by Paul Deeter
The unobvious cinematic trilogies of great directors are usually established late in their careers, as a culmination of an idea stretched between three films. The obvious cinematic trilogies would include The Lord of the Rings three part arc, or the original, prequels or sequels arcs in the Star Wars canon. So when we look back at classic filmmakers and the world surrounding them at the time, we can analyze their works as a reflection of the themes and trends in cinema at the time. Oliver Stone's Vietnam trilogy which include Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven and Earth in order, are politically relevant to the post-war culture and emotional fallout soldiers from the war, like Stone had. This is a trilogy reflective of the director's own beliefs, as he would continue to make political epics for years on, along with exploring his post-war mental fatigue. Then there's off kilter examples like the 'Cornetto trilogy' a series of three apocalyptic themed comedies from Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, which are more focused on entertainment than allegory. These such trilogies are usually planned, unlike Scorcese's series of The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun and Silence, which were certainly cumulative of the director's beliefs and passions but fell out of order due to production issues or a multitude of other reasons. So when an auteur director, as Lars Von Trier has been called, goes ahead and decides he's making a trilogy called the "Depression Trilogy" he's gonna stick it out until it's done.
To Lars Von Trier, production issues or public response has never really been of concern, post his many successes pre 2000. With the 1996 release of Breaking the Waves Trier portrayed a marriage that falls apart seemingly due to powers beyond them. Emily Watson is the innocent Bess, who falls apart tragically to the viewer over the course of two hours both from exile from the community she's a part of and also from the world's unrelenting harshness. It's a staggering achievement, winning over the hearts of critics and becoming an award-winning feature for Trier. It's tragic, but beautiful and sympathetic to the audience while not shying away from the reality these characters face. Then 2000 would see Bjork's performance in Dancer in the Dark which was again a tragic tale, and far darker than Waves. While this film met favoritism internationally, its relevance has faded over time and Bjork has publicly denounced her experience on set as of 2017. This would be a film of his that would go down in its most controversial to this day, but even then the film weaves together an almost voyeuristic torture in its depiction of Selma (Bjork), and left a sour taste in my mouth. With allegations coming against the director over time for both onset cruelty and also anti-Semitic ideologies its probably best to bury this project back to irrelevance.
That being said, probably both due to his notoriety publicly and his widely received features, Trier was not limited to working on what he titled "The Depression Trilogy" which would actually go on to be considered some of his best work. Starting in 2009, Trier decided to go all in on the infamy of his name, and perhaps create his most self-indulgent title yet, Antichrist. If the name alone doesn't ruffle your feathers, (which trust me feathers were ruffled) perhaps it was the film's extreme violence, disturbed sexual themes or talking fox puppet that does it for you. We'll get to the fox. As Stone's trilogy on the war, or Scorcese's work with religion, Trier does explore the themes of depression if sometimes in the most ludicrous of ways on screen. His own battle with debilitating depression is treated by making these movies; one could wonder if Trier's reaction to the process as fun simply makes these films therapeutic without other intentions. Again, Lars Von Trier is considered for better or worse, "an auteur". Auteur is defined from Oxford Languages as: "a filmmaker whose personal influence and artistic control over a movie are so great that the filmmaker is regarded as the author of the movie." One critic, Jacob Matikainen examines the trilogy as a whole even claiming this is "as close as we'll ever come to sitting von Trier on the therapist's couch". He argues in favor of Trier's vision over the course of the trilogy, and the idea of him as an artist over simply a director. We will return to this article when examining the arc of the female characters in a later post.
And about that arc! These films all star the extremely talented Charlotte Gainsbourg who was not originally approached for the role of "Her" in Antichrist but showed interest in it after Eva Green turned down the role. (I wonder why.) She would continue to be in the rest of the trilogy, where Willem Dafoe, starring as "He" would not return. I would also like to note outside of the article I shared from the male writer, there's a fantastic Guardian article which features multiple female actors/producers and such each with their perspective of the film in 2009. I'll also note that there's quite a bit to get into critically with the film, which is very divisive, at an almost middling 59% on Rotten Tomatoes with arguments for its brilliance and depravity both. Of course the film was none so controversial as its release in 2009 at Cannes, which saw at least four walkouts during its opening. Obviously there was a religious backlash to the title alone on top of the film's dark approach to the tale of Eden.
The ecumenical jury at the Cannes festival gave the film a special "anti-award" and declared the film to be "the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world. Cannes festival director Thierry Frémaux responded that this was a "ridiculous decision that borders on a call for censorship" and that it was "scandalous coming from an 'ecumenical' jury".
