Is Lars von Trier’s arty horror movie preposterous or profound?

Lars von Trier‘s provocative arthouse horror film Antichrist is beautiful and repellent, bewildering and profound. Critics fainted at its first screenings in Cannes; others walked out in disgust. The festival’s jury then nominated it for the top award, the Palme d’Or, and gave Charlotte Gainsbourg the Best Actress prize (much deserved). Cinema audiences have been similarly divided and you can expect more impassioned debate now that the film has arrived on DVD.

The plot is simple. A nameless couple, played by Willem Dafoe and Gainsbourg, experience the tragic loss of their infant son – a scene we witness in glacial slow motion in the film’s exquisitely photographed black-and-white prologue, the boy falling to his death from a window in their apartment to the strains of Handel’s heartrending lament ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ while the couple are making love in their bathroom.

Antichrist - Charlotte Gainsbourg stars in Lars von Trier’s psychological horror film

The death poleaxes Gainsbourg’s character. In a bid to help her overcome her grief, Dafoe’s character, in his role as psychotherapist as well as husband, persuades her to go with him to their remote mountain cabin, its name laden with symbolism: Eden. As he devises therapeutic exercises to aid her, she becomes increasingly unhinged and violent, climaxing with a pair of now notorious scenes in which she bolts a millstone through his leg and mutilates her own genitals with a pair of scissors.

Don’t ask me what it all means. Watching the film, I didn’t feel the need to solve the enigma of the seemingly supernatural fox, doe and raven that pop up at points in the narrative, nor did I worry about unpicking the allusions to WB Yeats and the Bible. I didn’t ask myself whether von Trier is misogynistic or mad, and I didn’t spend time working out whether Dafoe represents the impotence of male rationality confronted with the forces of nature. My response was more visceral than intellectual, and all the deeper for it.

Lars von Trier’s brutal, heart-wrenching horror drama about pain, grief and despair. Read more.