CANNES, France (Reuters) - Danish director Lars von Trier elicited derisive laughter, gasps of disbelief, a smattering of applause and loud boos on Sunday as the credits rolled on his drama "Antichrist" at the Cannes film festival.
The film, starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a couple seeking to overcome the grief of losing their only child, has quickly become the most talked-about at this year's festival, which ends on May 24.
Cannes' notoriously picky critics and press often react audibly to films during screenings, but Sunday evening's viewing was unusually demonstrative.
Jeers and laughter broke out during scenes ranging from a talking fox to graphically-portrayed sexual mutilation.
Many viewers in the large Debussy cinema also appeared to take objection to von Trier's decision to dedicate his film to the revered Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. Applause from a handful of viewers was drowned out by booing at the end.
Antichrist opens with a heavily stylized, black-and-white, slow-motion portrayal of the child's accidental death set to soaring music by Handel.
Dafoe's character, who is a therapist, tries to help his wife deal with her grief and encourages her to come off heavy medication that sedates her for weeks after the death.
They decide to go to an isolated wooden cabin in an unspecified forest to recover, but the woman Gainsbourg portrays loses control of her senses.
The abuse she submits herself and her husband to drew shocked gasps from the audience.
The reaction suggested that von Trier, who won the top prize in Cannes with "Dancer in the Dark" in 2000, could be in for a rough ride from reviewers and journalists on Monday.
One U.S. critic said he and others found the film "offensive," and questioned why it was included in the main competition of 20 films in Cannes.
In production notes for Antichrist, the 53-year-old director said that the movie was a "kind of therapy" for depression he was suffering from two years ago.
"I can offer no excuse for 'Antichrist' ... other than my absolute belief in the film -- the most important film of my entire career!"