Danish downer Lars Von Trier says, a bit defensively, that he was depressed when he made "Antichrist."
No kidding, Lars.
The prologue exposes us to a horrifying domestic tragedy in excruciating slow motion, during which some paperweights are knocked over (that's not the tragedy) - little sculptures with peculiar names. Despair. Grief. Pain.
They turn out to be the titles to the movie's three movements, and Von Trier is not kidding, as you'll see if you stick around to see, say, a naked Willem Dafoe get whacked in the groin by a log.
The movie has not been a hit with critics, but it has been a big hit at festivals that cater to horror buffs and fans who wear cargo shorts and are young and male and don't go out much and when they do, like to see people tortured with rusty tools.
"Antichrist," the work of an anti-Hollywood maker of art films, has become the darling of Hollywood's coveted demographic of young men, who love the movie as if it were another latter-day sequel to "Saw."
And no wonder. References to the pop-horror syllabus (movies Von Trier has probably, proudly, never seen) are everywhere.
Take Camp Crystal Lake, for instance. In "Friday the 13th," it's where counselors made love while little Jason Voorhees drowned, spawning many murders and sequels.
The carnal and the fatal under a blanket of negligence - that's also what gets the ball rolling in "Antichrist," which quickly moves to a quintessential horror locale, the lonely cabin in woods.
There, a grieving husband (Dafoe) watches his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) slowly lose it, if she ever had it - she's a writer whose magnum opus, composed in a remote and creepy place, turns out to be the work of a deranged mind. If that makes you think of "The Shining," you would not be alone.
Dafoe doesn't have a name in "Antichrist" but he has an occupation. He's a psychiatrist who thinks analysis and therapy will help his wife, who thinks he's arrogant and smug and wrong. She believes that whatever has taken hold of her is beyond the reach of counseling.
Shades of "The Exorcist," wherein we find that medicine and science have no answer for pure evil. That movie played to the guilt of a generation that had abandoned religion, and it's curious that Von Trier, raised by parents who forbade and ridiculed religion, plunges into it here with a convert's fervor.
He calls his movie "Antichrist," names the forest Eden, mulls over medieval portraits of saints and tortured sinners, and even places his copulating Man and Woman in a Boschian tangle of roots under the tree of life wherein the hands of the damned reach up to pull them under. (This movie is much better-looking than his early "Dogma" stuff.)
It's the kind of image that fans say is worth sticking around for, but I demur. I find it showy and attention-seeking, another oppressive tactic in Von Trier's endless arsenal of things that keep me at arm's length from his characters.
In a Von Trier movie, our sympathies tend to extend not to the characters, but to the poor actors. Gainsbourg's job is to be inconsolable with grief, and you believe that she is. Her accolades are deserved. Still, there's something irksome about this familiar Von Trier methodology, the way he asks utter debasement of his actresses, and gets it, and uses it to give his movies, when they work, their crude power to prod an audience. Or is it to garner publicity?
On the whole, I'd rather be dragged to hell by Sam Raimi.