AntichristHead bashing, perverted sex, stabbing, strangulation, testicle smashing, entrail eating, ankle skewering and vaginal mutilation are among the delicacies of this lacerating film, one of the most provocative and unrelenting cinematic offerings of recent years.

From his earliest films Denmark’s brilliant—make that brilliantly nutty—Lars von Trier has distinguished himself as one of the movies’ most irrepressible troublemakers. He can always be counted on to make latte-sipping arthouse patrons squirm, be it from the gory stabbing in EPIDEMIC (1987), the prolonged child murders of MEDEA (1988) or the startlingly graphic skull-crushing in DANCER IN THE DARK (2000). A critics’ darling he may be, but von Trier has an undeniable love of excess, and also a passion for horror (as was evident in EPIDEMIC and the TV miniseries THE KINGDOM, in my view von Trier’s masterpiece).

With those things in mind, 2009’s ANTICHRIST may be the ultimate Lars von Trier movie. It was made after a bout of severe depression, and is the most excessive of all his films. Those who’ve accused von Trier of misogyny, arty pretension and over-the-top shock effects will find plenty of ammunition here, as demonstrated by the outrage the film caused at the ‘09 Cannes Film Festival (whose jury presented it with a special “anti-award”). Keep in mind, though, that one man’s pretentious shock-fest is another’s transgressive masterpiece.

A married couple, identified only as “He” and “She,” are engaged in wild sex that begins in their shower and moves into the bedroom, causing much toppling of objects and spilling of water…while at the same time the couple’s infant son crawls out an open window and falls to his death.

He and She are understandably traumatized. He, being a prominent psychiatrist (and all-around control freak), decides, in between bouts of increasingly desperate and perverse sex with She, that a trip to a secluded cabin will do them good. She isn’t so sure, but goes along with the plan.

Weirdness makes itself apparent from the very start of their stay, when on the train ride up He hypnotizes She in a profoundly creepy manner (making one wonder about his credentials as a shrink!). Once ensconced in the cabin, ironically named Eden, He experiences eerie visions of mutated animals and She hears the sound of a baby crying. There seems to be some malevolent presence at work in Eden, which only serves to further erode the protagonists’ already strained marriage. This is confirmed by the appearance of a fox in the act of chewing out its own entrails who turns to He and says “Chaos Reigns”…which, as He and She’s marriage further degenerates into sadomasochistic sex play and petty torture, it does indeed!

Many critics have attempted to deny ANTICHRIST’S true orientation by slapping various fancy labels on it (“Dark Fairy Tale,” “Gothic Drama,” etc), but it is very much a HORROR movie, a fact central to the film’s appeal. In no other context, after all, could the relentlessly ominous atmosphere, shock effects and darkly surreal imagery possibly work. The film is an evocation of grief-driven insanity borne out by real-life depression, material uniquely suited to the horror genre.

Another quintessentially horrific element of this film is the distraught-couple-recovering-from-the-death-of-their-child set-up, which was admittedly inspired by Nicolas Roeg’s genre classic DON’T LOOK NOW. Here, though, that concept is stripped down to its most elemental basics: two characters and a cabin in the woods (and lots of dangerous tools!). In this way the proceedings are claustrophobic and oppressive as well as gruesomely horrifi–this film WILL shake you, I guarantee it.

Filmmaking-wise Lars von Trier marries the stately preconceived style of his early films (like THE ELEMENT OF CRIME and EUROPA) with the looser, improvisational aesthetic of his later ones (like BREAKING THE WAVES and the von Trier instituted Dogma ‘95 movement, which helped usher in the “shaky cam” style popular nowadays). He also demonstrates a real gift for eliciting the best possible performances from his cast, with Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourgh delivering searing turns as He and She. The spectacularly uninhibited Gainsbourgh, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes, is particularly fine, creating a portrait of debilitating grief so intense it all-but burns a hole in the screen, making for a profoundly traumatizing viewing experience even without the sex and gore.

Vital Statistics

Zentropa Entertainments

Director: Lars von Trier
Producer: Meta Louise Foldager
Screenplay: Lars von Trier
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Editing: Asa Mossberg, Anders Refn
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourgh