With "Antichrist," Lars Von Trier fully lives up to his reputation as an outrageous provocateur and master image-maker. Love it or hate it, boo it or applaud it-as audiences did both simultaneously after the world premiere here in Cannes-the film is the most shocking of the festival so far, with critics and journalists buzzing around the Palais post-screening in a newly energized frenzy.
Described in early reports as a horror film, "Antichrist," certainly has its moments of shock and suspense-and a notable dose of body horror, specifically. But it would be wrong to liken the film to an "Exorcist" or some strange spin on the rape-revenge narrative (i.e. "I Spit on Your Grave"). While it shares some weird sexual politics with those movies, "Antichrist" doesn't generate fear in the same way. In several scenes, Von Trier's sense of foreboding recalls David Lynch, as trees, bushes and images of animal flesh take on a similar sense of uncanny dread.
The story stems from a morbid riff on Freud's concept of the primal scene: The moment that a young child sees his parent's having sex. But in Von Trier's version, the child's bearing witness coincides with him jumping out the window to his death. The film opens-in a highly stylized black and white sheen-with the unnamed parents (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) fucking in slow-motion all over their house, in the shower, against the washing machine. The sexual act, shown in fully explicit detail and yet highly surreal, sets the stage for the extreme anxiety attached to sexuality, which reaches its full-blown apex at the film's gory climax.
Dafoe's psychiatrist husband plays the kind of rational man that frequents Von Trier's work - the detective in "The Element of Crime," the doctor in the film within "Epidemic," Tom Edison in "Dogville" - all characters whose belief in logic and humanity are proven horribly, ironically, self-destructive. In "Antichrist," the theme is also present, as Dafoe tries to cure his wife's pathological mourning through reasoned exercises and talking cures.
The couple then goes to their house in the woods to confront the wife's irrational fears of "nature," which are somehow tied to her son's death. Whether that's nature - as in leaves and little critters - or human nature, we have to wait to see. But one realizes it's only a matter of time before "chaos reigns" - to quote a particularly memorable moment from the film - and the arrogant husband gets his comeuppance. And yet, nothing is so predictable here; Von Trier exorcises his deepest, darkest perversities to go in some entirely new directions.
While there's no doubt that the place he goes is off a precipitous edge, one can't deny the film's continuing primal power. The laughter heard during the film's most disturbing final act is probably more a result of its efficacy than its excessiveness, though I can't be sure. There's an instance of body mutilation that will turn off the most tolerant viewer (and surely, the most open-minded distributor). And while one can't begin to dissect the film's attitude towards women - long a subject of contention for the accused sadist director - "Antichrist" probably won't do much to change the mind of those who question his sympathies towards the opposite sex. But this is Von Trier, after all. You got to take the brilliance with the pathologies.
Indeed, many of the film's images have an unshakeable authority. Dedicating the film, in its end credits, to Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky (which further provoked shock to rattled viewers), the movie contains deeply evocative forest landscape photography that recall the Russian master's own-particularly a sequence in which we enter the wife's mind in a hypnotized state. In ultra-slow-motion and wearing a semi-diaphanous white dress, she walks against a backdrop of lush, twisting greenery. Without the film's wildly lurid final chapter, Tarkovsky fans might actually feel proud.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE's coverage of the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. "Antichrist" opens in theaters this Friday.