Image Credits: Melancholia, Nordisk Film

Death and the Maniac: Lars von Trier’s Trilogy of Depression

By David Braga - March 14, 2016, 8:00 AM

A few weeks ago, France placed a ban on Antichrist, Lars von Trier’s 2009 fever-dream horror film that was “honored” with a specially created anti-humanitarian award when it debuted at Cannes (it also won a deserved best actress for Charlotte Gainsbourg). That some would find the film offensive, or even reprehensible, is no surprise. That it would be banned now in 2016—seven years after it was released—is what’s so shocking. There are, of course, massive political and cultural undercurrents that inform this decision, but from a purely cinematic standpoint, the censorship issue offers a chance to reflect upon the most recent works by one of the most unique and polarizing figures in modern film.

Von Trier is many things; subtle is not one of them. It would take too long to list all of the Danish auteur’s moments of notoriety—a quick Google search will turn up results both hilarious and off-putting—but we’d do well to remember that behind all of the moments of public nonsense, there lies a very talented, very interesting filmmaker, one who is willing to risk scrutiny and ridicule to make some of the most emotionally naked films one is likely to see. And while the entire entry in the von Trier filmography offers an opportunity to psychoanalyze its creator, nowhere is it more visible than in his Trilogy of Depression: the aforementioned Antichrist, Melancholia, and the two-part Nyphomaniac.

Von Trier is a trilogy man. His first three films—Element of Crime, Epidemic, and Europa—make up a loose “European Trilogy”; his breakthrough films—Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, and Dancer in the Dark—form the “Golden Heart Trilogy”; the Brechtian Dogville and Manderlay make up the first two installments of an abandoned “USA” trilogy. So it isn’t unusual to see von Trier teasing out an idea across multiple films of varying styles. It allows him to probe it from different angles, explore it through manipulating the medium, and oftentimes play devil’s advocate to themes explored in earlier films.

What sets the Trilogy of Depression apart isn’t just the quality of the films (for my money, the best von Trier has made besides Breaking the Waves), but the unrelenting gaze the director turns on himself. Von Trier is a noted multi-phobic, and at the time Antichrist began he was in the midst of such a depression that he couldn’t even meet with actors, given his mental state. He was eventually able to make the film, and two more after it, but the anguish he experienced is plain to see for anyone willing to sit through them. Each of the three movies takes a look at a different aspect of von Trier’s mental state: Antichrist is panic/anxiety attacks, Melancholia is depression, and Nyphomaniac is self-loathing and validation. By breaking down the films individually and then reconsidering them as a whole—both as a unique unit and a larger piece of the Lars von Trier filmography—we can better understand what the man is trying to say, when he’s toying with us for the sake of pure provocation, and where he’s pushing the envelope further than most others would dare to.

Antichrist, IFC Films

Antichrist (2009)

Of the three films, Antichrist is probably the most well known and certainly carries the most baggage with it. The film has two named characters—He and She (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg)—and overflows with symbolism, some of it obvious and overdone, some of it subtle and difficult to interpret. The plot is as bare as bones get: the couples’ child falls out an open window while they’re busy making love; devastated, She spirals into depression and unrelenting anxiety while He, a psychiatrist, attempts to cure her in the seclusion in their cabin, called Eden. Once there, things spiral into violence both psychological and emotional in manners that I won’t bother to detail here. If you’ve seen the film you know what I’m talking about; if you haven’t, it’s best to see it without knowing what’s coming.

You can make your own mind up about what the film means; there are enough readings of the film that it’d be nearly impossible to accept one and reject all others without consideration. It’s also difficult to discuss Antichrist without diving into whether or not it examines or promotes misogyny. The question of whether it’s possible to make a film that features misogynistic characters and themes without promoting the hatred of women itself is a good one, but to do the subject any sort of justice would require another article altogether.

What exists without need for interpretation is how well the film portrays the physical and psychological trauma of a panic attack. Gainsbourg’s character becomes afraid of everything, to the point of not even being able to walk outside for fear that the ground will harm her. The scenes of anxiety are expertly rendered—the lens grows distorted, the sound becomes at once ambient and overwhelming, and the close shots of veins pumping adrenaline fueled blood in Gainsbourg’s neck dominate the frame. It doesn’t recreate the exact feeling of a panic attack, but it comes about as close as it can.

But beyond the recreation of the visceral symptoms of anxiety and panic, von Trier sets up Antichrist as a battle between two ideologies: the ideology of panic, in which everything is dangerous and frightening and primal; and the ideology of therapy, where talking cures and rational thinking can overcome fear. The character of She embodies the former, He the latter. And as the film progresses, their war of of reason vs. primal fear becomes perhaps the central thesis of the film. It is telling that on several occasions, She references the inherent evil of the natural world, going so far as to call nature “Satan’s church.” She also believes herself—and all women—to be evil, given her belief that the female body is controlled by nature, and not the woman who occupies it. This is the mindset that an anxiety disorder brings on—the familiar becomes uncanny and threatening, the mere possibility of another panic attack turns our own bodies against us, so that we feel that we have lost control of our biology and let something else take the wheel. When the woods surrounding Eden do bring about terrible violence, it seems to prove that She was right all along. On the other end of the philosophical dichotomy, He is proved to be naive and overmatched by the natural evil of the world. Even if he defeats his primary adversary when She tries to kill him, the film’s final sequence suggests that no matter what he has done, the battle against a cruel world that wants to hurt us cannot be won.

