Sex and death. Guilt and psychosis. Witchcraft and mutilation. Beauty and obscenity. Lars von Trier's "Antichrist" exists in an orbit all its own, where conventional judgments don't apply. It is a challenge, not an entertainment. To watch the Danish provocateur's new film is to experience unrelenting pain, shading into revulsion, while being inspired by his virtuoso command of the medium and sharp intelligence.

Von Trier has always polarized audiences, courting controversy with stories that probe his characters' deepest vulnerabilities, and ours. In his worldview, sex, violence and death are never far from each other, human behavior is cruel, and we must make of it what we will. Some see his work as high-toned exploitation cinema, cynical torture porn with a sprinkling of art-school pretention. Others -- my camp -- see images suffused with Christian iconography and the compassion it commands.

"Antichrist" will hit these fiery disagreements like a bucket of kerosene. The film is sexually transgressive from its first moments, and fiercely gorgeous. A married couple -- we know them only as He and She -- make love beneath a flowing shower. In slow motion, droplets sparkle like diamonds. The images in this prologue are in the rich black-and-white of gallery photographs. A stately Handel aria provides an aura of sanctity and calm, and their lovemaking is shot in handsome, explicit detail. But there is a foreboding undertone, as well. While they are lost in passion, a tragedy occurs that leaves them devastated. Von Trier begins by placing their nakedness on public view. By the time the film ends, he will have flayed them emotionally until their very souls are exposed.

Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg play the privileged, doomed couple in fearless, fiercely committed performances. In an early episode, She recovers from the trauma of the opening scene in a hospital bed. She has been medicated for a month. Her expression conveys inconsolable grief, and He, a psychiatrist, speaks to his stricken wife with the measured, confident tones of a therapist. The restrained Dafoe and pain-maddened Gainsbourg confront each other like a logical matador and an instinct-driven bull. She accuses him of indifference to her pain. Insisting that he knows best, He discards her pills and prescribes a trip to their isolated cabin, a place they call Eden. The trip is sure to trigger strong memories for her. Confronting her fears, He complacently insists, will banish them.

We know this will backfire. If movies have taught us anything, it is that middle-class couples escaping to a rural location will be dragged to hell. Von Trier creates an alienating environment that is beautiful but ferocious. Acorns rain down on their cabin's tin roof, disturbing their sleep. Ingenious camera effects make the grasslands seem to writhe in pain. He sees a sleek doe, an image that becomes horrific when it turns, revealing a stillborn calf hanging from its birth canal.

These visions could be hallucinations or manifestations of the supernatural: She last visited the Eden cabin to work on her research into witch hunts. The gothic mood oppresses her and unnerves the man, and they begin a descent into barbarism that will scar their bodies and maul their spirits.

The film operates on the level of a fable, and viewers unwilling to accept those terms will find it absurd and offensive. The story's take-it-or-leave-it moment arrives when a talking fox warns Dafoe's character, "Chaos reigns." At this point you either throw up your hands or give in. Dafoe reacts with the solemn awe of a man encountering a voice in a burning bush, and I was right there with him.

The movie grows more surreal and unhinged as it goes, with images of human limbs rising out of gnarled tree roots, cringe-worthy scenes of physical mutilation and an army of phantoms flooding the woods. Is She a tortured prophet or a lunatic? Is He genuinely trying to cure her grief or psychologically manipulating her to reassert his authority in the relationship? Are they characters or representatives of two ways of thinking, arrogant rationalism battling frenzied emotion?

Von Trier may have answers, but he doesn't let on about them. "Antichrist" is not a film to be enjoyed -- it's too much an endurance test for that -- but it compels our attention and respect. It uses shock effects to batter down our complacency and poses difficult, unsettling questions about living rationally in an irrational world. Most films are idle daydreams. This is an ice cold nightmare.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186