This enormously controversial psychodrama-cum-horror film from Danish enfant terrible
Lars von Trier charts the degeneration of a marriage into apocalyptic violence, chaos, and insanity following an unthinkable domestic tragedy. The film opens with a prologue. While they make love in their apartment on a snowy winter afternoon, a husband and wife known only as "He" and "She" (Willem Dafoe
and Charlotte Gainsbourg
) fail to keep an eye on their young toddler. In a horrific turn of events, the child wanders over to an open window, entranced by the snow cascading down, and falls two stories to his death. Von Trier then divides the remainder of the film into four chapters, beginning with "Grief." In that segment, the woman finishes a month's hospitalization, and accuses her husband of apathy over the child's death, but proceeds to take responsibility for it herself; he calmly and rationally guides her through this process. In the second segment, "Pain," she confesses to him that she's most terrified of their property in the forest, because she spent time with her son there over the preceding summer; as a form of therapy, he takes her to that locale on a wilderness retreat. She appears to grow more calm and rational over their first days in that milieu. Yet the recovery, it seems, was only illusory, and the subsequent two chapters, "Despair (Gynocide)" and "The Three Beggars," depict the woman's shocking and abrupt regression into unbridled insanity, culminating with grotesque sexual violence against herself, gruesome acts of destruction against her husband, and an apocalyptic climax.