Lars von Trier begins his new film, Antichrist, with Lars von Trier: Before the film's six-minute prologue, which sets up the death that sets up the drama, his name appears on screen, and it stays there for 10 seconds. Not "A film by Lars von Trier," or anything conventional like that. Just: Lars von Trier, followed by a jolting musical riff, and a quick cut to the name of the film.
This is appropriate, for Lars von TrierTM has become a brand name in Provocative International Cinema. His product may change from film to film: What do The Kingdom (haunted hospital), Dogville (a critique of America) and Dancer in the Dark (about working-class madness, with Björk) have in common besides him? But the sensation is somehow still uniquely von Trier.
After we meet its maker, Antichrist's "Prologue" begins in slow-motion black and white, with an elegiac aria on the soundtrack. We watch a couple making love -- in the shower, in the laundry room with the washing machine churning, against a wall and in bed -- while in another room, their child crawls out of his crib, onto a table and out of the window he opens. As he descends to his death, his mother reaches climax, her moaning rictus inaudible, her eyes closed to the tragedy that she and her husband will soon discover.
Next comes "Chapter 1 -- Grief," which is in color. It's the funeral, and as the tearful man (Willem Dafoe) leads a processional, the woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) collapses to the pavement. Three more chapters and an epilogue follow as the man and the woman -- we never learn their names -- deal with their agony by retreating to a cabin in the woods, where things go from bad to von Trier.
For the most part, Antichrist is pretty slow and dreary -- the art-film version of a Lifetime movie, with a whiff of Bergman about it. The characters are intellectuals: He's a shrink, she's working on a thesis about the nature of violence against women. But in her self-punishing grief -- she knew her son had learned how to climb out of his crib -- her mind has transformed her readings about the evil of misogyny into the evil nature of women themselves.
"If human nature is evil," she tells her husband, "then that goes for all the sisters. Women do not control their own bodies. Nature does. Nature is Satan's church." Well, there's a thought. Let's chew on that one for a while.
The man brings the woman to the woods so he can heal her: Who knows her better, he reasons, than the one who loves her? She's resistant at first, deep in grief, and angry that he doesn't seem to be grieving as well. "You've always been distant from me and Nick," she says. "I have never interested you until now that I'm your patient." He replies calmly: "OK, can you give me some examples of this?" But the moment passes, as do so many other assertions and emotions, and his therapy progresses, as does her recovery.
If this sounds interesting or thought-provoking, please trust me that it's not. Von Trier is good at turning weirdness into something absorbing, but in Antichrist, he's just too leaden and didactic. Gainsbourg writhes, cries and hyperventilates a lot, and in fleeting moments, her suffering is palpable. The eventual tediousness of her performance is entirely the fault of the film itself. Dafoe is slightly more interesting because he's so placid and mundane, a persona that's far from his usually very edgy, chewy performances.
Antichrist is the type of movie that invites you to interpret every image, gesture and line of dialogue. It's weighty with symbolism, especially Biblical allusions, but none of it feels especially compelling or organic. You get the sensation that everything has been said about all of these subjects (psychiatry, grief, obsession, sex), so von Trier sets out to give them new meaning simply by sensationalizing them.
Several times we see dead babies: a deer in the woods, its stillborn fawn hanging from its hindquarters in a lump of bloody afterbirth; a chick fallen from a nest, tormented by ants until a hawk scoops it up and tears it apart. There's also a somewhat cheesy animatronic fox cannibalizing its own flesh -- not a dead baby, but still an image of nature turning on itself.
Antichrist has been labeled controversial, but that's true only if you consider an argument about whether it's good or bad -- or good or bad von Trier -- to be an important subject of debate. There is, of course, that brief shot, early in the film, of an erect penis moving slowly in and out of a vagina (or thereabouts), and later, some sylvan sex, with the man's bare ass pumping away between the woman's legs. Yawn.
Of course, there's also the scene where the woman, naked from the waist down, smashes the man's crotch with a tool box, masturbates him until blood shoots out, and puts a piece of metal through his leg -- then becomes enraged at him for abandoning her when he hides. This comes moments after he tells her, "Anxiety can't trick you into doing things against your nature." Suffice it to say it's the end of their marriage, not to mention his career as a therapist, although it does lead to a climax that would have made an excellent final chapter in her thesis.
Starts Fri., Jan. 22. Harris