After the accidental death of their son, a grief-stricken couple (Gainsbourg and Dafoe) retreat to a cabin in the woods hoping to find sanctuary and resolution. Instead, they’re confronted with the true nature of evil when nature – both environmental and human – begins to devour them.
Anyone who’s ever accused Lars von Trier of senseless provocation, misanthropy, or cruelty to actors (like those are bad things) is going to have a moral seizure watching Antichrist, a soul-erasing deconstruction of the male-female relationship that makes Kurtz’s epiphany of “horror” look like a weekend couples retreat. So will half the audience, for that matter, and here’s the thing: von Trier probably couldn’t be more pleased. The self-proclaimed “Best Director in the World” has sculpted a visceral, unforgettable riposte to his doubters; and goddamn it if he hasn’t gone and made a perverse masterpiece.
Antichrist’s opening scene is a kind of litmus test, for it may well be its most repugnant. Grotesque, middlebrow art porn, it finds Dafoe and Gainsbourg — billed cryptically only as He and She — screwing in incredibly graphic detail while their son plummets to his demise, fusing sex and death in a tableau of turgid, black-and-white bourgeois cinematography that demands catharsis — if not outright punishment.
And that’s just the entrée. The couple’s relocation to the seeming woodland paradise of “Eden” unleashes a sequence of horrors that begins with grief, paranoia and illusion and coils tight into inexplicable psychosis and grisly violence. Gainsbourg pores over esoteric writings and suffers night terrors, while Dafoe’s shrink ineffectually, and then disastrously, attempts to counsel her. “Nature is Satan’s church,” She says. The garden of creation becomes a crucible of destruction.
No doubt this is the queasiest hour-and-a-half of cinema ever to feature a talking fox — unnerving, nightmare stuff, where the grass can strike up fear — even if deciphering what it all means is anyone’s guess. He and She might be pervasive archetypes or mere ciphers, oblique pawns in an arch fairy tale where the forest’s sinister surprises are tame next to the real villain: human nature.
Debate will rage over the perceived misogyny of a film in which the act of female pleasure leads to an already-notorious scene of physical mutilation, yet it’s too easy to dismiss von Trier’s ravings as caveman rhetoric. “Hit me so it hurts,” She says, as if suppressed into thinking she’s evil; a woman who’s lost control of her body to the point of hysterical revolt. For all we know it borders on feminism, especially when the objectified horror starlet becomes the very monster she usually vanquishes.
Whatever your opinion of von Trier — he’s the enemy of polite cinema, at the very least — there’s no denying Antichrist is a fine horror film. Simply, it does what a classic of the genre should: taps into the things that petrify us most and the proceeds to scare the humanity out of us. The movie understands that genuine terror isn’t the domain of ghouls and spectres; it resides in people. Its brew of insidious dread, subliminal demons and bloody ejaculation isn’t just excruciating to watch, it’s impossible to turn away from. And the dedication to Tarkovsky is telling – not because the film echoes his The Mirror, but that it imagines a weird universe in which the Russian director had helmed The Evil Dead.
That members of a Cannes jury gave Antichrist a special anti-humanitarian award should serve as fair warning, or more correctly, recommendation. See it with someone you love. And when you get to Hell, tell ’em Uncle Lars sent you.