Eden as Asylum

I confess I was a bit nervous when I sat down to catch the press screening of Lars von Trier’s new film Antichrist during the New York Film Festival. Could this slightly squeamish reviewer sit though a flick that had been described by some as misogynistic, including not one but two genital mutilation scenes? Maybe it would be like No Country for Old Men, in which the director’s depiction of even that most unredemptive of sinners still filled me with a sense of hope. Perhaps von Trier has something worthwhile to reveal as well, beyond simply grossing me out.

In the first frame, “Lascia ch’io panga” from Handel’s Rinaldo lured me into the seemingly perfect world of a blissful couple. Then, while they express their passion for each other courtesy of porn doubles, the fruit of their loins sleepwalks onto a window’s ledge. The moment the couple climaxes, the toddler steps off the ledge and crashes to the sidewalk below, and a light coating of snow falls on the boy’s lifeless body.

What followed next is a dance of death as the grief- and guilt-ridden pair walks behind a hearse carrying the coffin of their only son. I’ve repeated this family ritual so often I know the steps by heart; but I’m so rhythmically-challenged that the dancing never gets any easier. During my moments of despair, I feel like I’ve descended into hell. After I lost my parents as a teenager, like She after her son’s death, I felt utterly despondent, soaked with the stench of sorrow.

After collapsing during the funeral procession, She (Charlotte Ginsburg) finds herself embarking on a psychological journey from overmedication into madness, guided by her husband, He (Willem Dafoe). A well-trained therapist, He decides that She should go off her medication and let him employ the technique of cognitive therapy to heal her. At He’s insistence, the couple journeys to their cabin in the woods, a run-down shack called Eden.

Repeatedly He tries to get She to talk about her feelings as though he could Elisabeth KüblerRoss her grief away. Through a series of trust walks, visualization exercises, and therapeutic tricks, He tries in vain to find the thing that will finally console She. It is an all-too familiar exercise; I too have fallen into the trap of believing I could think my way into a cure. My foray into self-healing took place during the 1980s, a heyday of Oprah-esque gurus. Their wares put a dent in my bank account but failed to heal my soul.

I eventually found a spiritual director who led me through St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul. She believed that my malaise would be best understood not as clinical depression but, rather, as a loss of God following the death of my parents. In the works of mystics like John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and the Desert Fathers, I found firsthand that, all these centuries later, their words could still speak to my pain. While therapists like He try to tease out psychic agony through talk, the ancient mystics taught that the problem and its solution are above all spiritual—they guided me through my soul’s own dark night toward a light I can only call divine. Through von Trier’s eyes, I saw that dark night again. In He and She, I heard the echo of that Good Friday lament, “Why have you forsaken me?” I was back in the moment when I became an orphan.

During the press conference held after the screening, von Trier claimed that any religious references in the script are there accidentally. “If it has anything to do with the Bible,” he added, “it’s that God is dead.” He created the film while in the midst of a deep depression and says that its images stem more from dreams than logic or self-conscious craft. Regardless of his obvious distaste for religion, in the play of his subconscious, he seems to have stumbled into a version of Good Friday, only without the resurrection.

Von Trier also told us at the press conference, “I’m sorry about the Eden stuff; it was very easy.” Whether one chooses to envision his Eden as the site of God’s death, the Fall, a psychological metaphor, or simply a shack in the woods, it becomes the site of spiritual warfare.

The occasional sighting of a limping, half-dead wild animal and of people whispering “chaos reigns” reminds us that we’ve indeed entered anti-paradise.

She struggles to survive as her world becomes topsy-turvy. In her efforts to become one with the earth, she only descends further into the dirt. Searching for any shred of sanity that can save her, He stumbles upon a corner of the cabin where She kept her research for a thesis on gynocide. The grotesque medieval drawings hanging on the cabin wall mirror her destructive encounters with He’s therapeutic regimen. I almost expected a copy of Mary Daly’s Gyno/Ecology (1978) to fall out of the bookshelf and hit him on the head as yet another painful reminder that as a patriarchal male, he’s part of the system that rapes and destroys the female of the species.

“Nature is Satan,” She utters. The very paradise where she retreated with her son to work on the thesis has become the place of her expulsion from the world. But instead of guiding us through She’s dark night and then out, as St. John of the Cross might have, von Trier seems to turn psycho himself. Abruptly and without explanation, She assumes the role of the attacker by pounding He’s genitals and forcing a stone wheel into one of his legs. As he lies in a pool of blood and mangled flesh, shrieking in pain, she proceeds to cut off her clitoris. The groans from the audience and the sound of a few people leaving their seats indicated that I was not the only one who felt more sickened than stunned by this sudden turn of events.

What could have been a magnificent film leaves only the residue of brutality and self-destruction. Von Trier refuses to hear out the words of pilgrims who have traveled this road before, the old souls who felt the presence of a God—or some likeness of one—who might lead us through the darkest nights.

During my period of grief, I thought I was experiencing unsurpassable despair. But I only tiptoed around the depths into which She’s soul descended. From his own pathos, von Trier wanted me to enter his world too, where loss and depression remain gaping wounds that can never heal. Though He finally exits Eden, for all his hope that they might find peace, He leaves as a man more dead than alive.

Therein is the horror of Antichrist—the masterpiece became mutilated.

Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).