“The problem with her [Bjork] is a bit like a problem you have with women – sometimes they do something you don’t really understand.”
– Lars von Trier
You could say that Lars von Trier doesn’t really have a way with the ladies. After all, he employed a misogyny consultant on the set of Antichrist (2009), whose sold job it was to “furnish the proof of the fact that women are evil.” In his films, women are beaten, raped, depressed, falsely accused, murdered, and commonly said to side with the devil. Therefore it is understandable that he has gained a great deal of negative attention and has been labeled a misogynist in his portrayal towards women. Tookey says of Antichrist that “the man who made this horrible, misogynistic film needs to see a shrink.” At the Cannes Film Festival, he was awarded an unprecedented “anti-prize” for misogyny for his film Antichrist, while Charlotte Gainsbourg won the Priz d’Interpretation feminine. Gainsbourg said she trusted Trier and found him to be generous and respectful, which is interesting when considering what he has put his female leads through. Bjork won the best actress award for Dancer in the Dark (2000), but the story goes that she grew so frustrated on set she tried to eat her own cardigan. For much of Dogville’s (2003) three hour running time, Nicole Kidman is beaten, chained and raped. Furthermore, poor Emily Watson gradually became a brutalised prostitute in Breaking the Waves (1996). Underlying Trier’s films is a kind of rare beauty that makes him such an acclaimed actor, which in turn creates this controversy and discussion surrounding the great Dane.
The women in Trier’s films are often put inside a narrative that invokes great suffering. However, this isn’t the first time that a Scandinavian director has done such a thing. In the game Carl Th. Dreyer made, the suffering of women is a great, pressing theme. The President, which is about young women who are seduced and abandoned with tragic results. Then, in Leaves from Satans Book, Clara Wieth heroically kills herself. Later, there is the oppressed wife in Master of the House, the Jewish girl caught in a pogrom in Love One Another, the suffering and death of Jeanne D’Arc, the young women who falls victim to a vampire in Vampyr, the abandoned young woman in Good Mothers, and Anne and the old woman accused of witchcraft in Day of Wrath. In fact, it almost seems that Trier has taken direct inspiration from Dreyer. After the release of Breaking the Waves, Trier commented on the matter: “I do feel that films like Jeanne D’Arc and Gertrud have been important. Dreyer’s films are more academic, of course, more purified. What’s new for me is having a woman at the centre of the story. All of Dreyer’s films have a female protagonist. And a suffering woman to boot.”
In Trier’s films, women are largely to blame for their own suffering. This started in his earlier work, such as Kim, the prostitute in The Element of Crime and the deceitful Katharina in Europa. The Golden Heart Trilogy followed, and in it the women come across as innocent women submitting to martyrdom. In Breaking the Waves, Emily Watson is the young bride of an oil main in a small Presbyterian community. After he is in an accident that leaves him paralysed, she comes to believe that prostituting herself is the only chance of a cure for him. She willingly degrades herself, and is eventually beaten by a sailor before dying. In Dancer in the Dark, Selma is a poverty stricken Czech immigrant in America who goes blind, murders a man using a safe deposit box, and ends up being hanged. Grace in Dogville is a gangsters mole who is perceived as an outsider, and the intolerant citizens of a small American town insist she does demanding chores and submit her to all kinds of degradation, finally forcing her to wear an iron collar with a bell. In Antichrist, the unnamed female believes herself to be a witch and eventually mutilates her genitals as she blames herself for the death of her young son. Justine is a depressed bride in Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac is the history of Joe’s promiscuity and abuse.
The Nordic cinema has a special and acclaimed tradition of nudity and sex. This was probably first seen in the Danish film Ditte, Child of Man, although revealing shots were cut from the US print. These elements had an international breakthrough with the Swedish film One Summer of Happiness, followed by Bergman’s Summer with Monika and the Norwegian Children of the Sun. In the 1960s sex was represented in more and more outspoken ways, with films like the Swedish Dear John As the Naked Wind From the Sea and also Bergman’s modernist Persona, with its famous monologue about sex at the beach. While it is the American porn industry that is by far the largest, the myth of Scandinavia as haven of porn is still lives on to this day, and Nymphomaniac will very likely add to that. Certainly, sexuality has always been an important element of fascination in Trier’s work, though he does not conned to the jovial, humorous Danish tradition but rather, as in Bergman’s oeuvre, presents sexuality as a field of torment, obsession and depravity. Bergman’s handling of sex in his later work, for example The Silence, Cries and Whispers and From Life of the Marionette presents it as a field of torment and obsession. Trier’s films have always insisted on an almost hypnotic fascination with sexual depravity, inspired both by Pauline Reage’s The Story of O and The Story of Justine, as well as reading Nietzsche and Strindberg.
