Lars von Trier thinks of himself as a pop star. It’s one way to explain how the Danish provocateur’s Antichrist suggests Michael Jackson’s “Scream,” Madonna’s “Human Nature,” and Britney Spears’s “Piece of Me.” Never prone to the self-pity typified by Jackson’s earlier “Leave Me Alone,” von Trier has always seemed unfazed by the accusations of misogyny that have been routinely—and not unrightfully—flung at him since Breaking the Waves, but something seems to have stuck in his festering craw, and with Antichrist it defensively explodes out into the open in a noxious blaze of unbridled contempt. The story of a horned-up couple that retreats into the woods after the death of their son so they can work out their psychological traumas, the film is von Trier’s way of having a laugh at his audience, not just his critics. But even if you’re in on the joke, what’s the purpose of Antichrist beyond an artist’s callow flaunting of his recalcitrance?
Offensive, yes, but too transparent and desultory a vision for it to be truly shocking, Antichrist begins as a striking black-and-white perfume commercial (or facsimile of David Fincher’s music video for Madonna’s “Oh Father”), with a toddler smitten by the snowflakes falling from the sky, following them like gingerbread crumbs to the window where he will fall out of and down to his gorgeous death. All in slow motion, while He (Willem Dafoe) furiously plows She (Charlotte Gainsbourg, a pity-prize winner at this year’s Cannes) with his monster cock (seen in close-up, for the prudish type’s mortification), glassware be damned. The fairy-tale quality of this prologue is consistent with the rest of the film, which maintains a rank but strikingly dreamy tenor as the nameless protagonists pass from one ritual of (non-)coping—pain, grief, and despair—to the next in what becomes a mad postmodernist’s reworking of the Christian myth of creation: The birdless woods are called Eden, and though there is no serpent, only a speaking, self-cannibalizing fox, a crow, and a deer with a fawn hanging from its uterus (these deities are Von Trier’s play on bibilical and pagan ideas of trinity), woman is still the root of all evil.
Signs are piled atop more signs, but so is sexual provocation. He, a psychologist, seems wary of treating She, whose grief over her son’s death is cataclysmic, bringing out a voracious sexual appetite that he knows he shouldn’t indulge but does so anyway—he is, after all, a man. Traipsing naked and in sensuous slow-mo toward some kind of tree of knowledge, below which lies some kind of fruit of damnation (or freedom, depending on how you parse the film’s conclusion), She pleasures herself until He joins her in coital fury, the limbs of other faceless men and women pouring out from the tree’s seemingly infinite tangle of branches. Von Trier’s iconography engages with the Christian myth of original sin and the fall of woman—what was learned by man (Adam) and woman (Eve) and transferred between them—as She grows progressively mad and finally, as the fox says (yes, actually says), “chaos reigns,” but the director doesn’t so much wrestle with this sexist mythos as he transplants it into a modern context.
The film’s atmospheric deluge of symbols express von Trier’s philosophical conflation of Mother Nature with human nature, but Antichrist only becomes interesting, albeit briefly, as an act of confession. As soon as She is revealed to be working on a thesis on gynocide and the persecution of women as witches during some past century, He’s already accusing her of buying into the very thing She intended to deflate: the idea of women as being inherently evil. Soon She’s committing awful acts of physical violence against He, and an apocalypse descends upon their little cabin until—spoiler alert!—all the birds return to the woods, and with them, seemingly all the women in the world. It appears von Trier sees a little bit of his own artistic trajectory in She’s emotional crisis, but with the film’s muddled conclusion, in which the director suggests that She must admit to and literally de-fang her vagina dentata in order to advance womanhood, he’s not so much apologizing for his sins as he’s arrogantly and absurdly defending them.