There are certain movies that, though true works of art, are simply unpleasant to watch.
Antichrist is not, for most of its duration, one of those movies. It's ceaselessly compelling, and though the final sequence is as gruesome as anything in modern cinema (or at least as gruesome as anything outside of the murder-porn genre), Antichrist is nonetheless a subtle film that relies more on building tension than graphic displays of gore.
Still, that final sequence is over the top, so I warn you: If you don't want to see extreme violence, overly realistic depictions of dismemberment or cathartic insight inspired by psychoanalysis, you should avoid this film.
Charlotte Gainsbourg plays a woman who apparently doesn't like to wear clothing that covers her genitals. While she and her husband (Willem Dafoe) are having sex, their infant son escapes from his crib and falls out the window of their apartment. At her son's funeral, she collapses and falls into a deep depression.
Her husband decides that, since he's a psychotherapist, he should treat her. Learning that her panics and anxieties are heightened when she thinks about the woodland cabin that they own, he takes her there for some exposure therapy. This turns out to be a bad idea, in almost precisely the same way that invading Russia in the winter is a bad idea.
That's pretty much the plot. What makes Antichrist tick for its 104 minutes is the relentless inventiveness of Lars von Trier in making tiny moments intensely, uncomfortably evocative. Part of this is attained through cinematic technique; as She (Gainsbourg is credited only as "She," and Dafoe as "He") experiences panic attacks while thinking about her son's death, or the darkness of the woods, or the chaos in which we all live our lives, the image distorts like a funhouse mirror. There's almost no music, but there's a frequent, low bass rumble that sounds like something from a David Lynch film.
Actually, there's an overwhelming Lynch-like quality to Antichrist, which is odd, because nothing von Trier has done before (like Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and Breaking the Waves) looks at all Lynchian. But in Antichrist, the camera zooms into holes in the dirt, fixates on close-ups of mottled skin and does everything but settle into a severed ear. Meanwhile, the ambient noises are like a bad dream that Angelo Badalamenti had after eating a squirrel.
There's also a mythic motif; Gainsbourg's character is fixated on a nonexistent constellation called the Three Beggars, comprised of a deer, a fox and a crow. These animals slowly work their way into the woodland cabin where He and She are going increasingly insane. They're named Grief, Pain and Despair, and they seem to be demanding some sort of sacrifice.
But rather than have these animals or spirits overwhelm the film like horror-movie apparitions, von Trier has them appear briefly, and naturally. In one of the most harrowing sequences, Dafoe sees a deer that has incompletely given birth, its stillborn fawn half-dangling from its hindquarters. The animals aren't exactly ghosts or demons. Instead, they seem to be symbols of how deeply wretched the natural world is. Dafoe wakes up covered in ticks; baby birds fall from trees and are eaten by ants; bloody beasts of prey lurk in tall grasses.
This all seems to relate to the dissertation that She had been writing. Titled "Gynocide" (i.e., the murder of women), it begins as a study of male cruelty. However, as She becomes consumed by her studies, she starts to think that it's simply the natural state of humans to be horrendous, and that women are not just victims of this; they're also a source of evil.
Von Trier does create some ambiguity here as to whether he's commenting on sexism and violence against women, or simply indulging in sexism and violence. However, the fact that his target is a women's-studies scholar, and precisely the kind of person who has protested against von Trier's sexism in the past, makes this seem a little transparent. The big reveal at the end, followed by the most unpleasant use of rusty scissors I've ever seen, probably crosses the line, then underlines the line, then circles it and draws arrows pointing to it and sends out telegrams telling people where the line was and precisely when von Trier crossed it.
Still, with von Trier's impressive ability to string out the suspense and dread without violence, and the amazing camera work from Anthony Dod Mantle (28 Days Later, The Last King of Scotland), who makes some of the smartest use of high-def video the medium has seen, Antichrist is tremendously successful in its bare aesthetics.
Antichrist still might be worth hating, in the way you'd hate the Saw movies if they were made by a genius who's capable of creating something inspiring but instead has chosen to hold up a mirror to the worst aspects of the human psyche, break the mirror, cut himself with the pieces and then fling the blood onto the screen, somehow painting a perfect replica of Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights," which then comes alive and eats your children.