At the New York Film Festival, it’s almost guaranteed that there will be at least one controversial film to set the Alice Tully Hall denizens’ tongues wagging. The Danish cinematic enfant terrible Lars von Trier has supplied a few of these throughout the years, including “Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark,” “Dogville” and “Manderlay.” It’s safe to say that his latest, “Antichrist,” is without a doubt his most extreme provocation to date.
Reportedly the result of a lengthy depression von Trier suffered in the period before he made it, this film astonishes with its free-associative, dream-like (or, more accurately, nightmare-like) style. Though it seems like most of the film doesn’t make a lick of sense, it is never less than riveting, even though most viewers will very much want to look away, especially in its extremely violent latter sessions.
Von Trier has often been tagged with the label of “misogynist,” and “Antichrist” will do little to assuage these detractors. However, as with all things von Trier, the reality is not quite that simple. The scenario is spare and archetypal: a couple, known only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), venture into the woods after the death of their young son to a place they call Eden where He, a professional therapist, attempts to cure She of her extreme grief over her child’s death. They are the only two characters in the entire film, and von Trier unleashes an arsenal of nightmare imagery and “WTF?!” moments to depict this couple’s psychic journey – talking animals, genital mutilation and other extremes abound.
While at first it seems that von Trier is having a laugh at our expense, it eventually becomes clear that what we see is far from a joke, and that this is as close a peek into an artist’s id as any that has ever been created. Gainsbourg won best actress at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and while evaluating performances in a film such as this almost seems beside the point, one can’t help but admire the fact that both actors are more than game for everything von Trier throws at them.
Divided into four chapters, “Antichrist” begins with a gorgeously shot slow-motion monochrome sequence depicting the death of the couple’s child. Accompanied by the music of Handel on the soundtrack, we see the child make his way out of the crib and fall to his death out of the window, unnoticed by his parents having passionate sex, very graphically shown – par for the course for von Trier. At the outset of the film proper, which switches to a muted color palette, She collapses during her son’s funeral and is subsequently admitted to a hospital. He pulls her out of the hospital, believing that She is being prescribed too much medication, and that he could do a better job at curing her of the extreme grief and guilt over their son’s death. He intends to be analytical and logical in how he goes about doing this, to the extent that She at one point accuses him of being indifferent to their son’s death. When the two retreat to “Eden,” a small log cabin deep in the woods, He puts She under hypnosis to exorcise her guilt as well as her deep fears of the woods themselves. But very soon, his carefully planned strategy begins to unravel.
The above description may make “Antichrist” seem much more coherent than it actually is, at least initially. Von Trier also indulges in some rather clichéd and tacky depictions of the hypnosis sessions. And yet there is an elemental power to the flow of images in the film that, to this viewer, eventually proves irresistible. Given the catcalling and booing that greeted its premiere at Cannes, it would seem that I am in the minority opinion. Von Trier clearly means to give the audience a taste of the psychological torture he experienced during his depression, and how one responds to this film ultimately depends on how one responds to its creator. If you are a hardcore von Trier fan (as I must confess I am), then you will fund much to savor. If not, well, as they say, caveat emptor.
As one of the film’s chapter titles states, “Chaos Reigns.” That statement could stand as a credo for von Trier’s entire oeuvre, and it has never been truer than his latest work.
“Antichrist” can be seen (if you dare) at the New York Film Festival on October 2 and 3. To purchase tickets, visit the NYFF website. “Antichrist” opens in theaters Oct. 23.
Video: Lars von Trier