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There is exactly one word that succinctly describes Lars von Trier, and it is not misogynist. It’s provocateur. He is an agitator who provokes trouble and causes dissension by ripping off the Band-Aid of Political Correctness to explore both himself and the limitations of societal norms. His rejection of social rigidity isn’t an excuse to shower insults and fashion himself as a nonsensical Rush Limbaugh of cinema. He rejects boundaries in order to investigate deeper impulses and process the world around him. In many ways, he’s the mirror in Snow White. We might not be Evil Queens, but we’re the audience faced not with truths (nothing in von Trier’s world is that simple), but with ideas and revelations we do not want to hear and see, thoughts that elicit immediate vitriolic reactions.
When Antichrist and its rather infamous “misogyny consultant” hit the scene, the Telegraph surmised: “one aspect of von Trier is becoming clear: his attitude to women, or specifically the female characters he creates in his films, is bizarre, bordering on creepy. The Great Dane, we may deduce, seems to get a kick out of putting his screen women in jeopardy or in violent situations.” The piece describes von Trier’s leading ladies as “victims,” and is no doubt fueled by his humor as much as his cinematic subjects. When asked whether he thought the film was misogynistic, he said: “I don’t know about that. I often wonder what would happen if I just came out and said, ‘I hate women.’”
There are, certainly, many awaiting that proclamation. Discourse on Antichrist changed passive claims of misogyny into a cacophonous roar. Critics cite his continued focus on women in dire, oppressive, and abusive situations, his callous humor, and his problematic upbringing. The pain of his films is framed as a sadistic cinematic exercise, one he takes pleasure in as a troubled puppet master. Though Melancholia’s Kirsten Dunst describes his work environment as “safe” and “very free,” Bjork swore off movies after working on Dancer in the Dark, and von Trier has discussed the long shouting matches he’d have with Nicole Kidman when they filmed Dogville.
But von Trier is never that simple. He is angst, “the generalized feeling of not being at home in the world.” His female characters show an immense spectrum of strength, perseverance, and cunning, trumping a large majority of the fluffy, feeble female characterizations shown in modern cinema. He has often spoken about seeing himself as his female characters, thus throwing into question any accusations of joyful torment. The product of passive parenting, each film speaks to a mind stretching to understand the world without strict moral guidelines, just as much as it speaks to his anger towards his mother: “Every film, I try to irritate her, even though she’s dead, so she’s still having a lot of influence.” He struggles with depression, and one can’t forget his brow-raising banter, which GQ describes as “a rigorous masochistic honesty; that to restrain his thoughts about the world as they appear in his mind would be an unbearable compromise.” Each morsel flows into an intricate knot that doesn’t offer an easy way to untie it.
At the base of his work is a crisis of identity fueled by an unrestricted childhood. Lars Trier (the “von” came into play during film school) was raised by independent, left-wing nudists who raised him to make up his own mind about everything. In a 2005 interview, he spoke about the ramifications of his upbringing. He was free to go to school or “get drunk on white wine,” so he began to “search for restrictions,” to “look for boundaries which restrict my range of activity and aesthetic freedom.” He explains: “My family had a very clear idea of good and evil, of kitsch and good art. In my work, I try to throw all this into question. I don’t just provoke others, I declare war on myself, on the way I was brought up, on my values the entire time.”
One must remember that this child without boundaries suffered an identity crisis that strangely reflected the Second World War, revealed in an ironic death bed conversation by his mother in 1989. She chose not to have a child with her Jewish husband, but with her lover and boss, a German man with who came from a long line of classical musicians. She picked a creative man so that she could create her ideal offspring – an artistic child. Instead of the Jewish father Lars had always known, he was the son of a German man (not a Nazi, also part of the Resistance) who ultimately rejected him (see GQ interview). The background paints a different picture of his Cannes comments, speaking both to the problematic nature of his familial roots and his tendency to have stream-of-conscious verbal diarrhea, “a clumsy mishmash of world history and his personal history, of distant conflicts in midcentury Europe and more recent conflicts within his own psyche and genome, conflicts he is clearly still struggling to solve.”
That’s always at the heart of von Trier’s work – a struggle to solve and understand, rip open, and reinvestigate. There are questionable motivations, most notably his anger towards his mother, but when he sees himself in his heroines, and strives to “declare war” on even his own values, accusations of sexism become problematic. Von Trier exists in multiples, not always multiple interpretations, but always multiple motivations.
The first fox I met was a red fox. And it started to split itself to pieces. And afterwards, I met a couple of other foxes. Silver foxes with little cubs. And they said to me, ‘Never trust the first fox you meet.’” – Lars von Trier, describing a dream that helped inspire ‘Antichrist.’
There are many parallels one can make between Lars’ dream and his films – ideas of fragmentation and mistrust especially, but there’s also the lesson of surface behavior. Those who dislike Melancholia (just released on DVD and Blu-ray, recent winner of 10 Danish Film honors) often offer a superficial reading of the film that delves into depression and the end of the world. USA Today called the characters “unlikeable, their actions inexplicable… it’s not clear what von Trier’s story is trying to convey, beyond wallowing in a dreary world.” The Gloss boiled Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) into pretty objects of unhappiness, and surmised that Justine has a “right to be sad. The world is ending.” In Our Words claims von Trier enjoys watching the pair “in crisis.” The Women Film Critics Circle called Justine and Claire the “worst female images in a movie” in 2011.
As von Trier says, this is about his struggle with “doomsday prophecies and depression,” mixed with his life-long anxieties (the sound of planes, for example, always made him think WWIII was starting). It was born out of his own treatment for depression, when “a therapist told him a theory that depressives and melancholics act more calmly in violent situations while ‘ordinary, happy’ people are more apt to panic.” The end of the world thus came together with a wedding, an event steeped in expectation and showmanship matched with a cataclysmic event.
After an apocalyptic, yet stunningly beautiful, opening montage, Justine makes her way to her wedding reception, wanting (as von Trier states) “to end all the silliness and anxiety and doubt. That’s why she wants a real wedding. And everything goes well until she cannot meet her own demands.” The once happy veneer covering Justine’s depression begins to crack when she is faced with the literal arrival of her family and the figurative influence of a melancholic planet she has discovered in the night sky. Every good intention or aggravated outburst pummels Justine, whether it’s her disappointed sister Claire telling her she hates her, her father failing to talk with her, her mother being publicly callous, or even her new husband being oppressively heroic. He’s the classic, simple, affable white knight who has no real understanding of depression, or how to deal with a person suffering it, and continually barrages his wife with the pressures of his good intentions – plots of land and trees that he thinks will magically make her happy, desperate sexual need she can’t reciprocate. He’s the innocent who takes responsibility and never manages to truly help his love: “You should never say you’re sorry. I haven’t been taking care of you lately; it’s my fault.”
Justine is a woman in such turmoil that she cannot bear the sight of rigid, crisp abstract artwork, and must immediately change them for traditional images that mirror her melancholia, like Millais’ “Ophelia.” The beautiful icon of depression helps set the foundation of the film – inspiring the watery poster, the art books, and the Shakespearian wordplay emphasizing “nothing.” Moreover, von Trier attempts to recreate the idea, merging his love of cinema with Millais’ Ophelia to create the image of a naked and supine Dunst, basking, if you will, in the glow of Melancholia in the night sky. She is a willing sacrifice prepared for Earth’s destruction, not a woman unhappy because the world is ending.
Melancholia quite clearly explores the world of depression – the way it can almost nonsensically plague someone, how the rest of the world sees it, and how much of the world is unequipped to deal with it. These sisters are two very different, and very wonderfully structured characters. Justine suffers depression. This eerie, extra-terrestrial influence outlines a very real descent into paralyzing fear and calm acceptance. The planet’s arrival in the sky marks the end of her happy, pre-reception moments, and as soon as her young nephew shows her printouts of Melancholia’s orbit, her suffocating despair quickly lightens into a comfortable resolve as she meets the Earth’s fate head-on. Though Claire has something to lose (her child, the life she enjoys, as von Trier explains in the DVD extras), Justine does not, and can easily accept her fate. It provides an end to her suffering that no amount of extravagance or love has been able to fix. As Trevor Link, who has suffered depression, wrote about the film and subject:
“the problem is not that a series of negative events and circumstances are affecting and causing our mood; rather, it’s the opposite: our underlying depression is affecting how we react to the events and circumstances of life. … Importantly, Trier doesn’t give us a reason to believe that Justine should be depressed. We have a hard time explaining her feelings—but then, why do we think it’s up to us to explain them?—and even she cannot pinpoint why she feels the way she does. … Trier’s frequent use of jump cuts and changes in focus help convey this puzzling and erratic state that lacks a strong sense of direction. It isn’t the downs that are necessarily most confusing to a depressed person, it’s everything… On what should be the conventional ‘happiest night of her life,’ surrounded by people who love and support her, Justine cannot escape the pit of her depression.”
Beautifully, von Trier outlines this unknowing in the Justine chapter before moving on to explore another incarnation of depressed futility – Claire, a healthy woman who must come to terms with the end of the world. Planet Melancholia forces her into unhappiness that she cannot control. The planet becomes von Trier’s way of provoking depression. Rumbling sounds break through the Wagnerian score to make the viewer feel like they will be engulfed. Justine allows the filmmaker to tease at the strings of public aggravation with depression, while Claire forces the viewer to feel it. If they cannot understand the intricacies of depression, they can understand the bleak fear that descends when a large, powerful planet flies towards Earth. It’s a momentary, fleeting visit to the heart of paralyzing unrest and unhappiness.
This duality of depression and apocalypse in Melancholia doesn’t reveal the inner workings of some cackling sadist eager to make women suffer. It reveals a cleverly plotted look at the affliction told through two powerful women who bravely face their last moments. It’s a film that in 2 hours wiped away a decade of critiques about Dunst’s talent, and offered starring female characterizations rarely seen in modern films.
Yes, Lars von Trier says a lot of questionable and sometimes offensive things. He may truly mean many of them, and perhaps his verbal diarrhea is as much about inner feelings as it is a messy, joking stream of conscious banter that we don’t understand. But there’s no totality and no definitive angle to understanding von Trier because he’s always striving for this crisis – of himself and his art. It’s a technique that immediately puts our ordered worlds on edge, while offering some of the richest and most cerebrally intensive film experiences (and female characters) in contemporary cinema.