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The Lens: 'Chaos reigns'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 29, 2009 - After seeing "Dogville" a few years ago, I told myself that I never really needed to see another Lars von Trier film, and "Antichrist," his latest built-for-controversy endeavor, left me wondering why I hadn't stuck to my original decision.

Von Trier is a charlatan at heart, a self-promoter who makes such outrageous claims for his films that they assume an air of importance that they never really earn, especially by those who mistake self-serving controversy for serious intent.

"Dogville," you may recall, was a parable of American GREED and HYPOCRISY set in a Depression-era small town but staged in an enormous open space with chalk lines on the floor to indicate invisible streets and buildings. A young woman enters the town, is enslaved, beaten, raped and finally chained to an enormous iron wheel to prevent her from escaping. Eventually she gets away and has every one in the town killed. That's as close to a happy ending as you get in von Trier's films.

Any film with a name like "Antichrist" would have to be either a horror film or a very ponderous moralistic tale: Von Trier's film actually comes close to being both. As a genre piece, it has high points - haunting, evocative images of an eerily threatening environment - and low ones - like an unconvincing talking fox. (His only line - "Chaos reigns" - may be the most unintentionally silly piece of dialogue since "I'll drink your milkshake.")

But shaking up the audience isn't enough for von Trier: He wants you to feel guilty about it as well. With "Antichrist" he aligns himself with two of the least rewarding trends in current European cinema, the shock tactics of graphic sex and violence - two separate instances of genital mutilation! - and the hectoring tendency to brutalize characters and then sneer at the audience as if they were somehow to blame.

It begins with a prologue as self-consciously artsy as it is ridiculous: A couple so busy screwing in the laundry room (complete with clumsy hard-core insert shot - are you shocked yet?) that they don't notice their small child opening his bedroom window and stumbling out to the ground below.

The couple - simply credited as He and She - are played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who go along with things so gamely that I felt sorry for them. He is a therapist; She, an academic. When the woman is overcome with grief, the husband bullies her - or should that be "Her"? - into a makeshift psychotherapeutic program of his own devising, eventually forcing her to return to an isolated place in the woods.

And that's where things go awry. Bloody animals, torrents of falling acorns, extra-large servings of guilt and retribution, all in a scenic place called - are you ready? - Eden.

"Antichrist" is beautifully composed and photographed, and, as I mentioned above, occasionally unsettling in a conventional horror-movie way. At times, it could pass as a minor, but rather talky Dario Argento films. But it's also brutal, self-important and heavy-handed, and in the end, we're left with nothing but von Trier's shambles of a message, a witless diatribe too shallow to be put into a coherent statement.

But I'll try anyway: Women are inherently evil. And they want to have sex all the time. Which makes them even more evil. Which makes them want more sex... Repeat as needed. The only thing worse than 'Antichrist's' misogyny is von Trier's misguided belief that it could gain in profundity with the addition of some mangled sex organs and a talking fox.

You can actually find the fox scene on Youtube. But frankly, it's kind of gross.

The Lens is the bog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.