A man (Willem Dafoe) and a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) make love tenderly. Classical music (Händel) plays. Their child is neglected, omitted from the primal scene. The loss of the child is intercut with orgasm. (Is it possible to be shocked by a tumble cycle? Yes.) Humanity has fallen. Grief prevails. Dafoe’s character is a psychological therapist and, as she grieves, insists they escape to “Eden,” their cabin in the Pacific Northwest woods. Soon, as one figure barks in unlikely fashion, “Chaos reigns!” It’s a much more theatrical and baroque variation on couplehood and parental loss than Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now,” but draws from similiar waters. Explicit, terrible gestures are enacted. (The Roeg title soon suits Trier’s film.) Unspeakable things, which you would have read multiple times if you had skimmed reviews from Cannes, where dudgeon was oft-expressed through laundry lists of the cruelties Von Trier portrays. Dismissed by some first viewers on the Croisette as less tragedy than tragic muddle, Lars Von Trier’s avowed self-therapy after bed-ridden depression, “Antichrist” has had another shake in the States, with articulate defenders like Roger Ebert (in print and on his blog) and screenwriter-smart guy Larry Gross (the cover story of the current Film Comment, where in he describes the story as ‘Annie Hall’ gone bad”) and festival showings, including a riotous turnout at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas and the realization that Trier’s dour story of woman versus man could pass directly from poker face to grandiose prank: a comedy about the Fall of Man. I’m not sure that how that will play as it opens in several cities in the U.S. on Friday, but I’m pleased to have had my first exposure to the haunted wood of “Antichrist” after trundling a couple kilometers in a dusk pelted with horizontal sleet pellets in Reykjavik, surrounded by a sea of Icelanders that looked to be mostly in their twenties. A Nordic sensibility seems shared by the Icelandic and their former oppressors: a contemplative, quiet attention punctuated by gratified laughter at absurd and baroque events at its Reykjavik International Film Festival premiere. It may be the sanest response to the provocations onscreen (which include portentous chapter titles and an end dedication that’s as tweaky as an auteur can be). The design is filled with Boschian splendors, lovingly lit and shot in varying palettes (with the RED one digital camera) by Anthony Dod Mantle (“Breaking the Waves,” the Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire”). Dafoe seems confounded by what surrounds his character, but the fierce, beating heart of the film is the magnificent Gainsbourg, whose pain, terror and anger scalds and cauterizes at once. She’s a fascinating screen actress, from childhood music videos and “Charlotte For Ever” with her late father Serge Gainsbourg and “The Cement Garden” (1993) to her French comedies with her husband Yvan Attal, like “My Wife is An Actress,” to “I’m Not There” and “The Science of Sleep.” She’s beguiling, but in aiding Von Trier through his on-screen therapy for depression, she’s said she was also helping herself after recovery from brain surgery. Whoever might find “Antichrist” foolish ought still find Gainsbourg fearless. She won Best Actress at Cannes for her performance. There are bursts of horribleness to turn away from, but not her indelible investment. Von Trier may offer confusion over his goddesses, but there is one front-and-center in “Antichrist.” (The closing crawl includes advisor credits for mythology and evil, anxiety, horror films, music, theology and misogyny.) 104m. Anamorphic 2.40 widescreen. (Ray Pride)
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published later this year.