By Matt Brunson
DIRECTED BY Lars Von Trier
STARS Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg
Lars Von Trier is no stranger to accusations of rampant misogyny: As his detractors tell it, you would think that his anti-female stance began as he exited his mother's womb, making sure to repeatedly punch and pinch her legs all the while the doctor was yanking him out.
Looking at many of his past works, however, I see only murkiness where many others admittedly see clarity. The women at the center of the powerful Breaking the Waves and the turgid Dancer in the Dark (played by Emily Watson and Bjork, respectively) were as much sympathetic heroines as put-upon victims, while the protagonist of the provocative Dogville (Nicole Kidman) ultimately didn't suffer fools or masochists lightly. But now here comes Antichrist, which so offended one of the juries at Cannes that its members gave it an "anti-award" for its dire views of humanity in general and women in specificity. Frankly, I think the jury was simply grandstanding (and the Cannes festival head apparently agreed, lambasting their action as one step away from outright censorship), but there's no denying that this is one troubling and troubled work, a film so dour and downbeat that it makes Cannes' big winner, The White Ribbon, look as cheery as Mary Poppins by comparison.
The main characters are simply called He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), and the film opens with them making love even as their infant child is plunging to his death from an open window high above the snow-covered street. Both are wracked with grief, but She also grapples with feelings of guilt, explaining that she feels responsible for the tragedy. A therapist by trade, He attempts to analyze her, finally deciding that they need to leave the city and retreat to their isolated cabin in the woods, in an area they call Eden.
The first half of the movie, the city portion, is one long haul, a prolonged bull session between two people experiencing marital discord. Ingmar Bergman's superb Scenes from a Marriage offered a couple that felt real as they dealt with their circumstances in a raw and often uncomfortable manner, but Von Trier's pair never rise to that level, merely functioning as mouthpieces for the auteur's arch noodling.
Once the spouses reach their cabin, the film picks up, albeit not always in appreciable ways. She claims to finally be cured of her fears and doubts, but this is merely the calm before the storm: As time passes, she becomes more maniacal, throwing him down for violent bouts of sex, embracing the theory that women are the root of all evil in this world, and engaging in various forms of mutilation. I wouldn't claim to be able to read Von Trier's mind to say whether he himself was condemning women or merely showing how the loss of a child could warp a parent's outlook, but it's interesting to note that had He been the affected one who turned violent on his mate instead of the other way around, Von Trier would still have been accused of misogyny (since the wife would be battered by the male), so it was a lose-lose situation for him either way.
Where Von Trier comes closest to succeeding is in showing how unbearable grief can lead anyone to act out in bizarre and unimaginable ways. Unfortunately, this seed of a viable idea is lost as the filmmaker clumsily throws in religious parallels and risible fantasy sequences (the appearance of a talking fox made me wonder if I was suddenly watching Fantastic Mr. Fox again) in an effort to stir the pot as much as possible. But it's a losing battle, with his chilly, self-important presentation keeping audiences at bay. It's a far cry from Nicolas Roeg's excellent 1973 chiller Don't Look Now, which maintains a high-gloss art-house sheen yet draws us into its similar story of a couple (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) coping with the drowning death of their child. Like Antichrist, it also features explicit sex and climaxes with a disturbing sequence of graphic violence; unlike Antichrist, it explores issues of faith, death and matrimony with a steady hand. Don't Look Now is worth a look far more than Antichrist, a muddled picture most notable for flaunting the sins of its father.
(Antichrist will be screened at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, March 17-19, at Spirit Square. Go here for more details.)