In our Blue Filter series, we are inviting our writers to reflect on the films that they have connected with through challenging or upsetting times, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and before. In the latest entry of the series, Frank Evans openly discusses how films by Danish director Lars von Trier spoke to him when his mental health was at a very low point.
When I was about 16, I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and placed on medication. I felt overwhelming relief because the diagnosis and the drugs gave me a name and a solution to a problem that I had been suffering with for a very long time. During this early period of ill mental health (which is by no means over), film was my unofficial medication. Discovering Lars von Trier’s work was like finding a therapist that cost £3.50 a session.
Dancer in the Dark was the first that I saw. I was (and still am) a huge fan of Björk and her music. In the depths of my anxiety and upset, I empathised deeply with her character as I watched her endure a never-ending litany of cruelties and injustice. The movie’s story is relatively straightforward. Selma, played by Björk, is an immigrant factory worker living in America with her son. She is losing her vision due to a genetic condition and is desperately hiding away spare money to provide her son with an operation that will save his sight. Selma is an introverted, kind character who takes joy in old musicals and cares deeply for her family and friends. She’s a fundamentally good person made to go through hell. Betrayal by a trusted friend, the unthinking cruelty of the American justice system, and her own selfless personality combine to destroy Selma while her friends, son and the kind-hearted man who loves her are left powerless.
There’s a clear common theme in von Trier movies. Someone (usually a woman) is mistreated horrifically by men and oppressive societal institutions, be they churches, courts or families. As a teenager in the midst of my mental health struggle, I saw most movies as saccharine, unrealistic and nothing like my own lived experiences. I still loved escapist cinema, but seeing films that dealt so bluntly with depression, anxiety and existential confusion was deeply comforting. I was finally able to see that other people went through this too. I had never seen stories where the obviously good and righteous were ground down into nothing by the unthinking cold cruelty of the world.
Dancer in the Dark left me stunned and harrowed. I had to see more, and soon found Breaking the Waves and Melancholia. The former is somewhat similar to Dancer in the Dark but manages to be even more explicit and upsetting. The story of a mentally unstable young woman sent by her husband to have sex with other men and then report back, Breaking the Waves draws understandably polarised reactions. I empathise with everyone who finds the film unwatchable due to its unflinching, constant ruthlessness and overwhelmingly upsetting tone. I’ve only seen it once and don’t ever plan on re-watching it. All I can say is that it’s one of the most overwhelmingly cathartic experiences I’ve ever had watching a movie. Its intimate story of intolerance, cruelty and misogyny is enough to shatter your soul. The film’s final image is almost unendurably moving. I first watched Breaking the Waves in my second or third week at university when I was at my very loneliest. It felt like there was someone who was there with me that understood. I can’t really ask for anything more from a film.
The third and final von Trier movie that means a great deal to me is Melancholia, the story of a depressed woman calmly awaiting the end of the world. This is the only von Trier movie that I’ve been able to watch more than once and it’s the film that best understands what it’s like to live with depression. I have never been officially diagnosed with depression, but I had depressive symptoms and was prescribed with antidepressants to deal with them. My experience is that when you’re deep inside your depression, you feel like you’re the only one who understands the truth of the world; that everything is meaningless and vile and everyone else is fooling themselves by thinking any different. Justine (Kirsten Dunst), Melancholia’s protagonist, feels the same way. When she learns that the Earth will soon be destroyed in a collision with another planet, she reacts not with happiness or sadness but acceptance. Dunst’s performance is one of the greatest I’ve ever seen, and the movie is von Trier’s best. I had never seen anything so powerfully in tune with my own existentially cynical feelings. For that, Melancholia will always have an incredibly special place in my heart.
Von Trier’s movies cannot be enjoyed uncritically. Björk has accused the director of repeated sexual harassment during the making of Dancer in the Dark and Trier’s studio Zentropa was investigated in the light of sexual abuse claims made by nine different women. I can’t forget just how powerful and timely von Trier’s stories of suffering were when I was in the midst of my own personal turmoil, but the creation of these stories caused their own suffering. For better or for worse, Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves and Melancholia still stand as the movies that helped me, comforted me and spoke directly to me at the peak of my despair. I can never forget them or erase the memory of the help that they gave me.
Words by Frank Evans
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