Any other bride would panic if the stretch limo carrying her to her wedding got stuck en route, too long to make a tight turn on a narrow country road. Not Justine, though. Her face lights up with perverse glee. She laughs. And we have our first sign that the heroine of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia does not respond to the world around her in precisely the way she’s supposed to.
Kirsten Dunst’s Justine, who suffers from depression (or, in the film’s less clinical, more romantic parlance, “melancholia”), is a character as nuanced as her illness is, at times, debilitating. Von Trier’s camera hones in on her face as she drags herself through what is supposed to be the happiest day of her life. We see the muscles in her mouth strain as she forces grimaces into smiles. Both the celebration itself and the idea that she is about to live blissfully ever after are slowly suffocating her. On the brink of ruining her own wedding – which she eventually does, sleeping with a stranger and sending her sweet, simple husband packing – she describes to her sister, Claire, the sensation that has overtaken her: “I’m trudging through this gray, woolly yarn.” In the second of the film’s two parts, Justine becomes all but immobilized by her affliction, mumbling that her favorite food “tastes like ashes” and incapable of lifting her own foot into the bathtub. When the story takes its surreal, apocalyptic turn, Justine is revealed to be the only member of her family well adjusted enough to the futility of human existence to guide them through their sudden annihilation.
In Justine, von Trier – aided in no small part by the strongest performance of Dunst’s career –paints the best portrait of depression I’ve seen in any medium. At the same time, he gives us one of cinema’s most empathetic, multifaceted portrayals of a female character by a male filmmaker. This isn’t to say that Melancholia gets at anything particular about the female experience (although von Trier has done that, too, in other movies). It simply presents a woman as a distinct, fully realized human being, defined not by her gender but by her intelligence and suffering and – most importantly, for von Trier – struggle to fall in line with a sick, doomed society.
And yet, Lars von Trier has a reputation for misogyny. Although there have been some impassioned defenses of his gender politics over the years, this myth persists. Critics and feminists and right-wing reactionaries posing as either of the above who failed to sniff out any woman-hating overtones in Melancholia have returned to protest the very existence of its follow-up, Nymphomaniac, a film most of them probably made up their minds about the moment they heard the title. If the current round of woman-hater name-calling hasn’t achieved the same momentum as the outrage around 2009’s Antichrist – the first installment in von Trier’s Depression trilogy, preceding Melancholia and Nymphomaniac and containing an infamous scene in which Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character snips off her own clitoris – that likely has more to do with the staggered coverage of Nymphomaniac’s two-part, month-long rollout than any cooling of the widespread anger at von Trier’s depictions of women.
[Spoiler alert: this piece discusses major plot points — including the ending — of Nymphomaniac, as well as many of Lars von Trier’s other films.]
While the charge of misogyny has remained the same over the years, as von Trier has continued to write female protagonists, the specific accusations have changed along with the films’ storylines and themes. Beginning with his 1996 film, Breaking the Waves — which won Cannes’ Grand Prix and brought the Danish director’s work to a global audience – he was tarred for martyring his women, for appearing to revel in the pain of these saintly creatures.
Breaking the Waves is the story of an odd, childlike young woman named Bess (Emily Watson) who has spent her life in tiny, austerely religious Scottish community and believes that she can talk directly to God, conducting conversations in which she speaks in his deep voice as well as her own. After Bess marries an “outsider,” Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), a Norwegian man who works on an oil rig, she throws herself wholeheartedly into their romance, becoming entirely dependent on him as their relationship grows more and more physical. Soon after she begs God to bring him home, Jan is critically injured in an accident on the rig. When Bess visits him in the hospital, he tells her how she can help him: by having sex with other men and recounting her exploits to him. Out of unquestioning faith in her husband, she obeys – against the urging of her family, despite being cast out of the community – sacrificing herself so that Jan can be healed. And finally he is, although Bess doesn’t live to see it.
Despite their very different premises and scopes, the two subsequent films in von Trier’s Golden Heart trilogy, The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dark (2000), have similar heroines: innocent women who offer themselves up to save the people they love. Like Bess, Dancer in the Dark’s Selma (Bjork, whose relationship with von Trier was so strained on set that she vowed never to act again) meets with a tragic fate; in The Idiots, Karen’s (Bodil Jørgensen) suffering precedes her sacrifice.
The shift in von Trier’s protagonists came with 2003’s Dogville, an Our Town-style allegory in which the titular tiny Colorado town agrees to hide a woman on the run from the mafia, Nicole Kidman’s Grace. At first the townspeople welcome Grace – but as they realize how dependent she is on their protection, they begin to exploit her. Little by little, she becomes their scapegoat and slave, routinely raped and, after an escape attempt, chained by the neck to a large iron wheel. What makes her different from Bess and Selma is that, in a final twist, Grace comprehends the futility of her martyrdom. Rather than continuing to labor under the increasingly foolhardy notion that the people of Dogville are goodhearted despite the way they persecute her, she seizes the opportunity to visit Old Testament-style retribution on them. It’s a Pyrrhic victory, one that brings with it disturbing implications about group psychology and American culture, but it also marks the moment when von Trier’s heroines stopped being sacrificial lambs and started fighting their oppressors.
