Should there come a time that a film is released starring Dame Judi Dench, George Clooney and Nick Griffin as action heroes in a 3D costume drama period piece documentary written by Harold Shipman and Danny Dyer and directed by James Cameron, Michael Bay and Spike Jonze, it still probably won't split audiences to the same extent as Lars von Trier's stunning and much harrumphed-about offend-a-thon, Antichrist.

Drawing plaudits and verbal nail-bombs in equal measure when it was first released, even now after the dust has settled, it's hard to fathom what the consensus opinion is. The arthouse community, whose place it would have been to stand up for it against the Daily Mail brigade, are still torn, with as many leaving it out of their top 10 list of 2009 as there were who included it. With its infamous cocktail of graphic sex and violence playing off against the poignant exploration of grief and suffering, it's hard to be indifferent to it.

Following the tragic death of their young son, presented in the prologue that feels like a painfully heartbreaking Marks & Spencer advert, a couple are left to cope with their grief. A psychotherapist himself, He (Willem Dafoe) attempts to treat her, and suggests they retreat to a cabin in the countryside - where She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) spent the last summer with her late son - and continue the therapy.

But his attempts to treat her depression are soon overwhelmed by her deep-seated personal problems and the oppressive nature of their environment, as her descent into mania reaches a brutal and eye-watering conclusion.

Antichrist isn't easy to digest and it's easy to see why many believe that Von Trier is merely seeking to aggravate his audience - the film ignores conventional structure, often plods aimlessly and offers some of the most uncomfortable imagery ever seen, all in the most aggressive manner possible. After the haunting, but showy intro, it settles into a beautifully filmed but ponderous exploration of the couple's anguish.

The pair are given no character traits beyond their mental condition, even their names are unknown, meaning their anguish is never out of focus. Never mind the torture porn that follows, there's plenty of mental torture porn here. The camera rarely lets them out of its sight, while the rest of the screen is often drenched in darkness, which suggests the chasm Von Trier is about to plunge us into.

The casting of Dafoe, here calming on the surface, yet eerie and unconvincing, merely boosts the unsettling tone. Despite the revulsion it inspired at Cannes, at the same festival Gainsbourg was feted for her part, and it's only due to her textured, naturalistic and harrowing turn that the film comes close to matching the fine cinematography.

After a talky section full of dark portent, the final third veers off narrative course as violently as it plays havoc with our retinas. After the arthouse psychodrama, Von Trier decides to do a sharp old-school meets new-school horror swerve on us, of a fashion - an isolated cabin in the woods, mysterious fog and suggestions of Satanism give way to some Saw-style body horror, culminating in the now legendary circumcision scene. Using those horror tropes, but with the pre-established emotional anguish replacing the usual slasher sentiment, it feels unsettling, odd and discordant at the same time. The incidents of violence are brief, but as Von Trier has married physical and mental horror, the effect is hard to ignore.

In many ways, you don't need Antichrist in your life. It's easier and maybe better to know it exists, rather than experiencing it, such is it heavy-going, obstructive and unrewarding nature. The accusation that Von Trier is merely setting out to shock is hard to deny, as there seems no willingness to prepare you for the brutality, and that's not even tackling the accusation of misogyny - personally I read that more as being tied in with her guilt-driven self-loathing. 

But it feels like there's a bigger picture to consider. Von Trier has suffered from depression for many years – Antichrist was made under the shadow of it, and making this is arguably a form of catharsis for him, especially in the way that he is conveys his distaste for cognitive therapy. It all seems to suggest that rather than a movie, Antichrist is an attempt to capture the black state of mind that he and other people go through. Symbolism runs through it, and the violent acts could be the metaphorical expression of the desperation and depths to which a person in that condition finds themself.

Visually, this seems to be the case, especially with the abstract cut-aways that suggest a mental haze throughout and the absence of real-world markers. Van Gogh followed a similar trajectory, his then-reviled style embodied his history of mental illness, especially his skewed view of the outside world and his self-portraits after he cut his own ear. Maybe in time mistrust of what Von Trier has attempted may shift towards understanding.

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Antichrist is not something that will fill a Saturday evening over a curry. It's punishing, joyless and aggravating, not to mention absurd and hard to take. Anyone looking for the gore and titillation the knee-jerk publicity seemed to imply will be badly let down - it's framed in too much sadness, and besides, it's doesn't remain once the required shock has been achieved. But still, for those who can look with impartial eyes, Antichrist is visually striking and thought-provoking.

Back in 1929, the slicing of an eyeball in Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou caused similar outrage, now it's a classic. Von Trier's imagery and intentions may possibly have found approval from the surrealist Bunuel were he alive today - maybe the fuss is more indicative of society than Von Trier. Agitators like this are less cuddly than James Cameron, but history tells us we can't deny them their place. 

Rating: 18
Starring: Willem Dafoe & Charlotte Gainsbourg
Directed by: Lars von Trier 
Extras: Von Trier commentary, interviews, featurettes, screen tests

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