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Drag 'Em to Hell

MOVIE REVIEW
Antichrist (2009)

028055
Festival de Cannes

I don't know if it's smart, but I like it. Or more truthfully: I like the fact that Lars von Trier, consumed by whatever black humor and profound doubts fill his days, can create a film so uncompromising, so despairing and so wickedly contrarian that it defies criticism and explanation in equal measure. And I like that he brought it to Cannes and created a storm of outrage, the perfect backdrop for the friendly folk queuing behind me to ask “Wait, this is the guy who made 'Dogma?' ”

“Antichrist” is a film to ponder, which is just as well since it's hard to forget. The prologue is striking enough, a black-and-white snow-bound meditation in which the nameless couple played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (the characters are credited only as He and She) make love while oblivious to the accidental death of their child. Their lovemaking includes a shot of penetration, rendered in the kind of clarity only the RED One can provide (the credits mention body doubles).

Unable to process her grief, She falls to pieces, so her therapist husband takes a hand in her treatment. Against the advice of her actual doctors, He takes her off her meds and decides to cure her himself, eventually suggesting that they go back to an isolated forest shack where She and the child had spent a previous summer. The place is called Eden, and she was there writing a thesis about witchcraft, so you can't claim that Mr. von Trier is being very obtuse here.

Pointless to describe what goes on next, since “Antichrist” should be experienced rather than explained, but His therapeutic tactics become more and more aggressive as they fail to work, and She reacts in ways very unlikely to make it intact to a multiplex near you.

“Antichrist” pretends to follow horror-film logic, in that when the camera tracks slowly into dark places something nasty usually leaps up, accompanied by all manner of Lynchian rumbles. But this is a most atypical horror film. The subtexts and themes are theological, and Mr. von Trier's conclusions are hardly uplifting. Both He and She stop being characters and turn into avatars, hacking away at each other brutally. In Ms. Gainsbourg's case, this leads to a surgical procedure with a pair of rusty scissors that won't be making it to a multiplex anywhere in the solar system. That all this is the exact reversal of what a reasonable couple would do would seem to be the whole point. Mr. von Trier doesn't put much stock in reason, and the film is saturated by despair to an almost intolerable extent.

It's also exquisitely made. Both actors are staggeringly brave from first shot to last, and the director rewards them with some beautiful images. Ms. Gainsbourgh melts into the forest floor like a woodland elemental, ghostly corpses materialize in the landscape, hands emerge from tree roots while the couple make love.

And it's even funny, although the jokes are the kind where the director may be laughing more than you: A very weird talking fox turns up, to deliver the line 'chaos reigns' backed by enough dissonant aggression on the soundtrack to loosen a man's fillings. More telling is that the rain machine above Mr. Dafoe is promptly switched on, subjecting him to an instant comedy downpour straight out of Laurel and Hardy. The funniest joke doesn't translate to print at all, but involves a non-existent constellation in the night sky and proves conclusively that Mr. von Trier is a puppet master of the highest order.

Whether that's all he is is a matter for debate. “Antichrist” is a blast of total will power on the part of its creator, an anagram of his theology emptied out onto the screen. The stuff in it about human nature and sexuality is strong meat, but better a film with an idea in its head than one without, even if the director falls on that idea from a great height. “Antichrist” hangs together perfectly, but in the same way a piece of automatic writing does. What I think it means may be totally different than Mr. von Trier's beliefs, but I don't think he's very bothered by that. So why should I be? Épater les cinéastes.

ANTICHRIST

Opens on Oct. 23 in New York and Los Angeles and on July 24 in Britain.

Written and directed by Lars von Trier; director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle; edited by Anders Refn; music by Handel; production designer, Karl Juliusson; produced by Meta Louise Foldager; released by IFC Films (United States) and Artificial Eye (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. This film is not rated by M.P.A.A. and is rated 18 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Willem Dafoe (He), Charlotte Gainsbourg (She) and Storm Acheche Sahlstrom (Nic).

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