Lars Von Trier is a fabulist. His movies are parables. Some of them are more grounded in reality than others. On one end of the reality spectrum is Breaking The Waves, to me, his best film. At the other end there are Dogville, or Antichrist, movies that increasingly seem to leave reality behind. Breaking the Waves is a very symbolic film, but it takes place in a very specific reality: a community of strict Calvinists somewhere in the north seas. The film is highly symbolic of the Christian idea of love as the ultimate sacrifice: always forgiving, and totally insane, like the love of Jesus Christ, but its emotions are real and devastating. It also happens to have Emily Watson giving one of the most heartbreaking performances of a woman in love ever committed to film.
Antichrist, on the contrary, is supposed to be some sort of psychological parable where the only characters are named He and She and they have a cabin in the woods called, not too subtly, Eden. This is another fable, and here you may want to hazard a guess on what exactly about:
the hatred between men and women
the evil inherent in nature
all of the above.
However, even though the events in Antichrist are tragic, wildly violent, and the emotions, extreme, the movie is strangely emotionally detached. Except for Charlotte Gainsbourg's deeply moving howls of grief at the beginning, I did not believe one thing that was happening in the movie. It makes no emotional sense, although it tries to explain grief and madness with cheap psychology and ridiculous dialogue that could not possibly come out of real people. Poor Willem Dafoe (I adore him) is saddled with stiff, silly lines that seem made of cardboard. So is Gainsbourg, who is a solid, and after this, demonstrably fearless actress, but I've always found her deeply unappealing. To her credit, she does not look for sympathy. She is trapped in the selfishness of her grief. If this is a married couple, no amount of fucking on screen (plenty) is going to make them look, feel or sound like one. They seem like strangers. This may be intentional, but I guess the actors are too terrified going through the house of horrors Von Trier has designed for them, to invest their characters with emotional or psychological truth.
For Antichrist, Von Trier abandons the Dogma doctrine of no embellishments and goes the opposite way. Stunningly shot by Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire), the movie is a visual cabinet of wonders. A lot of it makes you drop your jaw, it is so gorgeous and strange. Von Trier might be certifiably insane, but he is not a hack.
Yet all the intellectual and emotional rigor he has displayed in his best work is totally absent in this film. I find the movie psychologically incoherent, and don't tell me that it's because that's the way grief and hatred are. Au contraire, there is an impeccable logic to human madness, and this movie is an attempt, among other things, to chart its course, but it does not succeed. It is a salad of theories, like Freudianism and Satanism, and perhaps even Feminist studies, all jumbled together and sloppily explained. If the film was intended to be a horror movie, and its premise could certainly make for a good one, it doesn't work. There is horror, but no terror; violence, but no suspense.
Think of The Shining, another movie that combines the supernatural with a family story. But in The Shining the terror is that a man who hates his family has gone bonkers in a big, isolated place. His feelings and his madness are real and terrifying.
Here, She is a poster girl for psychoanalytic theory, a human thesis. This is one of those hermetic movies that are all in the head of their creator. There is no attempt for human connection beyond the exercising of his private demons and his cheesy theories, if you can figure out what they are exactly.