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Image: Antichrist
IFC Films
Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg star as a couple who try to work out their problems in the woods in "Antichrist."
By Film critic
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/20/2009 7:42:58 PM ET 2009-10-20T23:42:58
REVIEW

With his controversial new film “Antichrist,” is writer-director Lars von Trier suggesting that women commit evil acts because they have so often been wrongly accused of witchcraft and devilry over the centuries? Might he be implying that women actually deserve all that bad press?

Is he saying that any male therapist who chooses to take on his wife as a patient deserves anything awful that’s coming to him?

Or is the thesis of the film that there’s no point whatsoever to human endeavor, since nature itself is inherently wicked and — as the film’s talking fox (no, really) suggests — “Chaos reigns”?

Frankly, von Trier, I don’t give a damn.

While the film’s supporters will no doubt spend years arguing over the deeper meanings and symbolism behind this latest work from the bad-boy auteur who gave us “Breaking the Waves” and “Dogville,” “Antichrist” is a thoroughly pretentious and unpleasant wallow that tortures its audience for no apparent reason. Why bother being dragged through slime for art if there’s no destination at the other end of it?

Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg star as a couple whose young child accidentally crawls out the window while the parents are making love. The film’s first few minutes lugubriously linger over this coitus, in slo-mo and black and white — the exquisite cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) is better than von Trier deserves — complete with a penetration shot provided by the two stars’ stand-ins.

As the infant climbs over Dafoe’s desk, knocking over three statuettes labeled “Pain,” “Grief” and “Despair,” certain segments of the audience will find it hard to choke back the church giggles; the cavalcade of heavy-handed metaphors has only just begun.

Gainsbourg is paralyzed by mourning, but therapist Dafoe says her doctor is over-medicating her, so he insists on treating her himself. He manipulatively guides her through her panic attacks and withholds sex from her — now that he is her therapist, it wouldn’t be ethical, after all — with the stated intent of getting to the root of her fears.

The therapy eventually involves the duo traveling to their house in the woods, where Gainsbourg had spent the previous summer with their child while trying to finish her thesis about the history of society’s violence against women. And it’s in the woods that things get seriously cuckoo-bananas, with the wife becoming frighteningly unbalanced.

Admittedly, I’m easily disturbed by gore in movies, but the bloody business of “Antichrist” is so over-the-top — and its storytelling so divorced from humanity — that I found myself unflinchingly staring at the film’s violence, unaffected by any of the mutilations and monstrosities being paraded in front of me. The movie’s tasteless and much-discussed shock tactics desperately want to unnerve the audience, but they ultimately have all the impact of a 5-year-old repeatedly poking you, saying, “Does this bug you? Am I bugging you?”

Dafoe makes an effort, but his character is so choppily conceived (as is just about everything else in the film) that he can only do so much. Even though Gainsbourg is one of the most interesting young actresses working today — in her native French — I found her heavily accented English to be a constant distraction; her character is supposed to be American, but her diction reminded me of that Kathy Griffin joke about how Gwyneth Paltrow “talks like she’s from Europia.”

Partisans of both European art-house cinema and gut-bucket exploitation horror will either adore or despise “Antichrist”; let it be said that, if nothing else, it’s the kind of movie that doesn’t summon a lukewarm response. Count me as a hater.

Follow msnbc.com Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at http://www.twitter.com/MSNBCalonso.

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