So it turns out to be a film of two halves. The first is a fairly intriguing, quite visceral exploration of grief and its (ir)reducibility to “stages”, the second a ghastly orgy of torture-porn. (The talking fox, announcing “Chaos reigns,” marks the watershed between the two strands.) Borrowing his scenario (the injuring - here, the death - of a child during parental sex) from Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, von Trier seems to be getting into something interesting in the early scenes, as Willem Dafoe’s psychiatrist attempts to manage and control wife Charlotte Gainsbourg’s grieving process, apparently as a way of avoiding his own. In some ways, von Trier is among the most literary of contemporary filmmakers, and his formalist teases - the titles announcing chapters - have wit and style. He is - still - a director who can create a world of his own on screen.
But where Ibsen takes the scenario of parental grief deep into areas of pain and redemption, von Trier appears to get bored with the story he’s telling and resorts, instead, to increasingly desperate shock tactics. What’s offensive about Antichrist’s violence is its lack of basis in character: the kind of brutality that the characters inflict upon each other seems to have little basis in the relationship that’s been established. What the director is really doing is torturing his audience who, anticipating the shocks they’ve read about, respond with delighted gasps and giggles. (And you sense von Trier himself, giggling as he devises new ways for his protagonists to inflict pain.) In terms of box office, his strategy seems to have worked - press attention to the violence has turned this film into a cultural Event, or endurance test (Do you have the stomach for it …?). But it’s an empty, hollow experience, von Trier’s weakest work to date. The film makes noises about a lot of things - the limitations of psychiatry, the innate wickedness of women (yes, really) - but none of these issues are developed with any skill or finesse. As a horror film, too, it’s a dismal failure: the movie is never scary, just sickening. But what’s most worrying about Antichrist is just how little residue it leaves on the viewer, and the fact that a director as original as von Trier would waste his considerable talents (not to mention his two - foolishly? - committed actors) on dreck such as this.