It is important to note that as cries of misogyny came out against the film, both von Trier and Gainsbourg talked about how it was the female character, She, and not Dafoe’s male, that was the cinematic representation of the film’s director. If that is so, then we can look at Antichrist as a desperate film made by a man afraid of the world around him and afraid of his own self. The symbols and images that were once cloudy begin to come into focus. This isn’t about man versus woman, it is about primal fear versus an idea of rationality and order that cannot quell that fear. It dismisses psychiatry and talk therapy as a cure. It looks unflinchingly at the possibility that the panicked mind is the correct mind, that it alone sees the world for what it really is: violent, evil, and chaotic. At its most basic level, Antichrist is pitting von Trier against his own demons. The demons win.

Melancholia, Nordisk Film

Melancholia (2011)

Melancholia is the second installment in the Trilogy of Depression, and while it is the most straightforward (straightforward being a relative term when given the nature of the other films), it is also probably the strongest of the group, due in no small part to Kirsten Dunst’s devastating performance (another Cannes best actor winner).

Melancholia also takes the one-on-one approach that Antichrist adopted; while Melancholia features far more characters, it essentially boils down to a battle between clinically depressed Justine (Dunst), and her sister Claire (Gainsbourg, again), who isn’t completely stable, but seems to represent the unaffected in that she sees problems, deals with them, and continues to function. Justine, on the other hand, can’t even leave the bathtub on her own, so intense is her misery. Looming above them (and the entire world) is the specter of a rogue planet, Melancholia, that is poised to collide with the Earth and destroy it. Von Trier does something smart in letting us know the end of the film before the characters do—in an extended, operated opening, we see the destruction of the planet as it will happen, and so, while Justine placidly accepts the idea of possible annihilation and Claire begins to crack worrying over it, we already know that they are doomed. That saves us the trouble of wondering how they’ll escape the situation, and lets us focus on how they cope with it as characters.

If Antichrist was about the conflict between a mental health disorder and the world around it, Melancholia is about resignation. Von Trier presented anxiety as a battle but shows us depression as a state of waiting, of being so stuck in a swamp of misery that you welcome your end. From the first moment Justine looks up to the night sky and sees the red dot of the coming planet, she is not just curious about it, she’s magnetized to it. While the other characters marvel and worry at the possibility of Melancholia destroying the world, Justine seems comforted by it. In a scene that shows some of von Trier’s most gorgeous imagery in years, she bathes in the evening glow cast down by the apocalyptic planet along the banks of a wooded river, welcoming her death like a lost lover. When Claire confronts her about her fears, Justine merely replies that the Earth is a bad place (echoing She in Antichrist) and that no one will miss it when it’s gone.

Also key is that in the closing moments of the film, when Melancholia is moments away from destroying human existence, it is Justine who is calm and collected, doing her best to comfort Claire’s child while his mother breaks down, unable to save him or herself.

What do we make of this? Melancholia is not nearly as abrasive, challenging or exhausting as Antichrist, but it plunders a trickier subject. Anxiety attacks and fear are, in many ways, easier to make compelling than outright depression. Antichrist is, after all, an attempt at a horror film. Melancholia has the backdrop of a disaster movie, but the entire film takes place in a manor that seems almost out of a fairy tale, and the imagery in the film is so ornate that von Trier went so far as to write a small manifesto about how much the film plunges into German Romanticism for its visual inspiration, something that would seem like sacrilege to one of the founders of the Dogme 95 movement.

The lows of Justine’s depression are low, excruciatingly so at times, and the hurt she goes through is easily felt by the audience. But von Trier seems to also be finding a sort of beauty in it. One could view this as an attempt to glamorize depression, but so much of the film is so raw and painful that it seems foolish to suggest that. Instead, I wonder if the bits of beauty and romanticism that von Trier litters throughout the film represent a sort of acceptance, or, as earlier suggested, a resignation. Why not give in to beautiful images even if you’ve been fighting against them your entire career? Why not welcome the end of yourself and bask in its glow as it grows ever closer, knowing that your depression will be gone with it? In Melancholia, the characters fight each other, but von Trier isn’t really fighting anything. He’s accepted his condition as a depressive, he’s put it on film as best he can (once again using a female character as a stand-in for himself), and is seemingly content with that. Unlike Antichrist, there aren’t many questions to ask after the end of Melancholia. There are only feelings, and a director willing to present them, no matter how hard they may be to watch, or how inappropriately beautiful they may seem.