Danish culture and society in the years when Trier grew up were marked by a political decision that could be seen as a sensational triumph for cultural liberalism, though it was mainly the product of a right-wing government. Denmark was the first country in the world to abolish laws against pornography – text in 1967 and images in 1969. Moreover, in 1969, Denmark was the first country to abolish film censorship for the grownup population. Scandinavian cinema had already acquired an international reputation for daring sexual frankness in the years before – the Danish film A Stranger Knocks and the Swedish films like The Silence and I am Curious were sensations abroad. In Denmark, the legalisation of pornography was, perhaps somewhat naively, seen as a victory for freedom of expression – in line with the new spirit of liberation that washed over the Western world in the 1960s. This new freedom, however, did not result in an explosion of pornography in Danish films. Trier’s fascination with sexuality as a dark, demonic force is quite evident in all of his films, and Nymphomaniac will most likely add to this idea of Trier as being fascinated with the concept of sex.
Perhaps by better understanding the female characters, we should look at the male figures in Trier films. Due to the focus on the portrayal of women in Trier’s films, there has been little insight into the male characters. What do the males in his films represent? The grand theme of early Trier films is the fall of an idealist, usually male protagonist – Fisher in The Element of Crime, Mesmer in Epidemic and Kessler in Europa. There is a Trier film on the subject of sexuality, a commercial, known as Sauna, which he made for the Copenhagen tabloid Ekstra Bladet in 1986. The setting is a mens sauna, where a young man makes the discovery that he can peak into the women’s sauna through a vent. A stern matronly attendant on the other side notices his eyes and angrily lines up all the men to find the culprit. There he stands, hiding his erect penis under a newspaper. Here we get Trier’s judgement on male sexuality. It’s a very simple thing, no death or demonic fall into darkness, just desire, with a visual angle. The male figures in his films are either inept or passive, such as Jean-Marc Barr in Europa, many of the supporting citizens in Dogville, graceless brutes like the rapists in Breaking the Waves, the rapist and thief David Morse in Dancer in the Dark, or Stellan Skarsgård in Dogville, or else their symbolic castration is plain as day as with Skarsgård in Breaking the Waves. For much of its length Antichrist is a compelling Bergman-esque marital psychodrama with the male figure articulating secular humanist Reason struggling for power over a female embodying Emotion and Intuition, with some scenes playing like a remake of Through a Glass Darkly. Trier was obviously venturing beyond himself and into masterpiece territory with Dogville and the introduction of the Paul Bettany character, whose mixture of tendencies and cruelty, intelligence and myopia, altruism and egotism, strongly implicates us in a way no other masculine figure in the directors work has ever done before. Unlike any other Trier film, Dogville incorporates the image of a believable masculine norm that might conceivably link up with feminine spiritual power and grace.
The best example of the male character, however, comes from Melancholia. When they become aware of the planet Melancholia, John is initially excited. Men of power like him always idolise power in all forms, including that of an entire planet. In this sense, John is like Justine’s boss Jack, who narcissistically manipulates a young man he has just hired to get a tagline for an ad campaign from Justine on her wedding night or else he will be fired. When Justine quits her job, we can see that she and Jack are complete opposite. Powerful men like Jack and John respond to trauma and stress through action, whereas depressed people always turn inward and direct their hostility toward self-destructiveness. How does John respond when, after initially believing that Melancholia would simply pass by Earth, he discovers that it’s rapidly getting closer again? He kills himself, because unlike Justine, who has likely dealt with depression and trauma her whole life, he doesn’t know what to do with his fear and stress. People like John and Jack have no coping mechanisms because they attempt to block out anything resembling depression by forcibly overriding their emotions. Men like this get off by being in control and don’t know what to do when it is wrested away from them.