These are the women of the Depression trilogy: Antichrist’s purposefully named She, who reacts to her young son’s accidental death by lashing out at both herself and her husband in the goriest possible way; Melancholia’s Justine, who tells her boss and (in subtler ways) new husband and family to go fuck themselves because she can’t keep swimming against the current of her brain chemistry – and of what she realizes about life on Earth – for their benefit; and finally, Joe in Nymphomaniac (also played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who appears in all three Depression films), who remains stubbornly driven by her appetite for sex – which is really an appetite for transcendence, an uncompromising, essentially creative impulse that can be fed but never fully satisfied – despite its chaotic, destructive effects on her life and others’. Nymphomaniac begins with a seemingly kind, avuncular man bringing home filthy, beat-up Joe for some tea, but, full of allusions to von Trier’s earlier films, it ends in much the same way as Dogville: with the snuffing out of any hope for human kindness or generosity, followed by a gunshot and an escape into uncertainty.
It would be easy to impose a simplistic feminist narrative on the evolution of von Trier’s heroines: originally passive martyrs, they developed personal agency. But that just plays into the typical accusations leveled at his more recent work. Now that his female characters have come down from the pedestal to fight, critics invested in the idea that von Trier is a misogynist insist that Antichrist and Nymphomaniac paint women as intrinsically evil and carnal (respectively).
This is a misunderstanding born out of the refusal, or the inability, to see von Trier’s body of work as a whole. The similarities between the Golden Heart trilogy and the Depression trilogy turn out to be more important than the differences. Both of them, and every film of Lars von Trier’s I’ve seen (which is almost all of them), are arguments for the hopelessness of human society – the inevitability of it exploiting goodness and vulnerability, crushing difference and dissent. Just as Breaking the Waves is about a woman whose authentically divine mission requires her to behave in such a socially stigmatized way that it terrifies her supposedly religious community into exiling her, Antichrist is about a woman whose traumatic experience and paternalistic husband have left her open to internalizing thousands of years of socially sponsored propaganda about womankind’s evil nature.
(I don’t think feminism is the chief motive behind most of von Trier’s movies, but Antichrist – not accidentally his most hated film – is his most radical statement about the brutal fallout of misogyny. A few writers took up similar arguments after its release, and their analyses are well worth reading. I’ll simply add that those who remain convinced the film is making a case that women are the spawn of Satan should keep in mind that even the concept of the Antichrist is, itself, socially constructed.)
Much – but thankfully not all – feminist criticism of Nymphomaniac has been myopic in its disregard for von Trier’s career-long obsessions, and fueled by the acceptance of his alleged misogyny as an article of faith. One critic has clearly heard so much – and understood so little – about his films that she mostly comes off as indignant that he’s still allowed to make them. “How is a film that uses porn stars’ genitalia and movie stars’ heads in any way avant garde?” asks Batya Ungar-Sargon, as though that is a choice with only one possible meaning or explanation. She cites a single scene in which Joe suggests that eating rugelach with a fork makes a man effeminate as proof that “the film and everyone in it hates anything feminine.” Ultimately, she pronounces: “[T]o cast Joe’s appetite for sex, which is clearly explained by the film as an attempt to dull pain and recover self-esteem (revolutionary, I know!) as a search for transcendence… is to accept the film’s terms that a woman trying to please men sexually is the only form of transcendence open to women.”
Ungar-Sargon’s reliance on isolated examples and willful misreading to reach general conclusions about von Trier’s message betrays a stubbornly superficial engagement with the film. A dialogue between Joe and her ostensible savior, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), as well as a hit parade of his themes, Nymphomaniac outlines von Trier’s belief system in clearer terms than any of his previous films. “Deciding whether you’re a bad human being or not, I’ve no problem with that,” Seligman – a character Noel Murray identifies as a surrogate for von Trier’s critics in his excellent review of Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 for The Dissolve – says in the film’s second half, as moments of tension creep into their conversation. When Joe tells Seligman, “I’m in doubt that you’re even listening,” that’s the filmmaker speaking directly to critics like Ungar-Sargon.
At The New Republic, Eric Sasson makes a more earnest attempt to understand Nymphomaniac; von Trier may have had revolutionary intentions, he argues, but “[o]ne can’t make a movie about nymphomania and not have it be about female sexuality” – which in this case means getting mired in the central character’s decidedly un-liberated guilt and shame about the way she’s lived her life. Sasson concludes that a “truly novel film would star a sexually adventurous woman, not devoid of love and compensating for her lack of it, not hating herself, but instead embracing her sexuality and feeling content with her decisions. I guess we’ll have to keep relying on Lena Dunham for that.”