Nymphomaniac, Les Films du Losange

Nymphomanic, Volumes I & II (2013)

If Antichrist and Melancholia were attempts to react and depict his own psychological troubles, then Nymphomaniac (filmed as one movie but split in two over length concerns) is as much a film about von Trier’s depression as it is a film about von Trier reacting to and fighting against his previous two films.

This is not all that different from how the aforementioned Golden Heart trilogy ended. Von Trier had created serious and sweeping melodramas with Breaking the Waves and The Idiots, but Dancer in the Dark, a musical film about a blind woman sentenced to death for an accidental crime, felt more like open emotional manipulation. If critics (and possibly von Trier himself) had wondered if Breaking the Waves and Idiots were simply peddling cheap emotional trauma to create feeling in the audience, Dancer in the Dark answered them by going so far over the top in how much hell it puts its main character through that it’s a difficult film to take seriously as anything but a reaction film. And yet somehow, the film still works. Similarly, Nymphomaniac is both a very real film and a reaction and commentary on Antichrist and Melancholia. You can understand it as an isolated piece of art, but a knowledge of what came before it opens it up into something more.

Nymphomaniac’s primary concern is self-loathing and the validation of that self-loathing. Those feelings take form in Joe (Gainsbourg again), the self- described nymphomaniac of the title, who is found beaten in an alley and taken in by a reclusive man named Seligman, who listens as she tells the story of her life, attempting to justify her belief that she is a bad person. While we can already see the one-versus-one dynamic setting itself up here again, just as it did in the previous films, with the psychological issue (self-hatred) on one side and the supposedly normal, rational voice on the other, Nymphomaniac blurs the boundaries of the confrontation by letting both figures act as stand-ins for von Trier, rather than only one of them.

We see this in the way that Joe and Seligman comment on each other’s stories, when they accuse one another of embellishing or going off on tangents or assigning meaning or value to things that are purely random. These moments are where we best see von Trier vs. von Trier. He’s aware of the heavy symbolism of the previous two films, so when Seligman tries to tie each event that Joe describes into fly-fishing, it’s von Trier calling himself out for being too obtuse and devoted to loaded imagery and symbols in the past. Likewise, when Joe’s story reveals seemingly impossible coincidences and features characters continually recurring from the past, Seligman implies that she’s making things far too convenient to the narrative she wants to create; again, this is von Trier commenting on von Trier, most likely concerning the small casts and chamber-like feel of the past two films. Even its opening sequence seems to lay down the gauntlet that this film will be a twist on the formula established by the previous two. While Antichrist and Melancholia opened with gorgeous slow-motion sequences set to opera music (Handel for Antichrist, Wagner for Melancholia); Nymphomaniac, on the other hand, opens with a few shots of rain pouring off of gray gutters before a death-metal track kicks into gear. It’s a statement that von Trier is still playing the same game as he was in the previous Depression films, only he’s changing the rules just a bit this time.

All that said, much like Dancer in the Dark, Nymphomaniac is a strong film in its own right, and once again, von Trier isn’t shy about getting into the more uncomfortable aspects of his subject matter. Much of the sex is graphic, even violent, but through Joe and Seligman’s conversations, the question of whether Joe’s self-loathing is warranted is left to us, the audience. It doesn’t hit the painful lows that characters in Antichrist and Melancholia felt, but it still gives us a deep window through which we can view von Trier. If this film is his ultimate provocation — and given the title, running time, and graphic sexual content featured throughout, how could it not be? — then what are we to make of its creator, who redeems his heroine at the very end with a twist that is at once a bridge-too-far and perfectly fitting.

[spoilers to follow]
After finishing her story, Seligman tells Joe that she shouldn’t hate herself for what she’s done, because if she were a man it would be nothing, and in fact, as a woman, she should be proud of the fact that she owned her sexuality. Minutes later, with Joe asleep, he comes back into her room and tries to force himself on her, his excuse being that she’s already had sex with so many people, so she might as well have sex with him. The room goes dark, and the scene ends with the sound of a gunshot and Joe scurrying out of the room. It feels at once a perfect ending and a cheap one, as if von Trier is saying that after all of the darkness in his past three films, all of the nihilism and emptiness, there is still some chance to control one’s life. Yes, Seligman turning on Joe is an example of the same evil nature that von Trier has shown throughout the Trilogy of Depression, but the fact that Joe is able to stop him and get away comes closer to being a glimmer of hope than anything else in these three films. This is von Trier’s final statement in his most fascinating trilogy of films, and it ends with him sticking a finger in the eye of those who think we know what to expect from him. We expect hopelessness, death, gloom. We’ve see it in Antichrist and Melancholia. But whether it is meant as a moment of self-acceptance (wouldn’t that be something?) or simply as a chance to confound his audience once more, it strikes a chord. The darkness, though it still blankets the screen, has been pierced, if only for a moment. Whenever he gets around to making his next project, perhaps von Trier will show us what he’s found on the other side.

David Braga is a fiction and film writer from Northern Virginia. He lives with his wife in Boston, MA. You can read his movie reviews, stories, essays, and more at