Trier’s critics complain that he is subjecting his female protagonists to a patriarchal vision of reality. Looking at Melancholia, like Antichrist, while its focus is primarily personal and psychological, it has real social and political implications that demand to be examined. The ending of Antichrist, featuring hundreds of ghostly women, conjured the notion of ‘missing women’ in Amartya Sen’s use of the term. Antichrist powerfully gave voice to the cultural and social pressures forced upon women in Western society, recalling in its own way Carl Th. Dreyer’s Day of Wrath film, a film that showed how a woman finding herself unable to find fulfilment in conventional society would rather identify as a witch than be untrue to herself. Similarly, Melancholia looks broadly at social presses that enforces conformity on people who suffer from depression. We live in a culture where it’s shameful not to be happy, especially given the disparity in wealth between the West and the rest of the world. In this world, we must do like Anne and embrace the role of the villain. Anne would rather be a witch than conform to a society that would never let her truly be happy. Grace in Dogville also has an effect on others; by not breaking down. Grace makes the townspeople see themselves as they really are, or better, she makes them see themselves as seen. They may feel falsely accused, but they know the charges are true. This is the ethnical dimension of Dogville – the clashing of Grace’s positive valences and those of the townspeople contests the established values of the community.
Furthermore, Solano identifies in Breaking the Waves a central and feminist concern with this worldly-justice, and reads Bess as possessing a surpassing power and agency.
“A few feminists, myself included, find that Bess does indeed possess autonomy and power. I… find her stronger than a lot of us. I would argue that she does have tremendous power of choice despite her choices being made by patriarchal figures. She does ultimately choose to pursue what is more important to her: love.”
For Solano, Bess is a feminist icon because of her decision to sacrifice her life for a man was fully within her control (although she seems to insert an element of ambiguity into her own argument by allusion to the patriarchal figures who are apparently making choices for Bess too). Ultimately, Solano wants viewers to value and validate Bess’s devotion to love above all else. For Solano, this commitment trumps the otherwise objectionable subject matter and makes Bess an agent of feminist resistance against a patriarchal church that would have its members love the bible more than people.
“For many critics, the ardour of Bess’s unconditional devotion to Jan embody an excessive desire that exceeds patriarchal impositions… Trier creates the image of Bess as a sexual martyr through a peculiar valorisation of feminine abjection as madness, formlessness, malleability, hysteria. This common reiteration of femininity as weakness, even if it is a “higher, spiritual calling” recreates male power over against feminine power as fascinating debility.”
It seems that the women in Trier’s films need narratives that offer responses to their suffering. That is not to say that we need an alternative that forthwith and forever alcoves a sacrificial hermeneutic of redemption, but one that provides crucial imaginative options.
Trier has been open about the fact that Justine is an autobiographical character, springing from his own experience with depression. When he interviewed Charlotte Gainsbourg, Andrew O’Hehir suggested that Trier is “extracting the feminine aspects of himself and projecting them onto the screen.” Gainsbourg agreed: “he is giving the parts to women, but there’s a lot of himself in there.” Trier himself claims that these women are not female at all, but his alter egos. Labelling Trier a misogynist just confuses the cultural attitudes that oppress women with Trier’s regard to them, leaving more complex issues ignored. The rape scene in Dogville provides proof for this. By zooming out of the centre of action, other townspeople are brought into the frame; ultimately making Grace’s rape a social act. In other words, that rape is brought out of Chuck’s internal needs is about something much larger; namely a system of power in which Grace has absolutely none, except the power to disappear into it.
Feminists will continue to take issue with Trier. Comments on Trier such as “his attitude to women, or specifically the female characters he creates in his films, is bizarre, bordering on creepy” do not add to conversations about the director, but rather look briefly at the themes Trier is using. Lars von Trier certainly wants you to think that his films are anti-women. But having read any of Trier’s occasional interviews, his fans should know that the writer-director has a very sly, bleak sense of humour, and including a misogyny expert in his movies liner notes seems like a preemptive, hit-them-before-they-hit-me strike. Nymphomaniac has certainly started up the debate again, but in order to fully understand Trier one must look past the instances of supposed misogyny.
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