Antichrist (18)

Lars von Trier’s Antichrist has provoked shock and disgust – even calls for it to be banned.

Among the more esoteric credits appearing at the end of Lars von Trier's Antichrist is one that acknowledges the film's "researcher on miso­gyny". Critics of this director's work will be of the opinion that what von Trier doesn't already know about that topic isn't worth mentioning. And it is true that his female characters have never had it easy. But a film-maker who depicts the mistreatment and demonisation of women shouldn't be confused with one who endorses it. On the contrary, von Trier's careful, coaxing direction of Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, Bodil Jørgensen in The Idiots and Nicole Kidman in Dogville shows an alertness and sensitivity towards suffering. At least there is no way an actress in one of his films will be required to play eye-candy or the love interest, surely a greater (and more common) indignity for female performers than being asked to suffer convincingly on screen.

Charlotte Gainsbourg is the latest actress to sign up for the Lars von Trier Emotional Workout Programme, which guarantees a major acting award within 30 days - or your money back! (Sure enough, she won the Best Actress prize at Cannes.) In Antichrist, she screams, she bangs her head repeatedly against a toilet bowl, and she sheds five times her own weight in tears. Such behaviour is not unheard of in a von Trier production, but by all accounts it usually happens off-screen. (I love the rumour that Björk became so infuriated with the director while shooting Dancer in the Dark that she ate her costume. I don't even care if it's true or not.)

What makes this performance by Gainsbourg in Antichrist magnificent rather than simply accomplished is that she never allows her char­acter's depression and hysteria to obscure her humanity, not even when she is at her most inhuman. Von Trier has teased out of this actress an intimidating and cruel streak that has never surfaced before. It's enough to make you angry retrospectively at directors who have used her to express nothing deeper than kookiness or Gallic cool.

Gainsbourg plays She, who is married, by uncanny coincidence, to a therapist called He. I suppose that, with a name like that, She was never likely to settle down with an Alan or a Eugene. The namelessness of the characters is presumably von Trier's way of suggesting some symbolic, everyperson quality, yet Antichrist is at its least persuasive when you feel the script is coasting on generalisations about the chasm between the genders.

Von Trier has invoked Strindberg, but the impression is more redolent of a self-help manual in the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus mould, the obvious difference being that the book doesn't feature a talking fox, or a penis that ejaculates blood.

The picture works best when probing the relationship between order and anarchy - the analytical mind versus the messy, ungovernable body. Order is presented in the film as a male preserve, anarchy as female, which would be outrageous if our sympathies did not lie almost entirely with the woman. She has failed to recover from the death of her infant son, Nic; the grief hath craz'd her wits. He (Willem Dafoe) recommends that she confront her fears. After she confides that the focus of her terror is Eden, the couple's woodland cabin where she spent the previous summer with Nic, they head back there on one of those Don't Look Now get-away-from-it-all weekends for the recently bereaved that you often see advertised in the more downmarket Saturday supplements.

What they find when they reach Eden is . . . well, let's hand over for an update to the talking fox I mentioned earlier. "Chaos reigns," he says. It's only one line, but he makes the most of it, proving that there are no small parts, only small mammals. And who can disagree with his assessment?Falling acorns drum cacophonously on the cabin roof and a doe pads through the woods, its stillborn offspring dangling between its legs. Bambi was never like this. Then He uncovers the thesis She was working on when she was last in Eden - a study of gynocide, which has led her to conclude that women are inherently evil. It's enough to make you wonder what the fox is going on.

Besides the misogyny researcher in the credits, you will notice that another crew member was employed to research horror movies. I'd wager that the DVDs on that researcher's shopping list included The Birds, The Last Wave, Long Weekend and anything else in which nature rounds on civilisation and gives it a good kicking. You can also discern the influence of David Cronenberg's The Brood, another film in which marital discord manifests itself in biological horror and therapy is seen as several rungs down from satanism. And yet it is Andrei Tarkovsky to whom Antichrist is dedicated, in an end-title that some have taken to be a joke, but which strikes me as a doff of the cap to that director's similarly apocalyptic swansong, The Sacrifice (1986).

It has been one of the thrills of the past 25 years in cinema to witness von Trier's progression from pernickety visual stylist (The Element of Crime, Europa) to pseudo-realist (Breaking the Waves) and all-out anarchist (The Idiots). In his recent comedy The Boss of It All, which proved controversial because of its complete absence of anything likely to arouse controversy, aesthetics took a back seat; it was even claimed that the shots in that film were selected by computer, though you never know with von Trier. It is our uncertainty about his motives, not just the transgressive behaviour he depicts, that renders his work unnerving. It's in our nature to want to be in on the joke, but von Trier rarely tips us off about what he is laughing at, or whether he's laughing at all.

He has spoken of how Antichrist originated from his experience of depression, so perhaps its real function is purgative, and known only to him. It is an unexpectedly beautiful work, bookended by slow-motion monochrome sequences shot with an ad-agency gloss. In the prologue, He and She make love - in bed, in the shower, on the washing machine, you name it - as Nic falls to his death to the accompaniment of "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Handel's opera Rinaldo. The Eden footage, too, has a pastoral glow at odds with the ugliness of the acts played out against it.

That battle between beauty and horror may lie at the heart of von Trier's vision, but it would be difficult to come away from the film with any sense of it having been a fair fight. As a horror movie, it isn't frightening. And the scenes of marital drama sometimes seem to be passing the time until the next freakish spectacle. It is in his daredevil shock tactics that von Trier exhibits the greatest conviction, and offers most room for post-film debate. There has been some discussion, for example, about precisely which part of her own genitalia She snips off with a pair of scissors (presumably because most viewers are too busy whimpering behind their hands at that point to concentrate on the nitty-gritty). But in the words of that much-loved song: you say clito­ridectomy, I say labiadectomy, let's call the whole thing . . . pretty repulsive, actually. l

“Antichrist" (certificate 18) is released on 24 July