Before you have a chance to call him any names, director Lars von Trier beats you to the punch. His name is the first thing to appear on the screen, followed quickly by the title: Antichrist. Lars von Trier = Antichrist. Get it?
The title is largely a joke, as is (I hope) the prologue to the film. In elegant black and white, with Handel’s Rinaldo soaring in the background, a couple (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) indulges in passionate, slow-motion sex while their toddler son climbs out of his crib, onto a chair and falls out a window to his death. It would be exploitative if it wasn’t so laughable, especially when von Trier delivers the hack filmmaker shot of the boy’s teddy bear hitting the sidewalk.
Neither of these lead characters gets a name, which suggests von Trier’s level of interest in them as people.
The ensuing sections – respectively labeled “Grief,” “Pain” and “Despair” – chart the couple’s descent from anguish into madness. When the wife proves inconsolable, the husband, a therapist, makes the unwise decision to treat her as his patient (ignoring his own distress). At first their sessions take place in their squalid apartment – it looks like a leftover Saw set – but eventually they move to a remote cabin in the woods. The setting allows von Trier’s talent for striking tableaus to blossom – there’s an astonishing shot of the couple having sex at the base of a gnarled tree, with the pale arms of mysterious others reaching out from the roots – while the story itself grows progressively outlandish.
Neither of these lead characters gets a name, which suggests von Trier’s level of interest in them as people. His abrupt camera style during the conversation scenes – jumping around for various angles, which are then edited into a series of starts and stops – severely undercuts the performances. Just when Gainsbourg or Dafoe are digging into a moment, an abrupt cut yanks them – and thereby us – out of it. For the movie’s purposes, this man and woman are symbols for their respective gender. If Antichrist begins as a heavily art-directed exploration of grief, it expands to consider many other things: historical gynocide; nature (human and otherwise) as malevolent force; and sex as something deserving of punishment. (Despite its graphic sexuality, Antichrist is puritanical at heart.)
We’re left, then, to match these thematic elements with the shock images delivered by von Trier, including a fox disemboweling itself. For me, most of this was absurdly abstract in a way that his best films – Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark – are not. The problem with everything onscreen being a provocative symbol is that none of it carries a sense of urgency – it’s all taking place at a theoretical level. Antichrist does its best to jar you into feeling something – genital mutilation features prominently – but the movie remains, shockingly, at a distance.