IV. Paradise Lost: Eden as Perceived (Un)reality
Note: this section delves into some religious theorizing, mainly using Milton’s Paradise Lost as a framework. I am not in any way attempting to push any one religious agenda with this analysis. This is simply how I interpret Lars von Trier’s vision, which draws heavily from Christian themes of Good and Evil.
With all of this talk of misogyny and evil, lofty words spouted to stir up emotions but carrying less weight than the concepts they describe, it is hard to sift through the muck and get to the core—the black beating heart, if you will—of this film.
What we are really talking about with Antichrist is religion and the human race’s part in it. The major setting of the film is not-so-subtly dubbed “Eden,” after all. I think, more than anything else, von Trier was attempting to make a film condemning humanity’s place in the world using a Christian lens. This is why I don’t see him as intentionally trying to paint with a misogynist brush.
Looking at the film from this angle, the real reason for She being looked down upon and oppressed is biblical. She is Eve, and He is Adam.
In one early scene, She claims the Garden surrounding Eden to be “not quite at the top” of the proverbial fear pyramid that He has proposed She create. We then see images of She screaming subliminally flashing in the passing treeline as the couple travel to Eden.
She fears the Garden because, in the Miltonic vision of the Eden event, Eve was the one to tempt Adam with the Apple, sending humanity out of paradise and into the cruel world we now know. On the flip side, it is Adam’s constant presence in Eve’s life that drives Eve out into the Garden on her own, where she is ultimately seduced by the Satanic serpent. Adam’s oppression jump starts the series of events that leads to their tragic fall.
In the narrative of the film, She is not wrong to fear Eden, because the natural world of Eden no longer wants them there. Nature impedes on them. Acorns pelt the roof, white bugs latch onto Defoe’s hand, the landscape itself is warped by tricks of the camera. The film presents images of man being consumed, overwhelmed by nature. The woods of Eden are ominous, foreboding. She’s irrational fear of simply walking through the grass is not so much irrational as it is an acknowledgement that they are not meant to be there; they have already been banished.
One might ask as to why Eden is not at the very top of the fear pyramid. The answer proposed in the film is that it is because humanity holds that peak position. The only thing to be feared more than being banished from pure happiness is the person who had the taste of that happiness and is now relegated to a world of sin. That, or the world in which these banished people are forced to inhabit is where we find the upper echelon of fear.
This last point is given leverage by the fact that a producer on the film—then in its early stages of development—revealed to the press that the conceit for the film’s original ending was that Satan created the Earth, not God. Von Trier apparently went on to rewrite the script as a result, but the theme still shows its face in the final product. The world is deemed a hellish place in this film. Nothing is colorful or bordered by a silver lining. It is all anguish and despair and games of power. It is suffering leading to suffering leading to a violent undoing that we are all culpable for as a collective, simply based on our relation to the original sinners.
In terms of our two protagonists (if we can call them that), how can they not come to fear the world that took a child from them? “Nature is Satan’s church,” She proclaims at one point in the film. “Chaos Reigns” because we live in a world founded on chaos, annexed into being by a sin. This is why He and She must suffer. Their attempt to return to Eden results in a degradation of their humanity, a literal castration of their own humanness.
I believe this was von Trier’s attempt in making this film: to show the dehumanization of merely existing in a world predicated on sin. Interpretations of misogyny exist, certainly, and they have a lot of weight in the viewing experience of the film. But the graphic depictions of violence also resonate with the religious subtext. What makes us distinctly mortal is our ability to create life, to perpetuate our own kind so that mortality does not spell the end to everything for our species. Removing this ability is in one instance an attempt to return to an Eden we have long since departed from, and in another instance a recognition that our world might not be created with salvation in mind.
She and He travel to Eden to find salvation from their grief, but it only leads to pain and despair. Eden is an unreality, only real in memories. In truth, She and He have never known Eden, even in their pasts it is a place of false security. Realizing this unreality, the only thing left to do is fear the reality that has always existed, a reality in which “Chaos Reigns.” The Daily Mail review of the film claims that it is a “representation of two souls descending into hell.” A personal hell, yes, but not a literal hell. Painting the world of this film as hell is to limit what it truly wants to be: The human world.
To be honest, I’ve only scratched the surface of formal analysis that could be made of Antichrist. I didn’t dive into the various imagery of stillborn animals or the womb-like cave that Dafoe tries to find sanctuary in. But I don’t think breaking apart the images is most conducive to a discussion of the larger questions surrounding the film, and I have a feeling von Trier didn’t intend for viewers to focus on symbology given what images really stick in the mind when the film ceases.
I will say this about Antichrist on an editorial level: it has intrigue beyond its most memorable (and most hated) moments, and that says something. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you’ve probably seen the film given my spoiler warning up top, but I will make note that I would only recommend this film to those who know what they’re getting into and won’t get offended by it, regardless of what interpretation they may personally extrapolate from it. Additionally, I will say that repeated viewings of this film does not make those striking scenes any easier to watch. Sipping my morning coffee as I re-watched those gruesome scenes for the sake of this article, it was almost worse knowing that they were coming.
If you are still reading at this point and were similarly intrigued by von Trier’s film, I will shamelessly plug another one of my articles by suggesting you click here and read my review of Gaspar Noe’s film Irreversible, another artistic rendering of horrifying subject matter. It was one of my early reviews on this site, and I really enjoyed writing it. Perhaps I will write an in-depth Film Philosophy article on that film in the future, if these in-depth style articles prove enjoyable to you all.
As always, thanks for reading! Let me know your thoughts on Antichrist in the comments.
—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)
Like CineFiles on Facebook to get up-to-date info on new articles.