And it does.
Unfolding in three chapters ("Grief," "Pain" and "Despair"), with a prologue and an epilogue to add insult to injury, Antichrist begins with its two and only actors, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as a couple in the throes of heated intercourse. They're making love - in the shower (a disturbingly grungy bathroom), in the laundry room, in the living room - while their happy baby clambers out of its crib, gets to the window, and topples out, falling in beautiful black-and-white slo-mo to its death on the sidewalk below.
Bring on Chapter One.
Dafoe and Gainsbourg are He and She. He's a psychiatrist. She's writing a doctoral thesis - on the evils committed against women through history. At the cemetery, at her baby's funeral, she collapses. She's weak with sadness, with rage, with this awful loss. And although it's mixing the personal with the professional in unsound ways, he decides to lead his wife through the healing process - offering pat observations about the stages of mourning and even helping her conjure up an image of "thistle blooms" to calm her during a panic attack.
No wonder she's losing it: The guy's smug, and shallow.
"You're indifferent as to whether your child is alive or dead!" she snaps at him. (Snapping only as a Dane writing in English can snap: i.e., "as to whether . . .") And then they're off to Eden - their idyllic cabin in the forest, although the trees and the grass are scaring her right now. And rightfully so. The place is acrawl with creepiness: animals that bear dead fetuses (and talk), the gnarled roots of trees looking like entwined limbs of human corpses. (Whose woods these are, I think I know. His house is in Copenhagen, though.)
Sinewy and sermonizing, Dafoe projects an aura of false strength that signals his character's downfall. His performance here is cold and aloof, until it becomes something else altogether: that of the victim, desperately trying to survive a nightmare, stalked by the woman he thought he loved.
And Gainsbourg, with her sharp jaw and baleful eyes, gives her all for this nonsense. There are no half measures here, and you have to admire the actress' ferocity, her conviction. But for what? What is Antichrist getting at? What is Von Trier trying to say?
That men are brutes who deserve all the pain and misery that can be brought down upon them?
That there is no such thing as happiness, no such thing as love, and that everything will go bad - like rotting fruit?
Or is Von Trier just trying to shock us, enrage us, jolt us from our complacencies?
I don't really know. And after Antichrist, I don't care.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies.