Starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg
Directed by Lars von Trier
Rated NR

If Ingmar Bergman and Sam Raimi collaborated on a film, it might look something like Danish provocateur Lars von Trier’s shock and awe Antichrist. A philosophical musing on death and decay and the disastrously intertwined fates of married people, Antichrist is also a bipolar, gorehound meta-slasher from the man behind Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Dogville. With its talking animatronic fox warning “Chaos reigns!” and scenes of genital torture, Antichrist ups the ante in even the outrageous von Trier catalogue of shocks and will test even the hardiest of art-house viewers.

Available through Comcast On Demand, Antichrist opens as many a slasher has, making a disturbing connection between sex and death. As a couple — identified only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) — make love to a soaring Handel aria, their toddler crawls from his crib, lifts his baby gate, and plunges from a window. Beauty and gut-eating tragedy have never intertwined so ecstatically as they do in Antichrist‘s opening. The fallout is devastating, most significantly for the mother, who requires multiple trips to the hospital, a constant medication feed, and appears unable to get over her grief. In one of the more ill-advised gestures in marital history, her therapist husband recommends she come off the pills, experience the necessary stages of grief, and confront her fears.

The husband then recommends a trip to their rustic forest cabin in the place they call Eden. It is also the place that most frightens his wife. We’ve all seen enough movies to know how this will turn out. Von Trier is not the first director to find horror in the woods. For decades now, exploitation filmmakers have found hillbillies and serial killers lurking in them thar hills. But von Trier may be one of the few to plumb our deeper psychological fear of nature: the loss of control, the absence of rationality, and the omnipresence of death we find when we step outside our urban order. Antichrist feels like a direct feed into the subconscious and the human fears that unite us.

As they stay on in Eden, the mood shifts, from Bergmanesque marital melodrama to Evil Dead thriller. Evil is afoot. It feels utterly true to the experience of grief that nature, in the wife’s eyes, would suddenly seem corrupt and sinister: a lush and verdant grave we all return to one way or another. The woods become a projection of her state of mind: the very ground beneath her threatens to suck her in, hinting at the child now lying beneath it.

It should come as no real surprise that Antichrist was made as von Trier suffered his own bottom of depression. Soul-shakingly grim, Antichrist comes across as a profoundly troubling meditation on the futility of creation when death waits right around the bend. And yet, despite a mood of despair in Antichrist that sticks with you long after the film is over, it is also one of von Trier’s most beautiful. Cut loose from his own self-imposed Dogme requirements (the film philosophy that called for naturalism over special effects), von Trier has made an exquisite, haunting reverie whose beauty only intensifies its foreboding qualities.

Say what you will about a story that is equally insightful and shocking, von Trier is experimenting with the visual possibilities of cinema at a time when few seem even remotely interested. Style is at a premium, from the demented scrawled handwriting that breaks the film into chapters to the layer of white frost that seems to coat many of the scenes and lends a disturbing fairy tale quality to the proceedings.

At its best, Antichrist is that rare contemporary film that trails a wake of questions and fears and inspires a deeper contemplation of film and life. At its worst, von Trier’s film descends into a jumbled, garish mess that substitutes shock for the deeper revelations of its first half.