In Movies & TV Commentary

Charlotte Gainsbourg won Best Actress at Cannes for her role in "Antichrist," and wow, does she deserve it.

Von Trier's "Antichrist" screens with a scream

"I would like to invite you for a tiny glimpse behind the curtain, a glimpse into the dark world of my imagination: into the nature of my fears, into the nature of Antichrist," says Lars Von Trier, the Danish director responsible for what could easily be one of the most disturbing films of 2009, if not the entire decade.

As background, this is the director who brought us the afflicted 2000 musical "Dancer in the Dark," which, in contrast to his latest, reads as a ray of sunshine across the screen.

At Cannes, "Antichrist" brought an award for Best Actress to leading lady Charlotte Gainsbourg, though the film quickly wove itself into the center of cinematic controversy while at the festival.

Here's why.

To begin, four people fainting during the initial preview, perhaps due to the gratuitous violence, the explicit sex, or the scenes that combine the two, which is most of them. Then, the festival's ecumenical jury gave the film a special "anti-award" and declared the film to be "the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world" (a nickname von Trier has publicly boasted.)

Misogynist? Perhaps. Some have called it a masterpiece, a brilliant tragedy and a crude documentary of limitless cruelty. The film is shocking, to be sure. In the prologue alone we're subject to a hardcore sex shot and a toddler's death, both in black and white and in slow motion as Handel's aria "Lascia ch'io pianga" plays triumphantly.

After the opening sequence, the film is divided into four chapters that exemplify the emotions and mental states of leading man Willem Dafoe and Gainsbourg, known here only as He and She, as they deal with the loss of their child, the disintegration of their marriage and their minds.

Chapter one is Grief. As a mother, Gainsbourg is heavily grieving, is hospitalized and is showing no signs of comfort even more than a month later. Dafoe, her husband and a therapist, becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her doctor's orders for medication and decides to try exposure therapy.

Chapter two is Pain. He takes Her to their remote cabin in the woods named Eden, a place She's admitted frightens her even when life is normal. But they don't connect with nature, which She bluntly refers to as "Satan's church." The natural becomes very unnatural and surreal and as Her condition worsens, so does His.

Chapter three is Despair. He is beginning to understand the basis for her fears as he discovers via her notebooks that she's become immersed in the study of witchcraft and gynocide. But rather than disproving them (as she set out to do at in her thesis while spending the previous summer at Eden), he sees that she's buying into it and believing that women are inherently evil. Sadomasochistic scenes dominate as the couple inflict pain on each other and finally on themselves in perhaps the movie's most graphic and unforgettable scene (which technically doesn't occur until Chapter four: The Three Beggars.)

As exhibited by the quote at the top of the page, this project was deeply personal for von Trier, who has admitted in interviews that he's afraid of almost everything in life -- except filmmaking. His fearless for film is quite clear, as he guides Gainsbourg and Dafoe through a tortured two-hour journey into the depths of desperation, despair and delusion.

There are more than a few moments throughout the movie that might require the viewer to look away, but that is all von Trier. The actually cinematography -- shot by Anthony Dod Mantel, who has been most recently praised for his work in "Slumdog Millionaire" -- is visceral and beautiful, like the backdrop to a terrorizing fairytale. If you can endure the plot, "Antichrist" is a real treat for the eyes.

"Antichrist" screens at the UWM Union Theatre on Friday, Jan. 29 (7 and 9 p.m.), Saturday, Jan. 30 (3, 5, 7 and 9 p.m.) and Sunday, Jan. 31 ( 3, 5 and 7 p.m.) Admission is $6, $4 for UWM students.


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