I have a positive bias towards films that deal with the subject of mental illness. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve grown up with depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or my natural interest in digging into people’s psyche. It’s all these things that made Lars Von Trier my favorite director; so when I heard that this man had something called the “Depression Trilogy”, I had to see it. The three films of the Depression Trilogy either tackle depression as a major theme, or has it interwoven into the films. All three films are tough to swallow, and take a strong analytical eye to break down.
The first of these films is Antichrist (2009). The story revolves around a couple (simply known as He and She, played respectively by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg), who try to cope with the death of their young son. She, in particular, falls into a dark depression that, as the film progresses, evolves into violent reactions that involve sadomasochism like behavior. She blames herself for the death of their son. He is a therapist, and as He witnesses his wife’s ever growing grief, decides to take her to a place known as Eden as a means of exposure therapy. Eden is a place in the woods where She spent the past summer with their son while working on a thesis on Gynocide. It’s at this point where She spirals into chaos, and She (as well as the land around them) become an antagonistic force of misery and violence. This shows by the constant bombardment of acorns hitting their roof at night, He waking up to swollen ticks on his arms, and a trio of animals symbolizing the “three beggars”. These animals include: a deer with a dead fawn hanging out of its womb, a self-disemboweling fox, and a crow.
Antichrist takes the most direct look at depression, bringing it up amongst the characters to analyze. The most surreal of the three films, taking on a strong supernatural vibe. Depression is looked at very analytically by both He and She. His approach to understanding depression and anxiety is very text book and professional, while She digs into the idea of nature being evil. While at Eden, She talks about nature being Satan’s church, that nature is a cycle of death, that she can now hear the cries of all the things that are to die. This is obviously alluding to the sense that nature (both as wildlife and the nature within human beings), is chaotic. The combination of the commentary done by the actors, and the visual metaphors of nature, that bring out the gloom of the film. Both give the viewer a better understanding of each character’s psyche, and how they reflect upon, or handle, their grief.
Following Antichrist is Melancholia (2011). Justine (Kirsten Dunst), and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), are two sisters who try and cope with the impending end of Earth as a rogue planet makes its way to collide into it. Von Trier has stated that the idea for the film came from a depressive episode he suffered, and the idea that depressed people can remain peaceful in catastrophic situations.
Broken into two segments, the first part of the film focuses on Justine, the second on Claire. Beginning on the night of Justine’s wedding, throughout the entire evening she finds it difficult to even slightly enjoy the night. As the rogue planet inches closer to Earth both sisters react differently to the forthcoming end; Justine accepting her fate and Claire trying to run from it. As this rogue planet inches closer we see Justine in awe at its approach and accepting the notion that “The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it.” Claire on the other hand, towards the second half of the film, tries to mask this impending doom. As Justine awaits for the collision, Claire attempts to take her son and try and “escape” it.
There is a sense of vagueness since the notion of depression is never addressed. Whereas Antichrist takes a philosophical approach in looking into depression, having its characters commentate on it, Melancholia depends on the viewer more to put the pieces together. Justine in particular deals at with extreme episodic bouts of depression, which include moments of distancing herself from others, or the inability to get up and walk. To someone unaware of what depression may be like, it takes a little more analyzing to understand what Justine may be thinking, or to understand why she acts the way she does. Where I found the film to be the most intriguing is that you don’t care as much for the actual plot, where as your attention is heavily set on the sisters. The plot is straight forward because you already know everyone is going to die. But we as the viewer we want to know how they will all face their death.
The finale to this trilogy comes with a film that was broken into two parts: Nymphomaniac. Together both films follow the retelling of main character Joe’s life (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), and how she suffers with sex addiction. Presently within the film, Joe tells her life story to Seligman (played by Stellan Skarsgård), who finds Joe beaten up in an alley and takes her into his home. The retelling of her life and her addiction starts with her as a young child and up to the present time. Joe tells all the nitty gritty details of her sexual escapades, which include all the partners she has been involved with, all the forms of sexual activities (such as a stint involving BDSM), and the lives she believes she has ruined through her addiction.
