Lars von Trier’s doggedly outrageous, fearsomely ambitious two-hander is so desperate to make you feel something — if only a terrible sensation of nothingness — that it’s almost poignant. Simply put, Antichrist revels in the gruesome ordeal of a bereaved couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) who lose their toddler because they were too sexually engrossed to notice him climbing out of the nursery window — literally experiencing what Kierkegaard called “the dizziness of freedom,” teetering on the ledge. Incorporating languid slow motion and brutal hardcore, set to a dreamy Handel aria (“Let me weep …”) and an inexorable, cosmic wash cycle, the fabulously inappropriate opening is so precious it might have been staged inside the snow globe from Citizen Kane. Laughter, tears, disgust and fascination with von Trier’s technique seem equally valid responses.

Unsympathetic as they are, the unnamed protagonists offer little emotional guidance: He’s a smugly rational psychotherapist; she’s a researcher with an interest in the occult, driven mad by guilt and her husband’s attempts at treatment. The pair retreat to the woodland cabin they call Eden. (Snakes are not among the menagerie of wild things.) Rather than finding solace, He and She wind up destroying each other — just as von Trier, perhaps, imagines destroying himself. In interviews, the filmmaker has discussed his own severe depression while making Antichrist, as well as the movie’s failure as autotherapy.

“The idea was to make a horror film,” von Trier told the press, and, in its hubris, Antichrist does suggest The Shining’s foredoomed attempt to be the ultimate scary movie. There are other parallels to Kubrick, but von Trier’s spook house is mainly populated by the ghosts of his Nordic brethren: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s fascination with witchcraft soaked in Munchian angst and fused with Ingmar Bergman’s conjugal claustrophobia, not to mention August Strindberg’s taste for mutually assured domestic destruction. Actually, as a reader posted after I reviewed Antichrist at Cannes, the underlying text is Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, which also concerns a child who falls victim to his parents’ sex-distraction, with the ensuing collapse of their marriage.

Although a chronic overreacher, von Trier has twice achieved greatness. His purest film, The Idiots (1997), is a seemingly straightforward provocation that anticipates Borat, Jackass et al., by having actors regress, drooling and spazzing, often in public; Dogville (2005), an exemplar of 21st-century cinema in questioning the medium’s narrative bias and photographic claims on truth, uses a variety of distancing theatrical devices to advance a compellingly ritualistic allegory of Christian charity and Old Testament wrath. Both movies are showy stunts that shrewdly address the assumptions of cinematic real-ness. Antichrist, which, above all, wants to make pain visceral, is less successful at projecting authentic experience — the shock tactics are ultimately numbing.

The filmmaker strains his enterprise past the breaking point with grotesque torture and two types of castration, shown as money shots in mega-close-up. By comparison, the images of self-devouring nature (a deer bolting off in the middle of giving birth, a crow pecking at its dead young) and intimations of supernatural bad vibes (sudden storms, tree-shaking winds) are merely atmospheric. With the exception of the talking fox that delivers the show-stopping pronouncement, “Chaos reigns,” after She imagines she’s cured and He starts having “crazy dreams,” the hallucinations are clumsy and gratuitous.

Still, Antichrist is not without qualities — notably von Trier’s boundless sarcasm and skill with actors. Gainsbourg’s courageous, uninhibited performance effectively creates the movie, while the funniest, most awful scenes all but parody the couple’s agonized interactions. She wants to obliterate her consciousness with sex; He’d rather calm her anxiety by teaching her correct breathing or, at least, compelling her to name the object of her dread. (“Can’t I just be afraid without a definite object?” She demands, the patient from hell.) A last-ditch attempt at role reversal — He tries to play nature with She cast as the voice of reason — triggers a wave of mutilation beyond anything imagined by the Pixies.

While it’s an open question as to whether He or She is more delusional, Antichrist belongs to its stars — two wildly ascetic, dedicated types. Making love, Dafoe and Gainsbourg might be a pair of copulating skeletons. Spectacular in their angularity, these two bags of bones look like they could poke holes in each other — which is, in the end, exactly what they do.

ANTICHRIST | Written and directed by LARS VON TRIER | Produced by META LOUISE FOLDAGER | IFC Films | Nuart

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