Out of professional courtesy, if nothing else, I will usually sit through the end of just about any film — even ones by Michael Bay. There are some films, though, that are simply asking to be walked out on; when a filmmaker spends two hours raising his middle finger at the audience — which is basically what Lars von Trier does with his pornographically violent horror film “Antichrist” — the sensible reaction is to head for the exit.
Von Trier’s “Antichrist,” a sensation at Cannes in 2009, exists almost solely as a provocation, and I’m sure the director would be overjoyed to learn that another walkout viewer has reacted with shock and outrage. Except that I didn’t; the “transgression” card has been so overplayed at this point — by Gaspar Noe, Michael Haneke, Kim Ki Duk, Takashi Miike — that it’s just dreary, brutal and pointless. I mean, genital mutilation — didn’t Isabelle Huppert already win Best Actress at Cannes for doing that back in 2001 in Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher”?
Nevertheless, Cannes 2009 chose to reward Charlotte Gainsbourg for doing the same in “Antichrist.” This is what it takes to win Best Actress at Cannes these days: yanking off violently next to the unconscious and bloody husband through whose leg you’ve just drilled a hole, followed up by self-castration. Bravo. (Interestingly, the jury that gave Gainsbourg the prize was headed by — surprise! — Isabelle Huppert.)
“Antichrist” opens with a three-minute sequence that shows a couple — Willem Dafoe and Gainsbourg — copulating as their infant child (in the next room) pries open a window and plunges to his death; it’s shot in rapturous slow-motion black and white, set to an aria by Handel, and resembles nothing so much as an arty perfume commercial with a gratuitous penetration shot slipped in. This technical precision soon gives way, for no apparent reason, to blurry scenes that look like shoddy “Blair Witch” knockoffs shot on shaky hand-held cameras. Call it stylistic schizophrenia, or just call it bad.
Gainsbourg can be a fine actress (see “21 Grams”), but her award-winning performance here mostly amounts to an absolutely hysterical portrayal of grief, whether she’s smashing her head into a toilet, or forcing herself on her husband with an animalistic ferocity. Dafoe, as her therapist spouse, pushes her to confront her fears; it turns out the darkest of all lurks in the forest near their isolated vacation home (called, pretentiously enough, Eden), so that’s where he takes her. She had been working there on a book on gynocide (male persecution of women as witches), and had come to the conclusion that “women do not control their own bodies. The evil does.”
She’s stark-raving mad, he’s condescending and controlling, and by the time they start trying to bash each other’s brains in, you feel nothing for either of them, but are expected to sit there and watch them brutalize each other with garden shears and grindstones. Good luck with that.
In the director’s defense, one could say that “Antichrist” — a scandalous film — is no more violent that Mel Gibson’s truly demented “The Passion of the Christ,” which played in the multiplexes. And von Trier, no less than Gibson, is indeed grappling with biblical good and evil: “Antichrist” posits women as the font of original sin and the fall from grace; it’s rife with crucifixion imagery; and it even offers up a resurrection of sorts.
But its theology is confused, and ultimately it’s far from clear what — if anything — the director is trying to impart. Complicating this is how the director has now made film after film — “Breaking the Waves,” “Dancer in the Dark,” “Dogville” — where he makes his female characters suffer the cruelest torments. Read into that what you will.
“Antichrist” seeks to explore the interplay of sex and death, and how grief from the loss of a child can drive one insane, but von Trier’s histrionic film compares poorly with the similarly themed classic “Don’t Look Now” (1973), which is genuinely creepy and also far more moving. “Antichrist” is simply a mess, content to wallow in cruelty and a half-baked theory that nature — or woman, take your pick — is evil. If the bloody ejaculation scene doesn’t send you racing for the exit, surely the sheer ridiculousness of a talking fox who suddenly pops up out of nowhere to growl “chaos reigns!” will.