Say what you like about Lars von Trier -- and I'm about to -- the man does seem to have a genius for annoying folk.
No one has come close to infuriating me as much over the years as he has, and this latest film had me so enraged by the time it reached its gory conclusion that I wanted to fly forthwith to Copenhagen and smite him repeatedly with a rolled up copy of the Irish Independent.
He's done it before, of course: in 1996 he brought visual style but a wafer- thin premise to the ritualised on-screen persecution of an unstable woman in Breaking the Waves, a film that was proclaimed a masterpiece by the simpleminded. And in The Idiots, which was mercifully banned here, a group of provocateurs ran around pretending to be mentally retarded and showing each other their privates.
With Antichrist, however, von Trier has managed to out-do himself. Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg star as an unnamed couple who, in the film's very gracefully constructed opening, are having sex in their apartment when their toddler son climbs on to a sill and falls to his death from a high window.
This, there's no getting around it, is a blow, but by a happy chance the man happens to be a therapist, and deals with his own grief (if he has any -- he's a cold fish) by immersing himself in coping with the woman's. When, after several weeks, she's still moping about the flat wailing and bashing her head off the toilet bowl, he suggests they repair to their cabin in the woods for more intensive therapy.
And it's here, folks, that things get really nasty. Once they enter the primordial atmosphere of the forest, the woman's mental state gets more and more out of hand. Obsessed with the burning of witches in the 16th century, from which she has somehow extrapolated the notion that women are inherently evil, the poor lady descends into a hyper-morbid orgy of self-pitying grief, during which her thoughts turn first to self harm, then to harming the pompous git who's supposedly treating her.
What happens late on in the film is all but unwatchable, and when I tell you it involves a flute that spouts blood and a stand-off between a clitoris and a rusty pair of scissors in which there can only be one winner, you'll realise that Antichrist is not for the faint of heart.
Von Trier's intentions in making it are hard to fathom. Laden with clumsy symbolism and ABC psychology, it seems like the kind of stuff that might best have remained hidden away in his therapist's notes, though any self-respecting shrink confronted with this type of stuff would be frantically dialing 999 under the table.
Though not without its visual merits (that's why I gave it a star), the film's style is rendered redundant by the numbing stupidity and obviousness of von Trier's thesis.
It's tempting at times to suspect that he is having a laugh at us, especially at the point when a semi-eviscerated talking fox (whose sang froid under the circumstances is commendable) informs Willem Dafoe that "chaos reigns". Everything is dying, the universe is not merely indifferent but actively hostile, seems to be von Trier's message, which would be okay if he were a remedial first-year English undergraduate.
As for the acting, there isn't any to speak of. Charlotte Gainsbourg won best actress for it at Cannes, but that's because she cut her clitoris off in a Lars von Trier film, which Cannes juries always proclaim as masterpieces in order to appear radical. And if screaming, shouting and running around in the nip constitute a good performance, this is top of the range.
The word misogynistic somehow seems inadequate to the von Trier oeuvre but, to give him the benefit of the doubt, I don't think he's joking at all. I think he's really playing out his oedipal issues or whatever they are in his films -- I just wish he was doing it in private.