Women: intrinsically evil or tragically misunderstood? If this strikes you as a fruitful topic of discussion, then you may wish to see — or perhaps I should say endure — Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,” a film that has already set off carefully orchestrated frissons of disturbance at film festivals around the world. It starts with a slow-motion, black-and-white sequence, scored to a Handel aria, of graphic sex (with a snippet of hard core thrown in just for fun) and climaxes with two vivid scenes of genital mutilation.
Mr. von Trier has said that making the movie helped him overcome a crippling depression. I’m glad he feels better. He has certainly lost none of the impish, assaultive sensationalism that has made him both a darling and a scapegoat of film critics. But the formal rigor and intellectual brio that made his best films — “Breaking the Waves” and “Dogville” — as hard to dismiss as they were easy to loathe seems to have abandoned him. The scandal of “Antichrist” is not that it is grisly or upsetting but that it is so ponderous, so conceptually thin and so dull.
The story is simple enough, and arises from a precipitating calamity laid out on the very first page of “Melodrama for Dummies”: the death of a child. During the sexual ecstasy of the opening scene, as a nameless couple played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg grapple on nearly every piece of furniture and appliance in their apartment, their son, a toddler, climbs from his crib and makes his way to an open window. He tumbles out, along with his teddy bear, at what seems to be precisely the moment of his mother’s orgasm.
The rest of “Antichrist,” divided into chapters and shot in weird, pulsating, muted digital color by Anthony Dod Mantle (“Slumdog Millionaire”), explores the aftermath of this fatal incident, and expands on its implicit linking of female sexuality and death. The mother is mad with grief and guilt, and Ms. Gainsbourg’s anguished, naked (literally and otherwise) performance is, at least in the film’s first half, its only genuinely harrowing aspect. Following in the footsteps of Emily Watson in “Breaking the Waves,” Bjork in “Dancer in the Dark” and Nicole Kidman in “Dogville,” she allows herself to be pushed and provoked toward brave and extraordinary feats of acting in a dubious cause.
Mr. Dafoe, playing her husband, is less demonstrative. A psychologist of some kind, he decides to take over his wife’s treatment, weaning her off medication and subjecting her to his own methodology, which includes drawing a triangle on a piece of paper. The apex represents the thing she fears most. Is it her husband? Is it nature? Is it the isolated forest cabin they call Eden?
That sinister, sylvan place is where they go to work things out, amid a storm of falling acorns and a riot of metaphors and curious optical effects. “Antichrist” certainly looks and sounds troubling, with landscapes that warp, buckle and undulate and an aural design that turns puffs of wind into satanic murmurs. Occasionally a grotesque animatronic animal — including a talking fox that has already gathered a cult following in cinephile circles — shows up to add an extra touch of Guignol.
Ms. Gainsbourg’s character calls nature “Satan’s church,” one of the film’s many nods in the direction of the horror genre. Another is her research into the history of witchcraft, in particular the murderous suppression of pagan religious practices associated with women in early modern Europe. The fruit of her work is a scrapbook of old woodcuts and paintings titled “Gynocide,” which her husband discovers in Eden’s attic.
Such pseudo-scholarship is of course a hallmark of the modern horror movie, though usually (as in “Paranormal Activity”) it is conducted via Internet search. Mr. Von Trier is in some ways a traditionalist, though his depictions of bodily harm inflicted by homely instruments (pliers, scissors, a fireplace log) are avant-garde enough to startle devotees of the “Saw” franchise. Unlike the makers of that persistently popular festival of pain, he is also a bit of a snob, a filmmaker who undermines his pulpy instincts with high-flown, vaguely political ideas.
The problem is that they are often dumb ideas. There has already been some debate among critics about whether “Antichrist” is grossly misogynistic or slyly feminist, an argument ultimately as fruitless as the question posed by the movie about the nature of women (see above). That talking fox has given the movie a handy catchphrase — “Chaos reigns!” — but a more apt one is delivered by Ms. Gainsbourg among bouts of howling, sobbing and penis smashing: “None of this is any use at all.”
Opens on Friday in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Washington and San Francisco.
Written and directed by Lars von Trier; director of photography, Anthony Dod Mantle; edited by Anders Refn; music by Handel; production designer, Karl Juliusson; produced by Meta Louise Foldager; released by IFC Films. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. This film is not rated.