Lars von Trier freely admits in interviews that he makes the same film over and over: a huis clos melodrama in which a passive, vulnerable, often mentally unstable woman is gradually driven crazy, and sometimes killed, by the gaslighting of a sadistic man. There’s nothing wrong with an artist returning obsessively to the same set of themes and images. But von Trier’s fetishistic re-enactment of psychological and physical torture scenarios seems to grow less, not more nuanced with each go-round. Breakingthe Waves and Dancer in the Dark were powerful, unsettling, transformative movie experiences, even if their endings came uncomfortably close to making the case for virgin sacrifice. But after the excruciating juvenile provocation that was Dogville, I felt no need to see the “sequel,”Manderlay, in which Bryce Dallas Howard stepped into the female-punching-bag role that Nicole Kidman refused to reprise. And after the infantile bludgeoning that is Antichrist (IFC Films), I feel no need to keep accompanying von Trier’s career at all. I’ll just read the plot outline of each new movie, layer on that familiar von Trier affect of repulsion, resentment, and boredom, and it’ll be as if I’ve seen it.
The film opens with a dialogue-free preface, shot in black and white and set to the sublime Handel aria, “Lascia Ch’io Pianga.” As water beads on a glass shower door, a man and a woman, identified in the credits only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) have sex—graphic, unsimulated, genitals-in-close-up sex. We can assume that it’s pretty good sex too, because as they move from the shower to the laundry room to the bed, the ecstatic couple is unaware that their toddler son has awakened, escaped his crib, and climbed up on a windowsill in their bedroom, where, just as his parents reach climax, he plunges out the window to his death on the street below. The opener is a kind of classical-music video, as exquisitely framed and calibrated as it is nakedly manipulative. Even as you admire the formal artistry of this sequence, you start to resent the movie’s matter-of-fact assault on its audience: Gotta dispatch Junior right up front so we can get on with the raw maternal grief.
After the credits, the movie switches to color, sort of. It’s shot in a monochromatic palette of cold grays and blues. The baby’s mother, She, has been hospitalized for a month after an “abnormal grief reaction.” (In these early scenes especially, Gainsbourg earns the acting award she received at Cannes, her suffering all the more palpable for being underplayed. Dafoe’s role is more workmanlike, but he’s excellent in it as well.) On her release, He, a cognitive-behavioral therapist by profession, embarks on a bizarre treatment regimen that involves throwing away all of her medication and systematically exposing her to her deepest fears. You’d think those fears might include having sex, given what happened that last time, but like bonobos, He and She seem to resolve the majority of their conflicts through intercourse. In between bouts, He scribbles a pyramid chart with her greatest dread at the top. For reasons that aren’t clear at first, what freaks Gainsbourg’s character out the most is the idea of returning to Eden, a remote forest cabin where the couple has long gone on holiday retreats. The last time She traveled there alone with their son, She confesses, she was unable to finish her thesis on “gynocide” because She was haunted by the notion that something evil lurked in the woods. Given her husband’s pitiless therapeutic approach, it’s not hard to guess that they’ll soon be on a train to Eden for some sexual healing of the most extreme variety.
All horror movies rest on the necessity of convincing the audience that something impossible might happen—for example, that a woman would try to complete a large writing project while traveling alone with a toddler. On a slightly more believable scale, the film asks us to imagine that the woods around Eden are home to some dreadful occult force, one having to do with nature, reproduction, and death. He witnesses a deer giving birth on a trail, She is haunted by the ceaseless pelting of the cabin roof by falling acorns (all potential baby trees, almost all fated to die before they sprout). A fox gnaws at its own entrails and seems to speak. Somehow He and She convince themselves and each other (if not us) that women are at fault for all this, what with their inherently terrifying sexuality and all. And the fact that their isolated cabin is papered with clippings of medieval torture and witch hunts does nothing to lighten the mood. When He makes the mistake of obliquely criticizing her parenting skills—why did she put the boy’s shoes on the wrong feet so much?—She heads out to the tool shed.
I’m with Anthony Lane on this: When the box of rusty tools gets hauled out, feel free to leave the theater. Every image from Antichrist that you will want to retain (including the stunning Boschian tableau released as a promo shot, in which He-She copulate on a woodpile studded with ghostly limbs) happens before the last act, which is conveniently marked off by a title card. The last 20 minutes are horrifically violent, relentlessly claustrophobic, and irredeemably pointless. Von Trier has us on the hot seat, and he’s going to walk us through his most primitive sexual nightmares—not because they’ll bring us to a greater understanding of madness or love or grief, but just because he bloody well feels like it. (Antichrist was conceived and written while von Trier was in a deep depression, and more than any of his earlier films, it feels like an unprocessed projection of his inner life.) The viewer hovers between genuine shock—whatever your tolerance for on-screen gore, what He and She do to each other’s and their own bodies is sickening to watch—and the eye-rolling resignation one might feel at a teenage son’s gothcore concert. You win, Lars—if I’m the bourgeoisie, consider me épatée.