A closer look at Lars von Trier’s Depression Trilogy

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The wild symbolism and frank, disturbed erotica of Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac goes under the microscope.

The fantastically freakish Danish auteur, Lars von Trier, has just tied the final knot in his ‘Depression Trilogy’ rope. The controversial collection is made up of Antichrist, Melancholia, and the freshly squeezed Nymphomaniac. These three stunningly disturbing films are stand-alone works of genius in their own right, but are tied together by the subject of depression, which plagues their female protagonists.

Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac are stunningly disturbing, stand-alone works of genius in their own right

The unapologetically painful sadness which coats the leading ladies manifests itself in various forms. For Melancholia’s Justine (Kirsten Dunst) it seeps out in slow, fat, heavy waves, making the viewer feel paralysed and sluggish. The depression of Antichrist’s nameless character, ‘She’ (Charlotte Gainsbourg), rears its head as an erratic and violent psychosis which gains terrifying momentum, and Nymphomaniac’s Joe (Gainsbourg again) expresses her depression through a frank and numbing physical self-hatred. And by Christ, do they do what they say on the tin.

In true von Trier-style, the three films are loaded with multiple themes and symbols, and we find a number of other recurring threads which weave their way through the dense cinematic triangle. And von Trier – openly admitting to the lead characters being a direct representation of himself – makes it all the more tantalising to view. This is the closest we will ever come to sitting von Trier on the therapist’s couch, and poking at his mighty brain. But does he really reveal anything? Well, kinda.

antichrist sex

Nature, and the display of its overwhelming force, is rampant throughout the trilogy. We first see it clearly in Antichrist, where nature essentially plays the third character; a dark, living entity, perceived as ‘Satan’s playground’, and believed to be the controlling factor of women’s inherent evil. (It’s true, we are all evil.) In particular there is a haggard old tree, which She tells her husband has an ‘odd personality’. She simultaneously fears it and deeply connects with it. We later discover that it holds the essence of her dead ‘sisters’; perhaps a nod to stone tape theory, which is fast becoming a recognised link between nature and physics.

Nature, and the display of its force, is rampant throughout the trilogy. Von Trier sees nature as an extension of himself

Trees make a reappearance in Nymphomaniac, where Joe talks of ‘finding your soul tree’, which represents a person and their life. One of the only pleasant moments in the emotionally ball-busting movie comes when Joe discovers her own soul tree, and becomes momentarily calm and complete. Nature also holds a strong relevance in Melancholia, where the surroundings of the location are full of rich greens, foliage and water. Justine’s significant (and only) sexual encounter happens outside, surrounded by the lush natural elements. She is later found lying naked on the grassy river embankment, looking content, bathing in the light of the Moon and Melancholia. It’s a comment on lunacy which can be referred back to the main theme of Antichrist.

In each film of the Depression Trilogy there is a pivotal moment in which the ‘Lars lady’ lies on the earth and has an emotionally significant experience. They ‘become one’ with the ground – all seeming to connect to nature’s frequency, and engage in a silent conversation with it. Von Trier clearly has an affinity with nature, and sees it as an extension of himself. Perhaps it understands him more than we ever could.

More on Nymphomaniac: Curzon’s ‘One Night Stand’ review and Q&A

melancholia kirsten d

Each of Lars’ protagonists also possess an unnerving magical element. Nymphomaniac has an unorthodox narrative which is ingeniously complimentary to the harsh, adult content. It’s essentially told as a fairytale – narrated in Joe’s soft voice and unusual tone, as she sits in bed, in her pyjamas. This lends a bizarre, magical innocence to the story. In Melancholia we’re thrown a complete left hook when Justine reveals that she has clairvoyant abilities, and “knows things”, including how the world will end. The beautiful opening sequence also shows her producing electric-like volts from her fingertips like some intense, Mother Nature figure.

The Depression Trilogy is von Trier’s anti-misogyny manifesto – the female characters have an overwhelming power and depth

The supernatural elements of Antichrist’s Her are slightly more abstract, with strong ties to witchcraft and archaic magic – especially in the penultimate scene where She is burned alive by her husband, who is a bit pissed off about the gaping hole in his leg. With von Trier being a self-confessed depressive and social anomaly, this appears to reflect his feelings of disconnection from society, and how he is generally misunderstood and unaccepted. Perhaps this is his first unsubtle message, suggesting that he feels as though he is – quite literally – from another planet. (Wherever he’s from, I’d like to visit.)

Von Trier has been labelled many things, most notably ‘a misogynist’, particularly post-Antichrist. But this is just another sad example of mass public hysteria, with folk jumping on an angry bandwagon that they know nothing about. If anything, the three films of the Depression Trilogy are the anti-misogyny manifesto. Not only does Melancholia pass the Bechdel Test with ease, but in all three cases the female characters have an overwhelming power and mental depth, demonstrating von Trier’s respect for women as actors, and as skilled mediums of his own emotions. The strength of character in the three women actually exposes the weakness and flaws of the men.

nymphomaniac stellan skarsgard

In Melancholia, Justine’s husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), is so meek and blindly desperate to make the marriage work, that his submissive pandering becomes embarrassing and nauseating. Kiefer Sutherland’s character is also revealed to be rather pathetic when, in the face of the apocalypse, his bravado crumbles and we watch him quietly kill himself in cowardice, leaving his family to suffer alone in their final moments. Similarly, we see Nymphomaniac’s Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) failing on many levels. In complete contrast to his female co-star, he suppresses and denies his sexuality for years.

Von Trier’s left no stone unturned, but has left it down to the viewer to decide which stones to lift. He tells all, yet tells us nothing

Rather than owning his feelings as the bold nymphomaniac does, he winds up committing rape, showing the epitome of his weakness and lack of control. In Antichrist, ‘He’ (Willem Dafoe) is also emotionally stunted and repressed. He is so distant and detached from love that he is flat as an emotional pancake, more interested in textbook analysis than human connection – his wife’s thought-provoking fear and appetite for destruction show him to be the most shamefully blank of human canvases. So, in the game of What’s Lars Thinking?, where does this leave us on a scale of one-to-clueless? Well, I guess that depends on how you look at it.

In the Depression Trilogy, Lars von Trier has laid himself as bare as you can get in artistic terms. He hasn’t sugarcoated the brutality of his thoughts or visions, but he has left many things open to interpretation. He’s left no stone unturned, but has left it down to the viewer to decide which stones to lift. He tells all, yet tells us nothing. Like a true artist, von Trier has perhaps created more questions than he’s answered, whilst being searingly honest. How far down the rabbit hole did he go? Did he ever really come back? From whichever angle you choose to look, there’s no denying that the man is a genius.

 

More on Lars: Can Lars von Trier be trusted to explore female sexuality on film?

 

All images: Zentropa

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