Watching a Lars von Trier film can be like rubbernecking at a horrible, twisted car wreck; you know you shouldn’t look, but you can’t avert your eyes. Antichrist (2009) is one of his most searing, brutal films, a bleak psychological horror tale about loss, grief, and selfish desire. There are beautiful, striking scenes in this film, and at times, like many von Trier films, it makes for fascinating viewing. But there’s also some real, unutterably repulsive ugliness, and much that I wish I could unsee.
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe star as a couple whose son dies while they’re distractedly having sex. In the aftermath, “He” (Dafoe) — a therapist — ends up counseling “She” (Gainsbourg), whose guilt and grief is so powerful that she can barely function. In order to cope with their loss, they go together to a remote cabin in the woods to get away. He thinks that She can face her fears and begin to heal there. But things go horribly, violently wrong.
I don’t think of von Trier as a derivative filmmaker, but Antichrist is a rare case where his work reminded me of other directors. At times, I felt a Nicolas Roeg influence (with its overlapping images of sex, violence, and nature); other times, there’s a distinct David Lynchian flare (what with the film’s eery atmosphere and creepy, shocking moments). In fact, to me it’s at its best when it feels like a Roeg/Lynch collaboration: a haunting, mesmerizing, slightly off-kilter potboiler. But in the end, this really is a von Trier film, and after subtly luring you into its somber, gray world, the notorious cinema provocateur finally rears his ugly head and takes the story in eye-wideningly revolting directions. At times von Trier’s shock tactics can make for powerfully effective cinema, but Antichrist tested my limits — and I have a pretty strong stomach. View at your own risk.