Depression is not presented at face value here, but is more an essence of the plot. Joe is a person who has lived a life of using people for her own satisfaction. A person who has been instrumental in hurting others relationships (such as sleeping with married men). These actions cause the viewer to question the morals of Joe, but allow us to better understand her, and to bring about heartache as we watch her descend further into this lifestyle. Joe uses Seligman as a means to vent all this, and in sharing her story she tries to see if what she has done has been true evil; that there is no way to way to change any of it and that life is a matter of black and white. Both Antichrist and Melancholia take both an existential approach to dealing with depression, where Nymphomaniac leans much more heavily towards the realm of realism. Nature is also used as symbolical imagery in Nymphomaniac, just like how it was used in Antichrist.
Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac, all character studies of people fallen into the entrapment of depression. Von Trier has given us three people who live in three different worlds, but are haunted by the same curse. All these films end nihilistically; all ask us personal and worldly questions. These films made me look at my own life with depression and how I cope with my own struggles. Even though these films approach it in much more brutal means there was still that element in which I could relate. Depression is a crippling illness, one I think the public at large still heavily underestimates. There are mornings that one can wake up, and for no logical reason, awake to a great self hatred and emptiness. Depression is the sort of illness where one finds themselves in a hole, and even though they can see the top and could reach for it, there just isn’t any will to do so. There have been large chunks of my life lived in this manner, days where I try to find reason to get out of bed, to eat, to be.
Watching all these lives entrapped by this horrible illness, watching these people fight and erode before my eyes was heartbreaking. Yet there is something interesting in the three films part of a Depression Trilogy, that can give one hope. Because art is meant for us to find pieces of ourselves in. Great art is meant for us to question, so that we may discover more about the world at large. For me, I watched as all these characters tried to confront their darkness. These three films not only represent my love for art, film, and story, but also my lifelong journey in trying to understand the faceless monster I drag along with me. I connected to these films, to these characters, and that’s the goal of great art. In the end, I think part of that “hope” one may receive from films part of Von Trier’s Depression Trilogy, is that while not everyone may suffer from depression, those of us who but do, do not suffer alone.
Michael Pementel is a soon-to-be graduate of the Fiction Writing program at Columbia College Chicago. He blogs at michaelreadingintoit.blogspot.com, where he writes book reviews based on prose fiction and graphic novels. An admirer of great novels and films, it’s his passion to write about both, always looking to go beyond the surface and see what lies beneath. He also spends his time writing fiction.
Last night I was home alone during an odd storm which beat on my windows all night. It started as a thunderstorm of rain and developed into a thunderstorm of sleet/hail and then eventually into a thunderstorm of snow; fully equipped with lightening all the way through. It was the perfect setting within which to watch the dazzling Lars Von Trier film “Melancholia”, which portrays the strained relationship between two sisters, Justine and Claire, as an unforeseen rogue planet barrels into the solar system and heads straight for Planet Earth. The purpose of this short essay is not to give a review or a summary of the film (I am assuming readers will have already watched the film), but rather to explore a philosophical aspect of the film that I have not heard others comment on (although perhaps some have). It is my contention that this film, which examines the depths of depression, isolation, nihilism, and annihilation, is heavily influenced by Nietzschean philosophy.
During the first half of the film, Justine is suffering from a particularly intense episode of near catatonic depression, while her sister Claire, sober and stoic, helps her through it. Half way through the film though, Justine begins to slowly emerge out of her depression, just as Claire slowly descends into a chaotic panic as it becomes increasingly clear that the rogue planet “Melancholia” is on a collision course with the Earth. The sisters effectively switch emotional positions. What marks this stark role reversal is a scene in which the two sisters are out riding horses together and Justine, still depressed at this point, tries to urge her horse to cross a bridge which it refuses to cross. In a frenzy of anger, Justine beats the horse with her whip and kicks it with her feet until the horse collapses; she continues to beat him as her sister Claire, riding around in small circles on her horse, yells desperately at Justine to stop. This scene sets into motion the emotional role reverasal between the sisters. Claire, from this point forward, slowly gets more and more anxious and eventually descends into full blown panic attacks as well as completely irrational (and utterly futile) attempts to flee with her son in the face of oncoming armageddon.
