Danish provocateur Lars von Trier has staged some sadistic bits of filmmaking in his time. Little blind Björk hanged at the end of Dancer in the Dark. Lovely Nicole Kidman raped in Dogville. Every excruciating minute of Manderlay. But the opening sequence of his new movie, Antichrist, which screened to gasps, guffaws, and a dry heave or two at Cannes last May, makes his previous work look like a Sunday stroll. Shot in voluptuous black-and-white slo-mo and set to a gorgeous Handel aria, von Trier shows us a couple—Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, named in the credits as "He" and "She"—having shower sex (cue close-up of anal penetration). It looks like some kind of sumptuous pornographic perfume commercial... until the director cuts to the couple's toddler jumping off a several- story-high window ledge. Never one for subtlety, von Trier films the kid's fluffy brown teddy bear hitting the snow-covered ground—just in case we missed the tragedy in an innocent child falling to his death.
The remainder of Antichrist deals with the aftermath of this event—if "deals with" is even the right terminology for what von Trier does, which is test not just the audience's tolerance for blood-soaked images of genital mutilation, but also our ability to stay awake during some colossally boring and pretentious stretches of filmmaking. The story's basic starting point—Dafoe, a psychologist, decides to take his grieving wife's therapy into his own hands—is itself rife with red flags. Still, the implausibility of the setup and von Trier's disdain for psychotherapy wouldn't be bothersome if the filmmaker explored the Dafoe character's creepy, damaging plan with fitting attention. But no, Dafoe is meant to be the comforting, stable force in the film, the thing we can latch on to amid a clusterfuck of female-driven gore and hysteria.
Even this might have been tolerable had the therapy scenes inspired some kind of perverse fascination. No such luck: Dafoe subjects Gainsbourg—and us—to drawn-out, portentous sessions filled with intro-psych-level platitudes. I suspect von Trier is striving for some kind of searing psychological realism here, but the characters' feelings are never connected to any reality. Though the film is set in the Seattle area, we know little else of these people, their marriage, or their bond with their son, and many of the things they do and say are so off-the-wall that it's hard not to giggle. Von Trier has revealed that he made Antichrist during a deep depression, but there's not an authentic sentiment in sight. The film uses emotional pain as a pretext for trafficking wacko behavior.
When He and She decide to continue therapy in their cabin (definitely one of the least comfy-looking country houses in film history), Gainsbourg's character morphs into a howling nymphomaniac shrew and the movie becomes a hallucinatory freak show. Unfortunately, the horror is just as dull as the drama that came before—only even more unwatchable because every five minutes someone is butchering someone else's private parts. Von Trier never achieves true terror because he's too busy trying to shock, confuse, and gross us out with his grab bag of twisted symbols: deer miscarriages, leaky animal intestines, falling acorns, masturbation, bloody ejaculation, and a fox who appears out of nowhere to announce apocalyptically, "Chaos reigns." Antichrist finally looks like it's going somewhere worth following when we learn that Gainsbourg used to make her child wear his shoes on the wrong feet—creepy! But before von Trier can even say "boo!" the film disintegrates into a graphically violent but visually uninspired sexual massacre that will have you peeking at your watch as you cover your eyes.
Overeager film nerds will probably find all this brilliant, and some would argue that Antichrist is a work of ideas. Unfortunately, none of those ideas jell in any remotely coherent way. Von Trier bypasses potentially riveting stories—the demented therapist, a woman possessed by the subjects of her thesis, the way grief turns people into monsters—instead dragging the material through unnavigable thickets of half-baked implications and Freudian and biblical mumbo jumbo that culminate (this being a Lars von Trier film) in a woman being punished. The director crafts one genuinely gutsy, fabulous moment: the film's final shot. The rest leaves you grasping for something sincere beyond the stunts. I don't think anyone denies this filmmaker has talent, but ever since Breaking the Waves—his best film by a long shot—he's been too busy thumbing his nose at the world and trying to be a rascally genius to make a movie that actually hangs together. Antichrist works only as a cautionary tale about therapists treating their spouses. I know von Trier likes confounding viewers, but somehow I don't think that's what he was going for.