Sasson’s strange interpretation of Girls aside (Hannah Horvath is a woman “embracing her sexuality and feeling content with her decisions”?), to demand a movie like that from von Trier would be to fundamentally misunderstand his worldview. Amid accusations of anti-Semitism after a poorly articulated comment about Adolf Hitler got him banned from Cannes in 2011, he told Time Out London, “I believe we can learn things from what has happened [during the Holocaust], and if we make a lot of taboos about it, it will slow this process down or stop it completely – which would be so unfair to the people who died in Auschwitz, for instance.”
There’s no denying that the filmmaker sympathizes more with Joe than the society that has convinced her she’s evil for seeking fulfillment (or the refined 60-year-old virgin who condescendingly explains her life experiences to her, then tries to rape her as she sleeps). But von Trier would never write a “content” heroine, because his movies are not visions of some progressive utopia, full of hopeful images of the future; they’re renderings of the world the way he sees it, as a hellscape ruled by ignorance of all shades: sexism, classism, racism, slavery, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, the fear of disability and difference – and, most pernicious of all, the dangerous hypocrisy of self-identified moral authorities (like Breaking the Waves’ religious leaders and Dogville’s resident philosopher, Tom) who are more concerned with the appearance of righteousness than with combating actual injustice. At one point Joe defends her right to use taboo words by telling Seligman, “Every time a word is prohibited… we elevate those who mean wrong but say right.”
Von Trier’s is a deeply pessimistic point of view, a position that perhaps deserves to be controversial, and one whose bleakness is so rare in cinema that it might be easier to misunderstand than to recognize or embrace. But it’s also a perspective that renders misogyny impossible – because misogyny, like all prejudice, is a form of the socially sanctioned delusion and stupidity that make each of his films a tragedy. Still, a few questions about von Trier’s motivations remain: Why does he choose to make almost all of his protagonists – the characters who he subjects to rape, murder, humiliation, grief, mental illness, and torture of endless varieties – women? And why, in films like BtW, Antichrist, and Nymphomaniac, is he so hell-bent on placing these women in stories that seem built to invite accusations of sexism and misogyny?
Lindy West at Jezebel asks a version of both questions in her response to Nymphomaniac:
The train vignette really encapsulates my main problem with Nymphomaniac: It uses women’s bodies to create a spectacle, to make a point, but I’m not sure that the point actually serves women. It’s counterproductive to disseminate the idea—for reasons not thoroughly justified—that hot teenage girls are roaming around train cars searching for penises to blow. Because what happens in real life is that teenage girls are roaming around train cars searching for safe seats to sit in so they can fucking get places without creepy dudes bothering them. There might be some artistic utility in flipping that truth, in exposing the emotional barrenness of that fantasy, but is it worth it? And is a male director the best person to do that job? And are naked, sexualized female bodies the most responsible tool to use?
Von Trier makes no attempt to hide how strongly he identifies with his heroines – especially the recent ones. “My technique is that I divide my personality into the characters that I write, and then very early on they get a life of their own,” he told the New York Times before swearing off interviews in the wake of the Cannes debacle. In the same article, Charlotte Gainsbourg insisted that her character in Nymphomaniac is a reflection of von Trier: “I think Lars has that sort of appetite, and he understands — not to say that he’s a nymphomaniac.” She made similar comments about her role in Antichrist, telling the Guardian, “I find it unjust when people say he hates women. I really have the impression that I was playing him, that he was the woman, that he was going through that misery, the physical condition, the panic attacks.” And there’s no question that Justine’s melancholic outlook is based on von Trier’s own; even if it weren’t obvious from his filmography, he’s spoken openly of his experience with depression and how it inspired Melancholia.
Breaking the Waves
If the characters are autobiographical, drawn from aspects of a man’s personality, why must they all be female? This is the question I have had the most difficult time answering. And the only conclusion that makes sense to me is that von Trier’s protagonists are always women because women are the most universally oppressed and maligned and exploited group in human history. (I want to be very clear here: I do not mean that women are the most oppressed and maligned and exploited group on Earth, or that sexism and misogyny manifest in the same way everywhere, but simply that these are the prejudices most likely to read as timeless and universal to the largest segment of von Trier’s global audience.) This is a vital aspect of identity to get across when your protagonists are always going to come into conflict with the forces of social control – also known as the patriarchy. I don’t think misogyny is von Trier’s primary preoccupation, but it is his central metaphor.
I’m much more certain that I understand why von Trier gives us women getting fucked to death and mutilating their so-called womanhood and saying things like “fill all my holes” when he could surely come up with storylines that leave him less open to charges of misogyny: he’s purposefully misleading his audience, efficiently alienating critics who fail to see beyond the surface of his films. “If there are some people that like the film and some people that do not, that’s fine for me, because I do not intend to make very broad films,” he told A.V. Club in an interview about Antichrist.
The myth of Lars von Trier’s misogyny persists, ultimately, because von Trier wants it to – not because he is a misogynist, but because he’d rather alienate the hypocritical moralists and pedants and prudes he’s spent his whole career railing against than spoon-feed them his message. This refusal to soften, broaden, or dumb down his films is the stance of a deeply un-democratic artist with a messiah complex, a snobby provocateur who gets a thrill out of being misunderstood. But it may also be the only way von Trier can stay true to his principles.