Friday, December 2, 2011

How Much Does/Should Lars Von Trier's Sexism Matter?

I'm at the coffee shop, supposedly working on a job application. Fuck that; something's bothering me, and has been bothering me for awhile now, at least since that fateful evening back in high school when I decided it would be a bright idea to take a girl I had a crush on to see "Breaking the Waves" during a Lars Von Trier retrospective at the AFI. And it started bothering me again after seeing "Melancholia," which could be the greatest work of cerebral sci-fi since "Primer," a movie I blogged about a couple of posts ago.

That something is this: the sexual politics of Lars Von Trier's films are fucked. This is not a controversial statement, I don't think--after all, "Lars Von Trier is a sexist" returns 270,000 hits on Google. In "Breaking the Waves," poor Emily Watson (a far more accomplished actress than Emma Watson, I'll note) is raped (probably; it's been awhile since I've seen it) and exploited and abused, and sent ping-ponging from overweening male figure to overweening male figure as her humanity and personal agency are gradually sapped. "Dogville" was proof enough for me that "BTW" wasn't a commentary on phallocentrism so much as Von Trier working out his sexual neuroses on screen. In that movie, Nicole Kidman's character uses mass murder as a means of internalizing and coping with her own victimization--not exactly a model of empowered womanhood, I don't think. Finally, "Melancholia" can be read as a crude metaphor about feminine inability to deal with shit, with the destruction of the entire world serving as the manifestation of Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourgh's failure to overcome their paralysis and psychic torment--a failure as inevitable as the cataclysm witnessed in the film's opening sequence. Remember that scene towards the end, when C. Gainsbourgh tries leaving the grounds of her estate with her kid, and it starts hailing and you get like 3 minutes of her getting pelted with golf-ball sized chunks of ice, looking totally helpless and anguished and defeated? Ah, I thought to myself. There's the LVT I know.

I'm of two minds about this. The first is that Emily Watson and Kirsten Dunst are consenting adults, and if they believed that LVT's sexism mattered, and if they believed that LVT was sexist, they wouldn't have agreed to work with him. They know him better than I do. And who's to say that LVT's sexism is really what it appears to be? You could even make the argument that LVT's woman issues are one of the more intriguing things about his work--that LVT realizes that he has an oftentimes-ugly sort of ambivalence towards the opposite sex, and that the powerlessness and exploitation of his female protagonists is part of a jarringly-personal exploration of the darker regions of his own psyche. LVT doesn't hide his sexism--he exposes it, and then examines and deconstructs it in front of the entire world. Maybe his work is actually self-lacerating, and maybe that's why Dunst, Bjork, et al agreed to work with him. Maybe sexism is just part of his art.

And even if he is a sexist, it's an unfortunate reality (and a reality that I'm hesitant to put in print, but here goes...) that bigotry is just one of those things you sometimes sorta need to look past. Wagner and Shakespeare, the Gods of their respective arts, were both anti-Semites, but this renders their work problematic rather than totally worthless. I've been rooting for the Washington Redskins my entire life. Not only do they have a racist name, but they were founded by a white supremacist; neither of these facts will make me stop rooting for them. The mature view on bigotry is that it exists and it's out there and you have be capable of recognizing it. But Shakespeare's anti-Semitism isn't central to his work, the Redskins have been integrated for almost 50 years and are the only team to win the Super Bowl with a black starting quarterback, and LVT is responsible for a few of the most intense and psychologically scarring (which is to say, effective) films ever made. A responsible viewer understands that there's a sexist element to Von Trier's work, while also understanding that his sexism hardly invalidates it. Maybe Dunst, Bjork et. al decided that LVT was a monster, but a monster who also happened to be one of the greatest artists of his time, in any medium--a monster worth working with, in other words.

