Will history judge Lars von Trier as the genius he's sure he is? Or as a humorless, slightly less cartoonish Ken Russell, whipping images and actors into contrived frenzies for ersatz art's sake? You're probably already on one side of the fence or the other. Notorious Cannes shocker Antichrist will only further divide the yeas and nays.
Seriously: why does von Trier's particular misanthropy and misogyny make him an auteur with something to say about the human condition (as opposed to a neurotic whose particular hangups fear of sex, for starters might better work out in therapy)?
His endlessly violated, saintly, often pea-brained victims previously played by Björk, Nicole Kidman, and Emily Watson embody phony innocence to hammer home indictments of horrible humanity dependent on cartooned melodrama. Dogme 95's "rules" briefly enlivened international cinema before becoming a tiresome fad. Less liberating than puritanical, their restrictions painted all other cinema decadent.
Antichrist does offers perhaps the most formally beautiful filmmaking von Trier's bothered with since 1984's The Element of Crime. Grieving parents Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe retreat to a forest primeval enabling widescreen images of poetic succulence. Yet that beauty only underlines Antichrist's garishness. One film festival viewer purportedly barfed onto the next row and you too might recoil, particularly if unaccustomed to gore levels routinely surpassed by mainstream horror.
Does Antichrist earn such viewer punishment by dint of moral, character, narrative, or artistic heft? Like slurp it does. What could be more reactionary than an opening in which our protagonists "cause" their angelic babe's accidental death by obliviously enjoying one another? Shot in "lyrical" slow-mo black and white, it's a shampoo commercial hard-selling Victorian sexual guilt.
Later, Dafoe's "He" clings to hollow psychiatric reason as only an embittered perennial couch case might imagine. Gainsbourg's "She" morphs from maternal mourner to castrating shrike as only one terrified of femininity could contrive. They're tortured by psychological and/or supernatural events existing solely to bend game actors toward a tyrant artiste's whims.
There's no devil here just von Trier's punitive narcissism. His fuzzed point is finally just old-school, arted-up revulsion toward that gender that both engulfs and births the male member. Antichrist offers the punitive sound of Lars' one hand, slapping.
ANTICHRIST opens Fri/23 in San Francisco.