Death is interesting. Grief is interesting. Religion is interesting. Sex is interesting. And yet, “Antichrist” somehow manages not to be interesting, despite attempting to tackle all of these things.
“Antichrist” is ostensibly the story of He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a married couple who have tragically lost their young son in a terrible accident (he falls out the window while they’re having sex). The remainder of the movie is the account of how they try to come to terms with that tragedy. This being a Lars von Trier extravaganza, what follows is not the typical tale of self-recrimination we might get from a more humanistic director. Rather “Antichrist” plummets into a surreal horror-verse where instead of working out regret and guilt in the usual ways, the characters are flung into an irrational maelstrom of violence and perversity.
At first, it seems puzzling that “Antichrist” is not more disturbing. After all, there are not just one, but two scenes of graphic, close-up genital mutilation performed with admirable commitment by the two leads. There are mangled talking deer, eviscerated foxes with bells on their necks, and mangy, undying crow-beasts. Yet, though “Antichrist” has been touted as a truly terrifying movie, the moments most meant to shock resort to genre methodology: loud screeching noises in panicked crescendo, ghoulish faces which flash like subliminal advertising, blood, gore, Satan etc. Though it seems that von Trier is interested in inventing his own mythology, the eventual mixture of religion, fable and philosophy is tonal sludge. The final product is, more than anything else, unintelligible.
This lack of logic would not be problematic if the movie did not depend so much on its psychological and moral philosophy for impact. If movies are nothing more than a series of beautiful pictures, “Antichrist” succeeds: She’s imagined romps through their wooded lodge (called, with great nuance and subtlety, Eden) are phenomenal. The real stars of this movie are the trees. Every scene they appeared in, I wanted to applaud — black spindly trunks rising through mist, white horned branches bending over each other like contorted acrobats, soughing green foliage folding endlessly in on itself, all against a soundtrack of mysteriously mechanical susurrations — images rendered with great imagination and genius. But “Antichrist,” if you couldn’t tell from the title, is a movie about big ideas.
Those ideas, as far as I could tell, make up a new religious fairy tale about human nature. He is infinitely understanding, while She provokes, taunts and tortures He. It becomes clear that despite his utterly bland, stock psychobabble remedies, his unrelenting rationality and asinine stoicism, that He is the hero of this film. This is only so, however, because She is the embodiment of chaos and irrationality, her feminine sensuality disguising carnal sadism — a satanic Eve. The dialogue, so heavily obvious and flat that its banality almost seems deliberate, exists just so that viewers who might not understand the morals get a little extra help: “A crying woman is a scheming woman,” says She, as He writhes on the floor with a 10-pound weight screwed into his calf. And if you needed a little more help figuring it out, von Trier helpfully includes a sequence of She’s grisly medieval torture porn tacked up in the attic, followed by a lovely shot of She masturbating in the black roots of a tree swarming with human arms. This is capped off by a revision of the opening sequence — She watching rapturously as the boy flies out the window, her teeth grimy, face exultant.
Though some have accused von Trier of misogyny, the message is far too garbled to read one way or the other. “Antichrist” is not particularly misogynist, or scary, or disturbing, or novel – it’s not particularly anything at all.