The film dealt with multiple bans, censorship and denunciation from political and religious groups. Part of me wonders if the film was taken too seriously, the sex therapy between the two leads is ridiculous and hammy at points, or not enough. There is a talking fox in the film, one that says to Dafoe, (and was voiced by Dafoe) "Chaos Reigns". I won't lie this moment, serious or not, got big laughs from my audience at its release. And at Cannes? Where it was widely hated? The fox got a nomination for "Palm Dog", the yearly award for dog characters in film. Also to step back, I did see Antichrist in a theater, with one of my best friends. While I remember hating it then, as I watched it this week I noticed I may not have actually seen the majority of the film. And why? Well that comes down to the hate from the religious groups and inability to settle on an MPAA rating. This is a film that even got heat from its poster which shows the two leads fornicating under a tree. This is a rough and graphic feature, maybe Trier's most troublesome achievement. It should be noted that John Waters is quoted saying ""If Ingmar Bergman had committed suicide, gone to hell, and come back to earth to direct an exploitation/art film for drive-ins, [Antichrist] is the movie he would have made." Not to put it subtly, that is.
John Waters may have put it best, because he does equate the movie both to exploitative standards and the caliber of Bergman's direction. It is a tricky film to review, even today. But today I also have the opportunity to discuss the film in relationship to the other two entries into the "depression trilogy" and also what I think having seen it again over ten years later. Do I think this film is filth, or is it art? Controversial and ego-centric? Or maybe has ten years time given the movie room to breathe and age properly? I think, this is a movie that revels in shock appeal, and I don't think that's terrible. The film remains shocking and simultaneously artistic in its direction. Like I said, I saw this movie in a small college theater in 2009, with a fairly large audience (but no walkouts!) I was 18 years old, a film buff by all means but also very young and immature to just how extreme films can get. I'd seen Irreversible and that left a long, depressed impact on me, at the age of 16. But I hadn't quite seen anything like Antichrist at the time, and that wasn't just because of its violence and sexuality. Controversially this film has some extremely graphic moments of sexual violence and torture, which I will allude to but not discuss. They aren't out of place, but they're very reactionary. At the time I saw it, I actually closed my eyes and hid in the lobby during some of the roughest material, and therefore I didn't truly experience the vision Trier had. I don't think any 18 year old could, but who's to say.
I think Antichrist is a mature film in respect to the exploration of mental illness and grief. The characters, one of whom is a therapist, suffer together and grow and heal and eventually come to their climaxes. There's a lot of work here from Gainsbourg, who would be my favorite aspect of Nymphomaniac. She really treats the nameless female lead complexly handling the burden of grief with the insecurity of parenthood mixed in. She also handles mental illness realistically, not sugar-coated but bent over a toilet or lying in the dirt kinda real. She out acts Willem Dafoe, who's also excellent, and maybe even steals the film out from under Trier's vision, making it her own film. I think if Trier fully indulged himself into a movie, which I don't believe he does, we wouldn't get the same kind of fleshed out characters that we do in Antichrist. He probably invents the best female character study here so far in his career, and I'm a huge fan of Breaking the Waves. I didn't like Antichrist in 2009, but in 2021, I'm impressed not just by the performances but some of the extreme closeups of our two characters, juxtaposed with wide shots of the forest they're lost in. Images in black and white of skin, as the two make love in the shower are boldly presented with the montage of their infant child's death. It's a shocking introduction to the film, and it totally works. We later get ghost-like apparitions on screen of lost souls, or dead animals inside of deep green foliage. My favorite shot is in the poster, which is not very infamous. The two lovers fornicate in the deep shadow of a tree interlocked with human arms. It's deeply spiritual and maybe religious, but I'm not truly at liberty to understand it completely. Having come from a lack of religious background, maybe that makes this experience to me less provocative. But I'm nearly 30, with religions studied, and films watched and experience gained. Revisiting this film has not entirely been comfortable, but that's something I think people should talk more about. Movies should sometimes make an audience uncomfortable. That doesn't mean everyone should seek out a film that's shocking or violent or disturbed. I just mean there's a need for films like this.
I would say Antichrist is a flawed but not unsuccessful attempt at exploring a female psyche through grief and the struggle with mental illness. Trier is a problematic male figure who at this point has written female characters consistently but not entirely realistically, and I think it would take until Nymphomaniac to figure that out. The movie has some of the most literal and shocking imagery I've ever seen on screen, and I like that. I would never return to a film like Irreversible and that's just because I had enough when I first watched it. I do not regret re-watching this film after having picked up a Blu-Ray copy of the Criterion Collection release. It's definitely not for everyone, but it succeeds in making people uncomfortable, which is a reaction I believe it intended. Also it would kick-start the "depression trilogy", and by the third part, I will rank these entries myself.
Stay tuned for Part 2 and 3.