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Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg grapple with a fallen world

Jan. 25, 2010
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Weeks after their child fell from a window to his death on the sidewalk many floors below, the married couple returns home for the first time to their toy-strewn apartment. The wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is the thin shadow of sorrow, clutching her bottle of antidepressants in a bony Edvard Munch hand. Glancing at her husband (Willem Dafoe), who has berated her about overusing the medication, she shakes the capsules into the toilet bowl and eyes him with an annoyed look that says: “I did it—are you happy now?”

Although Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is set in Washington state, the magical gloom of his Scandinavian forebear Ingmar Bergman clings to the scenery like frozen fog. Antichrist is a sequence of scenes from a dissolving marriage infused with the uncanny. The film’s dedication, to the great Soviet-era Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, is a clue to the always-provocative Danish filmmaker’s intentions. Dafoe’s character, trimming the incomprehensible cosmos to fit some theory or other, is just the sort of rigid, know-it-all rationalist that the dissident Tarkovsky despised.

On the surface, Dafoe seems like a model of strong compassion for his wife. Devastated by the loss of their young child, Gainsbourg is limp as a sail on a dead sea, deflated and without hope. She blames herself and she blames her husband for his distance and distraction. Attraction and repulsion mark her increasingly unhinged emotions toward Dafoe. She loves him but hates his controlling dominance of their life. Content to live within the walls of his intellect, this somber and sober man has a ready answer for everything, delivered in calm, reasoned tones. “Fear isn’t dangerous,” he tries to assure her, but she isn’t buying the balm. She knows fear too well.

For Dafoe, a vacation to their off-the-road cabin, pointedly called Eden, is a carefully planned exercise in therapy. But careful plans have little weight in a universe with unfathomable variables. At one point the clouds lift from Gainsbourg’s brow and she appears recovered from depression. Her mood darkens abruptly when she perceives the complex, uncomfortable truth: Dafoe is less happy that she’s well than in proving his textbook theories correct.

Nature surrounds them, brooding and mysterious as a 19th-century Romantic painting of the terrible sublime. Dafoe thinks he’s having “crazy dreams”; surely the fox that growls “Chaos reigns” can’t be real? Meanwhile, Gainsbourg, who had been writing a thesis on the persecution of witches, grows increasingly witchy under unkempt eyebrows and a wild mane of hair. Considering humanity as part of nature, made from the same clay as the forest and its creatures, her thoughts wander down the dark alley of original sin. Perhaps nature—and everything in it, including us—is inherently evil? Dafoe’s value-free psychologizing can neither contain nor address the idea of evil, even when the most perverse violence overtakes everything in his life.

In Antichrist’sprologue, the child falls from the ledge as the snow falls outside, as the spray from the shower head falls in slow motion while Dafoe and Gainsbourg are having sex. At their cabin in the woods, acorns fall and fall onto the roof in an unnerving death rattle. The fall of the world into evil is the theme. “Acorns don’t cry,” Dafoe insists, resisting Gainsbourg’s impulse to find life and death and meaning in every rustling leaf. Perhaps it’s madness, but she is obviously hearing something beyond her husband’s narrow range.

7 and 9 p.m., Jan. 29; 3, 5, 7 and 9 p.m., Jan. 30; and 3, 5 and 7 p.m., Jan. 31, UW-Milwaukee Union Theatre.


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