Lars von Trier's "Depression Trilogy" + "The House That Jack Built"
Lars von Trier, depending on whom you ask, is any number of people. Fans call him a genius, while others label him an eccentric, a misogynist, a racist, an overrated hack, or even a kind of artistic vampire, using his female muses to satiate a thirst for cinematic art. Whoever you ask, I think they'd all agree that von Trier is a controversial figure, and one best approached carefully.
So would I say he's a genius? Yes, I think I would. If genius means "extremely talented person" I would not hesitate to do so. He's certifiably eccentric, and charges of "artistic vampirism" may have a certain merit, but I don't think he's overrated, especially given that his movies are still relatively obscure when compared to big budget blockbusters and Oscar darlings. And as for the charges of misogyny and racism, at least some of these charges can be traced back to hurt feelings and poorly-timed jokes. Von Trier is known for his weird sense of humor, and it's this weird sense of humor that's key to understanding his movies.
I've wanted to write about von Trier for a while now, only having truly discovered his films in the past month. I saw Dogville not long after it appeared in theaters, but I was unimpressed by that movie, and I'm not sure if I really gave it a fair chance. It wasn't until I saw Antichrist that I really appreciated the scope of what von Trier tries to do on film, and even sitting here now, almost a month later, that movie sits very heavily on my thoughts.
After watching Antichrist I moved on to Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, the other two films in von Trier's "Depression Trilogy." It's called the Depression Trilogy because that's exactly what von Trier suffers from, and in making these movies he was trying to convey some of what it feels like to be clinically depressed. Of course I realize that anyone unfamiliar with von Trier isn't going to be excited about the prospect of three films centered on the theme of depression, but if you're looking for something new in film, something different, then you really ought to give them a try. I'm not saying they're inoffensive, I'm not saying it's always going to be easy viewing, but if you're looking for something challenging then look no further than these films.
Antichrist stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a couple trying to overcome the accidental death of their son. Dafoe's character, a therapist by trade, takes his wife to a cabin in the mountains, in an attempt to help her confront her feelings of grief. Things go incredibly wrong from there. Whether the second half of this movie really happens, or whether it's some kind of hallucination is open to interpretation, but the minute they start discussing Satan it grows steadily more gruesome, and Gainsbourg's character grows steadily less able to maintain her grip on reality.
Of the four movies discussed here, Antichrist is definitely the most difficult to watch. I saw the unrated version, and let me tell you it gets NASTY. There's a scene near the end involving a pair of scissors that doesn't bear thinking about, and some of the "perversions of nature" Dafoe's character witnesses are truly disturbing. Antichrist definitely packs the biggest punch of the three films in the Depression Trilogy, and it might be the most artistically successful.
Kirsten Dunst's character is the focus of the following film, Melancholia, though Charlotte Gainsbourg appears again as her older sister. As the movie opens, Dunst's character is on her way to her own wedding. It becomes clear from the outset that the young bride suffers from depression (or "melancholy" as one might put it), but what isn't as clear is that something else is going on, an event of astronomical importance. Dunst's depression intensifies and then abates as this larger event approaches, with her emotional ups and downs forming an ironic counterpoint to a bigger tragedy which those around her too quickly dismiss.
Where Antichrist moves relatively quickly, Melancholia grinds on with a grim determination. It's a very slow movie, but for me the ending made it all worth it. I found the conclusion incredibly moving, and even though the larger "event" that hangs over Dunst's character seems like a rather obvious metaphor, there are nuances in this movie that add another dimension to the film. I wouldn't recommend watching this one right after the latest Transformers or Fast and the Furious, but if you can calm yourself down for it it's quite good.
The final film in von Trier's "Depression Trilogy," Nymphomaniac, veers far afield from the previous two movies. Charlotte Gainsbourg is front and center in this one, starring as a sex-addicted woman who recounts her amorous exploits. At the time of its release it was widely discussed for its graphic sex scenes, but I think such discussions - although perhaps pleasing to the director - miss the larger point of what the film was trying to do.
I watched the 5.5 hour Director's Cut of Nymphomaniac, so my opinions on the movie may differ from those who've seen the shorter 4.5 hour version. I think there are some great scenes in this movie - in particular a scene in which a wife confronts her errant husband - but on the whole it felt somewhat unfinished to me, as if the director didn't quite know how to wind things up. It's definitely my least favorite in the trilogy, and I had trouble buying into Gainsbourg's changes of heart (and changes of profession) near the end. Her performance in this movie is excellent, but her character seemed somewhat unformed to me, as if von Trier could never quite decide what she was about.
Nymphomaniac, by the way, contains a scene that puts the bit with the scissors in Antichrist to shame. It's the most disgusting thing I've seen in any movie ever - and I've seen a lot of the more "transgressive" horror films. A Serbian Film, Human Centipede 2, Martyrs, Grotesque - in my opinion they have nothing on that one scene in Nymphomaniac.
Nymphomaniac, of course, led me to von Trier's latest movie, The House That Jack Built.
In The House That Jack Built, Matt Dillon stars as a serial killer. In the midst of his serial killing he has conversations on a wide range of subjects with a mysterious second person, all the while recounting the gruesome details of his crimes. It's much more of a genre picture than the films in the Depression Trilogy, strongly resembling films like American Psycho or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. At least until the ending that is, which takes a surprising left turn.
I liked it, but I wasn't blown away by it. It's simply not as memorable as the films in the Depression Trilogy. I watched the Director's Cut of this as well, and I'd have to say that after watching the unrated Antichrist and the Director's Cut of Nymphomaniac this one was a cakewalk. Somewhat ironically, this movie has proven to be even more controversial than the films in the Depression Trilogy, perhaps because its more genre-specific nature has exposed it to a wider audience. I can only smile at teenagers discussing how "disturbing" The House That Jack Built is. Compared to other films I've seen, it ranks pretty low in that particular category.
With all of the above said, those looking for something new and exciting in film are hereby directed to the filmography of Lars von Trier. I can't say that his movies are always an easy watch, but if you're looking for something you can think over you'll probably find them rewarding.
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