It’s a common misconception that Danish director Lars Von Trier cares what people think – he doesn’t. For evidence of that you need look no further than the press conference immediately following Antichrist’s Cannes unveiling during which one puffed-up twerp representing the reactionary British rag The Daily Mail demanded Von Trier “Justify it!” to which the diminutive Dane flatly replied: “You are all my guests. It is not the other way around.”

In fact, given his notoriously mischievous nature and his love/hate relationship with critics who exhaustively try to derive meaning from his various artistic whims, it is entirely possibly that he’s just having a right royal giggle at our collective expense. Von Trier has even been known to remark with a chuckle that he simply tells the same story about an ill-fated femme doomed to ignominy by a misguided man over and over in a variety of different genres. Antichrist, if you haven’t guessed by the title, is a horror film.

Yet for all its fearsome reputation, the black and white opening sequence during which a nameless married couple enjoy a slow-motion fuck backed by a swelling, operatic score, while snow falls majestically outside and their infant son falls to his death from a third story window, is so spectacularly pretentious and loaded with such deliberately self-conscious symbolism that its impossible not to at least consider that Von Trier might simply be just taking the piss. The juxtaposition of all of the above with, amongst other things, a hardcore insert shot, and, most comically, a laundry cycle(!) does little to bolster the argument against.

Following the funeral where he wails and she faints the comedy histrionics subside for a while as Von Trier delves deep into the guts of the relationship, which, as is so often the case with Von Trier, takes the form of one party (usually the man) driving the other to despair. Insisting that she discharge herself from the hospital so that he, a therapist, can nurse her through the crippling grief, the couple pack off for some naturalistic healing in a ramshackle cabin in the woods (anyone still think he’s not having a laugh somewhere?). It’s an act born out of misplaced guilt (he couldn’t save the child so he must save her) that over time mutates into an outlet for his misplaced rage; tormenting her, withholding sex (until he wants it), medication, and insisting that she immerse herself fully, and torturously, in every aspect of the grieving process. She is every bit as passive aggressive, quietly berating him for his arrogance, his failings, and his erstwhile neglectful habits. While not overtly misogynistic Antichrist is on some level about misogyny, and she, author on a graduate thesis on Gynocide, becomes immensely preoccupied with “the evil that women do” as a method of managing her guilt.

Surrounded on all sides by the dense, thick forest, teeming with menace and bustling with haunted whispers, the couple is relentlessly assaulted by nature; acorns pelting the roof, fungus attacking the flesh – a fox takes a hungry bite out of its own intestines as it snarls “chaos reigns!”. All around them are images of indifferent cruelty (the bird of prey devouring the hatchling) and empty death (the deer with the dead fetus half hanging out of it). With their minds slowly collapsing inwards as the woods gradually turn on them they, in turn, savagely turn on each other. Much has been made of the genital mutilation, which ironically isn’t near as uncomfortable to watch as the hobbling, although the clitoral snipping comes a close second. In one of many twisted exercises in anti-Christian symbology he undergoes a Christ like trial of passion (she tortures him), entombment (she buries him), and resurrection (she digs him up again).

Difficult to ignore yet virtually impossible to actively recommend, Antichrist is a film that defies conventional analysis and exists as art cinema in its most literal sense, bereft of logic and held together by the barest threads of narrative cohesion. As divisive a film as you will ever see, those who delight in scouring each and every frame for evidence of auteurship with be enchanted, while others will simply dismiss it as shock for shock’s sake. Others still (the majority, most likely) will simply shrug, scratch their heads in confusion and struggle to stifle yawns of boredom.

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg

Director: Lars Von Trier

Runtime: 104 Minutes

Distributor: IFC Films

Rating: R

Read more about: