Von Trier is a filmmaking genius, but this will challenge even his faithful fans. The expert direction, editing and photography are all here, along with two amazing performances. But this warped Adam and Eve myth is seriously hard to stomach.
After the accidental death of their young son, a couple (Dafoe and Gainsbourg) struggles to cope with their anguish. As a therapist, he offers to help her come to terms with the heartache that has landed her in hospital. But when they head to Eden, their isolated woodland getaway, the grief turns to pain and despair, and all of nature seems to conspire against their recovery. This eerily echoes her thesis on female nature, as events take a turn that's feral and terrifyingly gruesome.
If read as a metaphor for a couple dealing with grief, the film is packed with solid, provocative images and ideas. But what's on screen is so explicit that it's impossible to watch it symbolically, as Von Trier combines sex, violence, religion and instinct in graphic, lurid ways that are beyond imagination. The story's climactic fourth chapter is almost unwatchably horrific.
And yet it's bracingly well-made, with lush cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle that looks like a dream turning into a nightmare, including clever slow-motion and effects work that get us into the minds of both characters.
These telling touches cut through the more shocking images, allowing the actors to create characters who are vulnerable and raw, even when they turn the tables on each other in violent ways.
Dafoe is terrific as a man trying to do his best while struggling to avoid his dark instincts. His story is both a tale of survival and an expression of love strained to the breaking point. Meanwhile, Gainsbourg is simply astonishing in a difficult role as the shattered wife who finds it impossible to regain her equilibrium. But then, she's also descending into madness, something that's apparently not new for this character, and Gainsbourg is utterly unafraid to take her to some grisly extremes.
Obviously, there's a problem with a premise that portrays men as masters of their natures while women are the victims of theirs, so they lash out both at men and themselves. The black-and-white prologue and epilogue suggest that everyone has to pay for their sins. But Von Trier's misogynist storytelling is at least complex and challenging, using freak-out images and ideas from the start while somehow maintaining a gritty emotional undercurrent.