On the other hand: what if Emily Watson decided that acting in an LVT film was worthwhile tradeoff--that the chance at a lead role in a prestige film by a prestige director wasn't something she could reasonably pass up, regardless of who that director was or what sort of situations he'd be putting her in? Similarly, what if Kirsten Dunst decided that an LVT film was her surest means of being taken seriously as an actress? I don't know if either actress had to wrestle with any personal misgivings about starring in films that feature the at-times pornographic subjugation of their characters. But if they had to overcome or even silence these misgivings in the name of their own careers ("BTW" was Watson's film debut, I'll note...)--well then isn't that a sort of exploitation?

I honestly don't know where I stand on this. LVT has a made a career out of degrading women on screen--out of using talented actresses to provide psychologically multi-faceted portrayals of women who seem to be prisoners of their own insurmountable feminine weakness (as well as prisoners of society, their husbands, small-town America, sexual naiveite, etc.). But he's also made a career out of making films with an uncanny ability to move and disturb. "BTW" or "Dogville" or "Melancholia" would be artistically worthless if they were pure exploitation porn. Instead, they're riveting and deeply personal investigations into what happens to people when society or depression or a killer near-earth object pushes them to the hitherto-unexplored outer limits of sanity and reason. I remain uneasy about liking his films as much as I do. But this is LVT we're talking about. So maybe that's the entire point.

Today's song has been stuck in my head for about 3 weeks:


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I am a big fan of LVT although I have only seen Melancholia, Dancer in the Dark, and Antichrist (I am working my way back through his library). I think saying that he is sexist is too simple of an analysis (and one you do not provide anywhere near enough evidence to justify). Yes, his female leads are tortured and degraded and things don't usually end up to well for them. But he also always (at least from the films I've seen) has female leads. That's a huge step. So few films have female leads and even fewer have female leads that interact with each other (see The Bechdel Test: That mere fact leads me to believe that there is something more complex than simple (and that's a problematic word to choose b/c of its deep history and connotations) sexism.

    I think it's much more accurate (without too much in-depth analysis) to say that he depicts a very complex and often dark relationship with the opposite sex. In Melancholia, for example, the men aren't portrayed particularly well either. Both male supporting leads (Dunst's new husband and Gainsbourg's husband) cannot cope with the collapse of the universe and end up leaving/committing suicide. If I am to extrapolate widely here that reads to me as men = weak.

    I am not saying LVT doesn't do some AWFUL things to his female characters but saying that he is a "sexist" is reductive and not giving his highly complex films enough credit.

    And one other minor point, I think it is morally and intellectually irresponsible to say that "that bigotry is just one of those things you sometimes sorta need to look past." Leaving out sports and Shakespeare (since those are not my specialty), that doesn't mean you can't watch films that aren't sexist. It means that you ought to (in my opinion) take time to analyze the sexism more thoroughly than simply pointing it out and ignoring it. Ask yourself for example, what role does the sexism play in the narrative, is this sexism intentionally or a product of societal norms? Otherwise, it seems like the sexism could be easily internalized.

    I don't mean to be harsh of criticize, I just want to keep the dialog going. That is what the Internet is for after all.

  3. "It means that you ought to (in my opinion) take time to analyze the sexism more thoroughly than simply pointing it out and ignoring it."

    ...and I totally agree with you. Hence the paragraph about how LVT's woman issues are arguably an an important element of his work. Just to expand on that--LVT's sexism (or ambivalence or what have you) manifests itself in a much different way than, say, Wagner's anti-Semitism. As I mention, LVT's films could be read as courageous self-analysis; Wagner's operas, on the other hand, are foregrounded by ugly racial theories that Wagner himself believed and was trying to advance through his work. So even if LVT's gender politics are a bit screwy, they're screwy for what's maybe an artistically-justifiable reason, whereas Wagner or George Preston Marshall were actively promoting bigotry. That's something I'd never accuse LVT of doing.

    And yes, it is "morally and intellectually irresponsible to say 'that bigotry is just one of those things you sometimes sorta need to look past.'" But as a Jew, that's something I have to do fairly often--otherwise Wagner, Marx, Raold Dhal, George Orwell, Roger Waters and dozens of other great artists and thinkers would be off limits to me. The reality is that a shocking amount of enduring art and literature was created by horrible people. That's not where the discussion should end, is what I'm saying.