By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Oct 5, 2009 3:20PM
This is part of Chicagoist's continuing coverage of the 45th Chicago International Film Festival.
The movies of Lars von Trier have often been accused of misogyny. That's not the whole truth. In his latest, for example, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (their characters remain nameless) inflict and/or experience stabbing, drilling, strangulation, and lots of other equal opportunity brutalization. von Trier has plenty of torture for both sexes.
But that all happens later. In a prologue exquisitely rendered in black & white slow motion, we witness the couple making passionate love in the bathroom of their expensive Seattle apartment. Meanwhile their young son manages not only to lift himself out of his crib, but also disarm the bedroom's kiddie guard gate, push a chair in front of a window, climb on top of it and jump. It's only the first of many contrivances in Antichrist, soon to be followed by the existence of a remote cabin deep in the woods, a small hillside cave conveniently located nearby, and a talking fox. Yes, you read that correctly.
He's a therapist and she's a post-grad student, and that's most of what we learn in the way of background. After their child's death Gainsbourg plunges into bottomless sorrow, what her doc diagnoses as an "atypical grief pattern." So Dafoe does what any smart therapist would do: he checks his wife out of the hospital, discontinues her meds, and takes her on as a patient. He travels with her to the heart of a forest, the location where her fear seems most intense. See, he's hoping that an extended stay will prove therapeutic. Uh huh.
Up until that point the film is a surprisingly moving and intimate examination of grief and marriage. But once we get to the forest von Trier piles on the "spooky" atmospherics. They seem cribbed directly from Twin Peaks. Ominous rumblings and recurring showers of falling acorns aren't necessarily that frightening, but Gainsbourg quickly goes off the deep end anyway. And just in case we need a convincer von Trier throws in some mumbo jumbo left over from The Wicker Man. "Nature is Satan's church," she solemnly intones, and before you know it Dafoe has stumbled upon some illustrated clippings of medieval torture hidden in the rafters.
If you show us a rod being pounded into a leg, or a newly hatched chick being devoured, of course we're going to be horrified. But von Trier is only wallowing in his own shallow provocation. He's not bothering to go beyond shocking the hell out of us. Dafoe and Gainsbourg offer committed, powerful performances which are far more gripping than this slick, arty festival of carnage deserves. Perhaps von Trier is attempting to work through some personal issues when he depicts a woman taking a pair of scissors to her lady parts, but there doesn't seem to be much point in watching it.
Antichrist screens October 12 (sold out) and is scheduled to open at the Music Box on October 23.