The scene with the horse is eerily reminiscent of the famous story of the 19th century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. The story goes that one day while walking in streets of Turin, Nietzsche came upon a horse being beaten by its owner. Nietzsche, in an emotional frenzy, ran over to the horse screaming, draped his arms around it desperately, and then collapsed onto the cobblestone streets. He was arrested by two nearby policemen for causing a public disturbance. But this event signaled his complete mental breakdown from which he never recovered. He lived the rest of his life under the watch of his sister, and never contributed to philosophy or literature again.
The connection seems obvious to me: just as Nietzsche went crazy after seeing the beating of the horse, so did Claire. Her usual calm and commanding demeanor slowly evaporated away (not unlike the atmosphere of Earth as Melancholia approached) until she was left in emotional ruin. Furthermore, Nietzsche’s philosophy centered around the problems of a post-god world, and the subsequent creep of nihilism into the human psyche, which Nietzsche saw as a terrible thing that humanity had to overcome; not by reverting back to the old religions, but by pushing through nihilism and transcending it (for those that were strong enough to do so). The relentless approach of the rogue planet Melancholia can be seen as a loose symbol for the approaching nihilism that Nietzsche was so concerned about: both representing the total destruction of all human values and meaning.
The connection between the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the themes of the movie is made even more explicit by Von Trier’s use of Richard Wagner’s music to underscore the film; namely Wagner’s famous opera, “Tristan Und Isolde” (which was inspired by Arthur Schopenhauer, another German philosopher, who was famous for his philosophical pessimism and was a huge influence on Nietzsche). Richard Wagner was a famous German composer and contemporary of Friedrich Nietzsche. In fact, Nietzsche and Wagner were, at one time, very close friends, and Nietzsche wrote one of his most famous works, “The Birth of Tragedy”, which trumpeted Wagner’s music as the “rebirth” of European high culture. Soon, though, their friendship became strained, and then ended bitterly, as Wagner moved his music in a new direction that Nietzsche hated. It is not accident, then, that Wagner’s music would be used in a film that is heavily influenced by Nietzsche. The assertion, were it to be made, that this is all mere coincidence strains credulity.
To take my theory about the connection between Nietzschean philosophy and this film a step further, I think it is worth noting that another fundamental element of Nietzsche’s philosophy (which was thematized in “Melancholia”) was a skepticism of scientific truth and human reason. He appreciated science and he clearly used reason, but he was intimately aware of their innate limitations and criticized those who had too much faith in them. This is reflected in the film in the form of Claire’s husband, John, a rationalist, who is hyper-confident throughout the entire film that “the scientists” are certain that the rouge planet will not collide with Earth, but rather perform a safe fly-by; it will appear beautifully in the sky, but humanity is not in danger. He carries a telescope, a scientific instrument and a symbol of the scientific method and worldview, around with him most of the film, through which he gazes at Melancholia amusedly and excitedly. For him, it is just a spectacle of science. Later, when he realizes that the scientists were wrong, and that Planet Melancholia is in fact going to collide with Earth, he commits suicide by swallowing poison in the horse’s stable. The certainty that science and reason had provided for him evaporates, and the existentially destabilizing pain caused by the catastrophic failure of his faith in science proves too much to cope with. His very identity was tied up in his belief in science, reason, and order, and when those broke down, so did his entire sense of self. When his wife, Claire, finds his dead body, she covers him with a thin layer of straw from the floor of the horse stable. He dies an animals death.
To conclude, the beating of the horse which leads to Claire’s emotional breakdown, the exploration of nihilism and the (literal) destruction of all values, the use of Richard Wagner’s music throughout the film, and the depiction of a dogmatic faith-in-science, and its tragically complete failure, all stand as strong evidence that there is, in fact, a clear and distinct strain of Nietzschean philosophy that Von Trier consciously put into his film.
I love this gorgeous and melancholy film. It is, like all of Von Trier’s work, as beautiful and emotional as it is intellectual. It is a true masterpiece of cinema and of art generally.
Bookmark the permalink.