(CNN) -- An infant falls to his death from a second-story window while his parents are making love.
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe star in the Lars von Trier drama "Antichrist."
The mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is consumed with grief and guilt. She's hospitalized and sedated for days and weeks before her husband (Willem Dafoe), a therapist, insists she return home. He gets rid of all her medications. He will be her partner and her grief counselor, and he will see her through this, if only she will place her trust in him.
Not a good idea for either of them, as it turns out.
Halloween is nearly upon us, but "Antichrist" is a mighty strange kind of horror movie, a wrenching psychodrama for two-thirds of its running time before collapsing into a steaming heap of deranged sadism and supernatural symbolism in the outrageous third act.
The movie's peculiarity can be accounted for in three words: Lars von Trier. The Danish provocateur twice won prestigious honors at the Cannes Film Festival (with "Breaking the Waves" and "Dancer in the Dark") and re-energized European art cinema in the 1990s with the Dogme movement's so-called "Vows of Chastity."
It's not often that an art-house director takes up the implements to make a horror film, and for a while, "Antichrist" compels with its anguished intensity and audacious stylistic choices, not least the severity that keeps the focus exclusively on this man and woman, neither of whom is named.
The prologue -- the child's death -- is a luxurious, slow-motion rhapsody of explicit sex, black-and-white photography and baroque music, commingling with the infant's almost ersatz tragedy and finding perfunctory counterpoint in banal close-ups of the family's washer-dryer. (There may be a deliberate echo here of the famous sex scene in Nicolas Roeg's "Don't Look Now," a far more keenly calibrated examination of grief succumbing to the supernatural.)
Dafoe and Gainsbourg are riveting as the ill-matched couple. He's an implacable rationalist, urging her to confront her fears and venture into the darkest recesses of her psyche. She's not sure he's ready to share that torment with her. Their bitter, sometimes sourly funny back-and-forth fleetingly echoes the railing, pugnacious and remorseful men and women we find again and again in Strindberg and Bergman.
Of course, when those great Scandinavian dramatists wanted to shock us with the ferocity of the battle of the sexes and show a married couple going at it tooth and nail, their only weapons were words. Mindful that he's up against "Hostel," "Saw" and the like, Herr von Trier ups the ante considerably.
Hiking to a log cabin in the mountains to uncover the apex of his wife's fears (it could be anywhere, but let's imagine we're in the neighborhood of Burkittsville), the doctor's little experiment in exposure therapy ends in crushed genitals and, uh, worse. Much worse.
It's safe to say von Trier knows this climax is over the top: "Chaos reigns!" announces a fox, in perfect English, just as the movie goes off the deep end. Chaos reigns all right, and Gainsbourg's traumatized mom is transformed nonsensically into a raving psycho witch-bitch.
This director has often been accused of misogyny for the punishments that befall his heroines -- spuriously, in my opinion. But this time the boot is on the other foot, and for once the charge seems to stick; no matter that the first half of the movie suggests Dafoe's smug therapist is due for a comeuppance.
Apparently someone had a seizure when the movie showed at the New York Film Festival recently. When I caught up with it at the Vancouver International Film Festival two weeks ago, the screening was punctuated with the single loudest shriek I've ever heard in the theatre -- that would have been when Gainsbourg gets out the scissors for a spot of ad hoc auto-surgery. There also was a very vociferous walk-out: a gentleman who fairly barked "You get what you pay for, folks" as he made for the exit a full 20 minutes before the end.
That unhappy camper had a point. Either von Trier is barking up the wrong tree, or he's pandering to the basest instincts of an audience that's seen it all before and still demands more, more, more.
Beautifully shot by Anthony Dod Mantle and acted with raw conviction, "Antichrist" is a calamitous atrocity from a major filmmaker, nothing more and nothing less. If you don't believe me, go ask the talking fox.
"Antichrist" is not rated and runs 104 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's review, click here.