Lars von Trier’s controversial freak-out is Saw VI as told by Carl Dreyer. Is that a good thing? It certainly has grabbed everybody’s attention. I’m torn between dismissing the film as gross-out juvenilia and regarding it as raw religious mythmaking. Either way, you won’t find a livelier time at the movies these days, if only because of the outraged groans and dumfounded gasps from the audience.
“He” (Willem Dafoe), a shrink, and “She” (Charlotte Gainsbourg, in a performance many will describe as “brave” because she masturbates) have graphic sex in the kind of portentous black-and-white slow motion that lets you know something bad is going to happen. Afterward, she’s laid up with bereavement and depression and he, who must be the worst psychiatrist in the history of movies, stops the meds and takes her to a remote cabin (called “Eden”) where he forces her to confront her fears.
But maybe her fears are well-founded, because he keeps bumping into grotesque omens indicating the evil of nature and reproduction: a doe bloodily giving birth, a dying nestling, a rain of acorns (causing her to observe how many of the poor things must perish for one to grow into an oak), a talking fox, and an abandoned manuscript titled “Gynocide.” I reached my own revulsion threshold with a relatively benign shot involving ticks. Then he makes the basic therapist’s mistake of getting trapped in a tool shed with a crazy person.
Puerile, pretentious fantasy? Perhaps, except that the film does agitate some subliminal responses — thanks in part to the rumbling David Lynch–like noises on the soundtrack, the etiolated cinematography, the visionary, idyllic interludes, the and the jarring editing. Moreover, the cartoonish symbolism can evoke something more profound, from Grimms’ fairy tales to Dantean religious allegory. Reminiscent of the latter are the film’s “three beggars”: the deer, the fox, and a crow — representing pain, grief, and despair — recall the leopard, the lion, and the she-wolf that confront Dante at the outset of Inferno.
Too lofty, perhaps? Then how about some of Trier’s own works? Like Breaking the Waves (1996), which many regard as his best film, Antichrist is divided into chapters and gives us a woman driven to extremities by her spouse. In Breaking the Waves, the wife debases herself sexually in order to serve the wishes of her paraplegic mate. In Antichrist, the wife is the one who’s paralyzed, and her response . . . well, just keep her away from sharp objects. In other words, she takes after the heroine of Medea, the Euripides play about the wronged and vengeful sorceress that Trier adapted in 1988 from a previously unproduced script by Dreyer.
Which brings up the misogyny question. In Trier’s defense, it seems to me that “She” is not just a woman scorned but a representative of nature in general, of reproduction, of the blind striving for life that results in meaningless chaos. The graphic and diabolically sadistic sex and violence in Antichrist don’t disturb as much as its metaphysics. Call it a sophomoric preoccupation if you will, but the essential good or evil of the universe is indeed a vexing question. Is the world an inescapable Hell created by a malignant God? That’s not the kind of question anyone will be asking after watching Saw VI.