As I have mentioned before, I really like to watch movies and TV Shows that are capable of making me feel uncomfortable —and, sometimes, even disturbed—not only for the cringeworthy moments, but for their capacity to confront and transform the paradigms with which I live my life by. Lars Von Trier’s films could perfectly sum up all of this.
I’m sure you have all watched at least one of his movies, and I’m also sure we can all agree on one thing: Lars Von Trier’s movies are nothing but average.
I’m not here to talk you into watching some of the best films of his wide and impressive career (something you should definitely do) or to tell you he is one of the most clever minds that the modern cinema has and will ever have (he really is), but to rather talk about something more relevant, and significant, to the times we’re living in: his gender politics.
If there’s something this director is really good at is portraying accurate depictions of what is like to be a woman in our current society, what her place is and how difficult her relationship with the men around her could be.
Lars Von Trier depicts his women like individuals without a voice, without a place to belong and a body to own. These women are often the caretakers, the ones that are always giving everything without expecting anything back, the ones that put everyone else’s needs before theirs. These women are stripped of any type of agency and decisions of their own and are constantly taken for granted.
Men, on the other hand, are the ones deciding upon women’s lives, decisions and bodies. The ones taking the spaces from them, the ones that are constantly putting women down by being condescending and unapproachable. These are the men that think they deserve everything they want, specially when a woman is involved. It’s no surprise that all of Lars Von Trier’s women end up on the verge.
The director has a keen eye to portray hopeless mothers. These individuals are portrayed as both completely vulnerable and always subjected to the men around them. They are women devoted to look after their children and to keep them safe from the dangers of the world.
Selma (Björk), in Dancer In The Dark, is the embodiment of this. She is an immigrant single mother that lives in the backyard of Bill (David Morse), a well-known policeman of a small town of the U.S who would do anything to please his wife, even if it means to steal money from his tenant.
Selma’s otherness is both the cause of her demise and her reason to be happy. She has no place to live, but the shed of Bill. She’s also going blind and lives with a constant guilt over her son’s possible blindness too. Bill takes advantage of this situation by immediately robbing her and putting her in a difficult position; leaving her with no other solution but to kill him.
Selma’s worst fear is to lose her child, to live in a world where his son’s childhood could be instantly robbed from him only because she has a hereditary illness. Selma’s entire life purpose is to procure her son’s health, even if it costs her her life.
So, when she’s thrown into jail, she’s not only becoming another faceless victim, she is also thrusted into a system unable to defend her. A system led by men, that has control over her body and her freedom. A corrupt system that eventually ends up killing her and her spirit, without hesitation.
Charlotte Gainsbourg also depicted this type of mother on two Von Trier movies: Antichrist and Melancholia. This two women share the same fear of losing a child that Selma has. The difference between them resides on the story. The woman named “She” loses her son at the beginning of the former and Claire at the end of the latter.
Both woman also have indifferent husbands who thinks that money and complaisance are the best way to be there for their wives in order to help them go through the difficult times. “He” (Willem Dafoe) is a psychologist reluctant to feel any sort of empathy towards his wife and his mourning process over the death of their child. John (Kiefer Sutherland) , on the other hand, is a scientist already fed up by her wife Claire and her “sentimentalism”.
These two men are completely certain that their wives would, and should, process their feelings the same way they do. They think they know and understand them perfectly well, but, in reality, they are just thinking about themselves. They’re not listening to them. In fact, they constantly find ways to silence them.
Dogville‘s Grace (Nicole Kidman) not only is left without a place to belong or live, but she’s also left without any will to go on with her life the very moment she arrives to the fictional town, named Dogville, looking for a place to hide from the gangsters that are after her. In there, the villagers find bizarre ways to mock her, silence her and arbitrary situations to justify the means of owning her body.
What’s really interesting of this movie is not only the raw depiction of humanity that Von Trier portrays accurately, but also the poignant point of view of a woman that is on the verge. Grace reaches a point were she has nothing left to loose. So, she orders the gangsters that are after her, to kill all the people on the town, even the children.
Yes, Lars Von Trier’s women can be selfless caretakers, but they also are human. And, as human beings, when they feel threatened, they will retaliate. Sadly, these personal rebellions will only appear when a breaking point is reached. Lars Von Trier depicts perfectly the way women are raised nowadays, as mute individuals that will not, and should not, raise their voice against anything.
Notwithstanding, Selma’s spends her last minutes alive by singing a song as an act of rebellion against the system that is in charge of breaking her. Claire finds a way to calm her child minutes before the world’s end as a way of retalliation against her fear of letting him down. In Antichrist, She finds a way to mutilate the genitals of her husband as a way to emancipate and break free from the box He put her into.
But, as we will learn from this movies, acting out will always bring consequences to the women involved. Something that Von Trier perfectly sums up on Nymphomaniac. a film where Joe (another wonderful acting piece by Charlotte Gainsbourg) goes against all that standards that the women before her had to live upon.
Joe is a fearless woman who is trying to understand who she is through sex. She is very confident about her sexuality and very conscious of her body. She refuses other men’s advances whenever she wants to whilst she doesn’t put up with them trying to control her body. She, eventually, will learn that society will not tolerate rogue women prancing around with their moral values.
By the end of the movie, Joe will be punished for her actions and for standing against a society more concerned about her behaving than to actually listen to her. Joe will reach for a gun in order to protect herself against a man (Stellan Skarsgard) who wants to control her body, and we will be left with nothing but a fade to black and an uncertainty around Joe’s life. Like all the other women in real life who are brave enough to stand against the very system who is always trying to break them but they keep disappearing.