Blakean Trees in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009)

Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) is shocking, depressing, mysogynist…in a word…evil. I found it very interesting, therefore, that several critics reviewing the film likened it to the work of William Blake. Walter Chaw, for example, sees a parallel between the idea of Nature as “Satan’s Church” and “a Blakean idea that Milton’s God is passive while Milton’s Satan is not.” Michael Guillen begins his review of the film with an epigraph from Blake’s “Tyger,” and asks us to “imagine for a moment, if you will, that the filmmaker’s lens is William Blake’s visionary eye, aiming consciousness (i.e., a bright and burning light) into the dark recesses of the cinephilic psyche.” And Richard Van Busack, when critiquing the film’s portrayal of nature as not serious, says that the film needs a thesis “such as William Blake’s line that ‘the lust of the goat is the glory of God.'”

There are no quotes from Blake in the film, no images of Blake’s illluminations, no mentions of his name. What is it about von Trier’s film that invites so many comparisons? The film centers on a couple (vaguely named “He” and “She”) whose child dies while they are having intercourse. “She” (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) is overwhelmed with grief and is confined to a hospital. Her husband, “He,” (a stoic Willem Dafoe) takes it upon himself to counsel his wife. As they dive deeper and deeper into her depression and anxiety, “He” decides to take a retreat into the woods, to a cabin named Eden: the place where “She” is most frightened.

Von Trier’s depiction of the woods is filled with darkness, sin and death. The couple see several scenes of decomposition: a deer whose stillborn calf still hangs from her hind legs, a dying baby chick swarming with flies  and then bitten in two by a larger bird, a fox who knaws on his own flesh before uttering the strange prophetic words “chaos reigns.” As the grief and blame eat at their mutual trust, they become increasingly and intimately violent. Genital mutilation, choking, and dismemberment abound in von Trier’s film, as do medieval depictions of witches and the occult.

In all of this demonic, satanic mess – where is Blake? I was struck by two elements of the film that have what I would call a Blakean tone. The first is the mutually violent core of “He” and “She’s” relationship, reminiscent of the opening scenes of William Blake’s Vala, or The Four Zoas where the once harmonious Albion splits into individuality. Tharmas and Enion, in “Night the First” look at one another in horror. Enion screams:

Thy fear has made me tremble thy terrors have surrounded me   
All Love is lost Terror succeeds & Hatred instead of Love
And stern demands of Right & Duty instead of Liberty.
Once thou wast to Me the loveliest son of heaven–But now
Why art thou Terrible and yet I love thee in thy terror till
I am almost Extinct & soon shall be a Shadow in Oblivion
Unless some way can be found that I may look upon thee & live
Hide me some Shadowy semblance. secret whispring in my Ear
In secret of soft wings. in mazes of delusive beauty
I have lookd into the secret soul of him I lovd
And in the Dark recesses found Sin & cannot return (FZ 1:4.17-4.27; E301)

For Blake, the only “sin” is individuality, morality and rationality. Mutual coexistence and intimate love are replaced in the first portion of The Four Zoas with laws that govern. What was once beautiful becomes terrifying and violent. “She,” in Antichrist, reacts with similar violence to “He’s” rationalizing psychological advice. Rationalizing grief in von Trier’s universe only causes more hatred, and then more love – until the two are indistinguishable.

Second, and perhaps more important, I find that Blake and von Trier have a similar visual imagination. The scene where “He” and “She” copulate on the roots of a tree has already been mentioned as “Blakean” by the blog Counter-Force, yet the tree pictured in the promotional poster for the film is, in my view, much more Blakean.

The image recalls the 1808 version of Blake’s “The Vision of the Last Judgment,” where multitudes of persons merge together in what looks like a tree:

The tree pictured here collects and organizes the multiplicity of persons flowing between heaven and hell. While the branches of the tree collect the heavenly host and act as a seat to the judgment of Jesus, the roots grown into the caverns and fires of hell. The tree, in this way, connects righteousness with sin and heaven with hell.

Tree imagery appears in many places in Blake’s Work. “The Human Abstract” imagines the mythical tree of mystery which “[t]he Gods of earth and sea/Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree” but Blake says that this search “was all in vain;/There grows one in the Human Brain” (ll. 21-4; E27). The Marriage of Heaven and Hell reminds us that “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees” (7; E35). The Tree of Mystery appears as a central figure in Vala, or the Four Zoas, where it becomes different things to different characters.

In “A Poison Tree,” Blake references the tree to draw a distinction between wrath and isolation, forgiveness and connection. The central character shows mutual respect for his friend. “I was angry with my friend/I told my wrath, my wrath did end” (ll. 1-2). Towards his foe, he “told it not/my wrath did grow.” (ll. 3-4).

Individual pain and suffering grow with the tree (“I watered it in fears/Night and morning with my tears”), until the foe is found the next day “outstretched beneath the tree” (ll 5-6; 16). Blake’s foe tasted of his wrath, it poisoned the foe, and the foe died. The poem characterizes two very different relationships. One has mutual respect and recognizes the value of connection. The other eschews connection for individual pain and suffering.

The narrative of von Trier’s Apocalypse embraces Blake’s characterization of the Tree of Mystery and the poison tree, while ignoring the power Blake places in communication and connection. The film shows us a very similar image as the one found on the “Poison Tree” plate in its final shots, with bodies laying beneath trees, yet von Trier interprets this image in a very different way than Blake does.

The bodies are decomposing into the ground beneath them, perhaps signifying the hordes of people who had also succumbed to the evil depicted in the film. As “He” walks past, new hordes of faceless foes run down the path into the woods. “He” and “She” aren’t the first group of people to water their wrath, nor will they be the last.

Von Trier’s composition in the tree shot mimics the falling of leaves during autumn. Yet the shot is also a response to an earlier sequence in the film, where “He” asks “She” to engage in a “visualization” exercise designed to ward off her fear of the wilderness. “She” envisioned herself laying in grass, becoming one with the environment and letting go of her fear. If the shot in the final part of the film signifies death and hell, this earlier form is much more Christ-like in its portrayal of natural sacrifice. One could easily imagine this shot as an illumination of one of Blake’s Songs of Innocence. The juxtaposition of these shots in von Trier’s film begs the question: are we fundamentally connected or isolated? The resolution of the film suggests the latter. Telling a friend of one’s wrath does not make it end. It’s almost as if we would like to feel connected but, ultimately – says von Trier, we are isolated, cold, dead creatures. The nature that promises our reconnection and solace provides neither. It is a place of solitude and misery.