Lars Von Trier is a one of the few- if not the only – Nordic filmmakers whose choice of setting is not limited to his own homeland, Denmark, Scandinavia or even Europe. The cast and the characters that play in his films rarely belong to the same country, they often have various accents, and the effort for geographical and cultural verisimilitude disappears as he goes on with his career. In Von Trier’s first trilogies Europa and Golden Heart, the concept of place in the cultural sense matters more compared to USA: The Land of Opportunities. The unfinished USA trilogy- Washington has not been produced yet- is set in a fictional America in the past, and is made on a sound stage without buildings or landscapes in a theatrical way. His last trilogy to this day includes two of his works with the strongest representation of landscape as mis-en-scene and a character. The absence of landscape in Dogville(2003), and its determinant presence and role in Antichrist (2009) and Melancholia (2011) in particular are readable in several directions, and one connects Von Trier’s style both in storytelling and aesthetics of it.
These three films are set in isolated spaces somewhere in America. Dogville takes place in a small mountainous mining town in a fictional Colorado in the Depression era with only 15 residents. Antichrist begins in a fictional spot close to the city of Seattle, in small interiors with claustrophobic quality, and then its two characters move to a cabin in the heart of dark woods called Eden. Melancholia is set in a grand state and a castle, with dollars being the currency and English speaking people. The characters of these three films have chosen to live far from the city crowd, and the nature’s role constantly becomes stronger in their lives; from mainly invisible and appearing symbolically and abstractly in Dogville, to haunting and surrealistic in Antichrist, ending the existence of Earth.
The central characters of these films are females, and they grow stronger in nature as their relationship and bond with nature grows. Grace, the heroine-victim of Dogville comes from the city and she seeks refuge in a small township that becomes her prison. The male dominant culture of the township forces her to become obedient in order to survive socially. In her intimate life too, she gets manipulated by the man who claims his intentions are only for her own good. (Landscape in the overhead shots looks like the blueprints of buildings).
She in Antichrist is a grieving and mentally broken mother, and He, her husband and is a therapist who decides to help her through the process of grief. He represents the controlling rational male and She struggles to make sense of his insensitive way of dealing with the loss of their child as if He is not hurting. It becomes clear that She feels fear about the woods, and He decides getting exposed to the source of the fear liberates her. Before leaving their home and going to the woods, He tells her to imagine herself on the grass, in the woods and become green. In an overhead shot, She does become green as her imagination takes her to the woods. The green in that shot is a warmer lively green unlike the bluish cool green in the rest of the movie. The dynamics of their relationship changes into a sadistic one on He’s side and an aggressive non passive one for her. He, on the surface protects himself from the fear of grief, but his words and actions do not convey the same message. She is afraid of the nature, and when she enters the jungle, it appears as a ghostlike entity. He, on the other side deals with the nature the same way he deals with her, without understanding the spirit of it. She on the other hand understands the soul of that nature, interprets the sounds and the beings, and overcomes her fear. The landscape in Antichrist– shot in Germany- resembles melancholic works of 19th century Barbizon School landscape painters like Corot, Millet, and Daubigny. The color tone gradually and constantly grows darker and cooler and the landscape begins to communicate with her, leaving He outside of that bond. The nature and thus the landscape in Antichrist functions the same way the mansion/castle does in Gothic genre. The dead bodies buried in the woods appear as if She is an extension of them in the world of living. The dead bodies tangled within the roots of the tree She and He make love, the subject of She’s master’s thesis (witchcraft with the title of Gynocide), and the female mourners at the end of the film rising from the heart of the woods to say farewell to She, reveal the femininity of nature both figuratively and conceptually. While chaos reigns, She and the landscape remain in harmony since She has accepted becoming a part of the nature.
Melancholia begins with a prologue like Antichrist, both in slow-motion and accompanied by an ominous leitmotif, but it shows the doomed destiny of its characters and employs landscape paintings as the background or the setting for its characters. Unlike Antichrist, there is order and manipulation of landscape and nature here, and the visual chaos of the dark woods in Antichrist has turned into groomed landscape, marked by the presence of human beings. The forced order and the counterfeit peacefulness of the landscape lack life and the characters appear frightened and masked with a shadow of death in them.
The story after the prologue has two chapters named after each sister. Justine is the bride, suffering from depression and indifference towards materialistic life and does not fit inside the conventional frames dictated by the society. The bridal gown and the commitment yoke suffocate her, and her naked body in the light of the planet which is coming to end life on Earth becomes one with the landscape around her, her pleased gaze glued to Melancholia. The other sister, Claire, insists on orderliness and Justine’s bond with the nature and the acceptance of its happenings are unknown for her mind.
The central male figure in Melancholia has ties to money (capitalism), and believes in science. In order to calm his wife’s extreme fear of a natural disaster, he uses logic and manmade rules, formulas and assumptions. Like the two planets of Earth and Melancholia, the two sisters belong to different worlds. They speak with different accents, have different principals and priorities, and think of the nature around them in different terms. The dominance of Claire’s husband due to his financial status and his belief in science gives him a self-assumed superiority, which works for his wife, but Justine’s bond with the universe stands taller and she outlives him, and becomes the protector and leader of her sister. At the end, Justine invites her sister and her nephew (who calls her “aunt steelbreaker”, referring to her strength), to sit on the grass, inside an imaginary cave only made with wood poles, and wait forMelancholia’s clash with the Earth and the end of life. In the final scene, the three characters’ ritual of accepting death blends into the landscape, unlike the opening of the film; a way of being in harmony with the surrounding.
In these three films of Lars Von Trier, the battle of the female and male characters becomes predictable by their bonds with and understanding of the nature and it is manifested in the look of landscape in their relationship within each frame. Dogville’s Grace, the city girl lacks the intimacy and gets victimized. She seeks refuge in people and ignores the possibilities that nature offers, and ultimately becomes one with the male fatal power. She in Antichrist hears the messages of the nature and identifies with parts of it that relate to her maternal side, but her fear and pain caused by the grief stops her from becoming one with it and survive the battle with He. Visually, the landscape around her looks dark and haunting, underneath lies death, and she won’t live. Melancholia arouses Justine’s curiosity and interest, and she not only gets the message, but agrees and is in tune with it. More than any other character, Justine is done with Earth and its people, and her image is a part of the landscape in defining moments like her nakedness.