I'm kind of disappointed that I don't feel moved to say much about provocateur director Lars Von Trier's "Antichrist." It was greeted at last year's Cannes film festival with a mix of outrage, befuddlement, adulation and even incredulous laughter. In fact, Von Trier even received a special citation that decried the work as "the most misogynist" of all the director's movies. All I can muster, however, is a "meh."
Not that there aren't any indelible images or moments. There's a clearly animatronic talking dead fox, which utters the movie's most infamous line, "Chaos reigns," as well as some genital mutilation. In close-up. But don't worry, ladies. Here, old Lars is an equal opportunity director.
"Antichrist" begins with an almost ludicrously beautiful-looking black and white prologue that depicts the leads, He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), making passionate love throughout their apartment while their toddler makes his way for an open window. In slo-mo synchronicity, the husband and wife reach their climax as the child tumbles to his death. The sequence is shot like a perfume commercial, which I think may have been the point, but it's not especially moving, considering the gravity of what happens and what follows.
After He and She bury their son, She suffers a severe nervous breakdown and becomes consumed with grief. This is where the movie takes off, if only for a little bit. Gainsbourg is terrific throughout in a brave, raw and unpredictable performance, but her work early on, combined with some intense and jarring editing, sets a tone that the rest of the movie can't really live up to, save for a few sequences.
He, a psychotherapist, doesn't want his wife taking medication and would rather She deal with her grief "naturally." Dafoe is good, as usual, but his character isn't very interesting. He's dull and rather full of himself, which She reminds him of quite frequently, and I can see why He enrages her so. Again, I understand why Von Trier wrote the character this way, but the final result, despite some raw moments, is just inert and remote, much like the movie itself.
Eventually He and She end up at Eden (har har!), their cabin deep in the woods, to work out her "therapy." She fears the woods most of all. Nature, teeming with both reproductive vitality and decay, is "Satan's church," She comes to say.
However, after much psychobabble, She embraces her fears and becomes an agent of them. At this point, "Antichrist" becomes a gender-reversed version of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." He stumbles upon the "dissertation" She has been working on: a rambling diatribe called "Gynocide" that features scraps of literature about witchcraft and some of her own writing, which gradually degenerates into gibberish. Now the show really begins, and She goes after He with nature's full fury. The final act is good, gripping horror, with brutal images and actions that will make men and women alike feel a twinge in their nether regions.
"Antichrist" is an allegorically rich curio with several stunningly lit and composed images from cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and a tremendous turn by Gainsbourg, who was robbed of an Academy Award nomination. I'd like to see Sandra Bullock try to smash Willem Dafoe's manhood with a log.
Rating: *** out of *****
("Antichrist" runs shorter than it feels at 108 minutes and is not rated. It's available through Netflix's streaming service.)
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