DIRECTOR LARS VON TRIER once said, "A film should be like a rock in the shoe." His latest, Antichrist, is more like a boulder in a flip-flop: I've been thinking about this film for weeks, slowly turning it over in my head, and while I still haven't fully sussed it out, I do know that Antichrist is visually arresting, relentlessly cruel, and intensely, genuinely interesting.
Perhaps you've heard about a few of the choicest moments in von Trier's latest: the most literal definition of the term "cock block" ever, countless money shots of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg doin' it, and a vulva-ectomy performed with rusty scissors. Maybe you read about the booing of Antichrist at Cannes, followed by von Trier boasting, "I'm the best director in the world." All of this is titillating, sure, but to label Antichrist as misogynistic provocation is a disservice to the film, which is curious and mesmerizing and excruciatingly painful to watch. It's a shame that Antichrist is so viscerally unpleasant, because von Trier has created a complex, richly detailed work that would very much benefit from multiple viewings... but then again, there is that bit with the rusty scissors.
Antichrist begins with Gainsbourg (known only as She) and Dafoe (He) having sex; while they're occupied, their toddler crawls out of bed and falls to his death on the snowy street below. Paradoxically, this prologue is the most beautiful scene of the film, with the boy angelically floating down to earth, filmed in black and white and soundtracked with operatic Handel. After that, it's hell in a handbasket for He and She: The couple grieves for their son. She is debilitated by panic attacks. He, a self-confident psychotherapist, begins to treat She as his patient, convinced that he can save her by urging her to confront her demons. Together, they backpack to their remote cabin in the woods, a place known as "Eden," and it's here that the gristle hits the fan: The nature of human nature is questioned and She—were she to bear the burden of representing all womankind—comes out looking pretty bad. But He isn't too rosy-smelling either—his pretentious presumption that he can fix She leads to both of their undoings.
Antichrist may not be fun, but if you can make it through, you get to decide what to do with von Trier's pebble. Do you dig it out of your shoe and dismissively throw it away, or keep it in your pocket to look at later?