of ecstasy while Nic innocently and unsuspectingly moves toward his own doom, scored to the aria "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Georg Friedrich Handel's opera "Rinaldo"). From there, things only grow more dire, a filmic warning of the seismic injustices done to the living and the twisted fate that higher powersif, for that matter, there are higher powershave in store for us all. As the struggle between He and She intensifies, ominous prophetic run-ins with a deer and its stillborn calf, a self-cannibalizing fox, and a buried black crow that won't die"The Three Beggars," only devioushint at the grim destiny hovering upon the horizon.
In fearless performances that must have taken a physical and emotional toll on them, Willem Dafoe (2006's "Inside Man
") and Charlotte Gainsbourg (2006's "The Science of Sleep
") delve into raw, charcoal-black areas of the human condition as He and She. Dafoe, playing the more logic-driven of the two, hopes to help his wife as a means of not directly dealing himself with the emotions he feels about losing a child he was not as close to as he knows he should have been. For her part, Gainsbourg bares her soul and her body in a way that only an actress without vanity could. Watching the film, the viewer thinks he or she knows where this guilt-stricken woman is coming from. That there is far more to her than meets the eye requires that Gainsbourg be constantly playing two levels at once. She is nothing short of exquisite.
Is "Antichrist" misogynistic? That the end credits tell us there was a "misogyny researcher" on the production points to no, that director Lars von Trier's view of the female persuasion is not consenting to his genocidal themes, but a critical comment on the persecution of women throughout the centuries for being, in certain chauvinistic views, less than a man. Nevertheless, Trier does acknowledge that anyone is capable of evil ways and refuses to back pedal as he steers toward a climax just about as bleak as the very sun burning out. Filmed in Westphalia, Germany, filling in for the Pacific Northwest, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (2008's "Slumdog Millionaire
") captures Eden and the surrounding forests as a fairy tale gone fatalistically wrong, the stark opposite of happily ever after. A catharsis never comesTrier leaves his audience dangling on the cliff of the abyssnor is one intended. As such, "Antichrist" does not satisfy so much as it impresses with its sheer dauntless, sobering nerve. Love it or hate it, you cannot ignore it.