Antichrist is an exorcism of the foulness and unmitigated hatred stewing inside notorious provocateur Lars von Trier. Its production follows a crippling depression which stifled the Danish master’s output for two years, following completion of what could be described as his only conventional film, 2006’s office comedy The Boss of it All. This new work finds von Trier coming out the other side of the woods and leading us in: Antichrist is set in the heart of a spooky forest ironically referred to as “Eden.” The film’s proverbial Adam and Eve (the cast lists them as “He” and “She”) are played by the willowy Charlotte Gainsbourg and previous von Trier collaborator (in 2005’s Manderlay) Willem Dafoe. The couple recently lost their only son (a tragedy depicted while they have uninhibited sex in the film’s heavily-stylized black and white prologue), and the wife has been stricken with inconsolable grief. Her husband (also her therapist, who arrogantly decides to treat her) attempts to console and rehabilitate his spouse, repelling her sexual advances and embracing her firmly each time she awakes from vivid nightmares. But after the doc’s usual tricks prove largely ineffective (he instructs, “make a list of what scares you,” and, “exhale on the count of five,” but the woman’s violent episodes persist), it’s decided that the couple must pursue a more severe approach and face these terrors head-on. He leads his wilting wife to a cabin in the woods — into the forest of Eden, the place She claims she fears more than any other. Unsurprisingly, what the couple find in their foliage-ensconced retreat is nothing less than hell on Earth; a fiercely primal series of brutal acts which She inflicts upon Him in some kind of possessed fury and misguided vengeance.
Lars isn’t fooling around: within the first five minutes, brief penetration is shown on screen (goodbye R-rating), and later on, one character is forced to ejaculate blood and another takes a pair of shears to their genitals (hello NC-17). All this ultra-violence is given some context through Gainsbourg’s pained whisper of a warning: “Nature is Satan’s church.” Sentiments like these are more than appropriate considering that von Trier has dedicated Antichrist to Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, whose films were often heavily influenced by their natural environments. Acts of carnality and physical abuse are suggested to be provoked by the influence of Eden’s foreboding landscape, which complements the film’s primal urgency (especially in regard to the un-sexy and desperate sexual encounters, of which there are many). It’s frustrating than that von Trier introduces a more academic motive for the wife’s horrific behaviors: we learn that She was working on her master’s thesis, regarding the mistreatment of 18th century woman, which suggests that all this mayhem may be the result of some kind of demonic possession (and/or just some good ol’ misogynistic statement on Lars’ part). And then there’s the Three Beggars, a trio of recurring woodland creatures (a deer, a fox and a crow) who pop up in horrific succession during the film. Their implication here is riotous: a fox actually talks at one point (the only point; “Chaos reigns!” he groans, covered in blood from eating himself alive), which understandably has been met with ample parodying. This is a consistent failing of Antichrist: the more serious and provocative moments are too ridiculous to be taken as such, and thus often come off as comical, and we have to assume that’s not what von Trier was aiming for (though who knows with this guy).
Yet however dubious the usually on-point von Trier’s symbolic implications may be in this equally dubious return to the horror genre (isn’t he past this phase of his career?), his craft is still undeniably accomplished. Both the opening and closing sequences of Antichrist have an elevating quality to them that could easily excuse whatever comes between, but von Trier further stuns with his impressionistic therapy sessions, which find the husband instructing the wife to visit the forest in her mind and let it absorb her body—a sort of catharsis before the storm. And when a tempest of brutal, unrelenting violence does hit (like a brick to the dick, literally) its depiction is just as arresting as the more tame sequences. It’s a nasty bit of business for sure, frankly depicted without an ounce of irony, and sure to be the cause of many a sleepless night and heated debates between cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike. But the fact is, this is moving cinema; whether you’re moved to love it, moved to hate it, or it just churns your stomach with wretched bile, Antichrist will undoubtedly inspire a passionate reaction. So even if Lars von Trier isn’t the “best film director in the world,” as he so boldly and, one would assume, tongue-in-cheekily proclaimed at his Cannes press conference, he’s still unquestionably the boss of it all—a unique artistic force who plays by his own rules and answers to no one.