Lars von Trier, one of the world’s most brilliant, controversial, and infuriating filmmakers, has a woman problem (not to mention problems with America, Jews, actors, journalists, and flying). But does that mean he is a misogynist?
A von Trier retrospective began Saturday at the Museum of Fine Arts and runs through Feb. 23. The series precedes the upcoming release of his latest feature, “Nymphomaniac.”
Von Trier’s films suggest that the question is absurd. In them women are debased, brutalized, and put to death. They go mad, commit atrocities, provoke catastrophe.
But does this onscreen abuse arise from the director’s fear and loathing, or admiration and empathy? In interviews, von Trier has said that he believes women are superior to men, capable of handling the worst that the universe, or an obsessed director, can throw at them, and emerge triumphant.
Misogyny only gradually became an issue for von Trier. In the beginning he was seen more as an iconoclast and possible megalomaniac, at least in the small world of Danish filmmaking.
In his first three films, the so-called “Europa” trilogy, he took on no less than the entire continent. His goal was not to entertain, but to put the audience into a trance, and draw them deep into their subconscious.
His first feature, the sci-fi noir “The Element of Crime” (1984), opens in Cairo with a therapist hypnotizing police inspector Fisher (Michael Elphick) — and presumably the audience also — into reliving his experiences somewhere in Europe 12 years earlier. The fact that the hypnotist is a sweaty fat man sitting next to an antique fan, with a masturbating monkey on his shoulder, tips you off from the start as to the tone and style of the movie.
Clearly, women have power surpassing that of the male filmmakers who try to comprehend them.
Fisher returns to a Europe reduced to medieval conditions and ceaseless rain, a cross between “Blade Runner” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Shot in a toxic orange tint, rife with septic images, “Element” follows Fisher’s dithering quest to catch a serial killer. As in most noirs, there is a femme fatale, but she’s an afterthought. At her worst she ties strings to Fisher’s face to enable his self-flagellation. “Why do you torture yourself?” she asks. “I have to!” he screams. “I believe in joy!”
So far, to my knowledge, nobody has figured out what he’s talking about. In his next film, “Epidemic” (1987), von Trier cuts the excesses, perhaps foreshadowing “Dogme 95,” the “Vow of Chastity” against filmmaking artifices signed by himself and other directors in 1995. In this action-free disaster film, von Trier stars alongside screenwriter Niels Vorsel as filmmakers writing a screenplay about a worldwide plague. It ends with a woman hypnotized into entering their film within the film. Somehow, through her vicarious torment, the plague becomes real.
Clearly, women have power surpassing that of the male filmmakers who try to comprehend them. Von Trier explores this enigma further in “Europa” (1991), his last use of the hypnosis gimmick. In a voice-over reminiscent of the TV show “The Outer Limits,” Max Von Sydow lulls the viewer into entering the mind of Leopold (Jean-Marc Barr), a naive American who has taken a job as train conductor in postwar Germany. The daughter of the railroad owner seduces him into helping the Werewolves, a diehard band of terrorist Nazis. She is beauty and the beast in one.
After “Europa,” von Trier worked in television, returning to the big screen in 1996 with “Breaking the Waves.” Its success brought him worldwide recognition, not just as a filmmaker, but for some, as a male chauvinist.
It’s not surprising. Bess (Emily Watson), a simpleminded woman in a Scottish Calvinist coastal community, marries Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), a worker on an offshore oil rig. But Jan is paralyzed in an accident; and as his condition deteriorates, he perversely asks Bess to have sex with other men and tell him about it. Thinking that by doing so she can miraculously cure Jan (she also has private conversations with God, who concurs), Bess obeys, and willingly endures a prolonged sexual degradation.
A sadistic, misogynist fantasy? Perhaps. But despite her victimization, Bess is the strongest character in the film, a cross between St. Thérèse and Mary Magdalene. Asked to diagnose her malady, a doctor can only say that she is “good.” Rather than debasing Bess, von Trier elevates her to sainthood. Subsequent films repeat this pattern, brutalizing women to demonstrate their spiritual superiority, and offering up their sufferings as a kind of martyrdom.
After “The Idiots” (1998), an aptly titled indulgence in puerility that is like an unfunny, subtitled episode of “Jackass” (there are more laughs in his 2006 Capra-esque “The Boss of It All”), von Trier dumps Dogme 95 for the supreme artifice of the musical. “Dancer in the Dark” (2000) relates the melodramatic story of a pure-hearted woman driven to extremes. The Icelandic pop star Björk (who also wrote the film’s musical numbers), plays Selma, a Czech immigrant working in a factory. She’s saving money for an operation to save her son’s eyesight, but a cad steals it, and . . . She performs her final number, “Next to Last Song,” on the scaffold, and it’s a heartbreaker.
After “Dancer,” von Trier is out of the Dogme dog house in 2003 with “Dogville” (though his documentary “The Five Obstructions,” released the same year, parodies the code’s arbitrariness). He minimalizes the production values, but maximizes the female suffering.
Rendered as stenciled outlines on a sound stage with a few props, the title 1930s Rocky Mountain town is a Beckett-like distillation of meanness and misery. The characters also are two-dimension: twisted, deluded, cowardly, hypocritical, and vain stereotypes. Call it “Sour Town.”
All except for Grace (Nicole Kidman), a stranger who appears out of nowhere. To earn her keep she does favors for her new neighbors. It does not end well. Like Greek tragedies, the climax proves instructive, as the angelic female spirit gives way to the demonic, avenging male.
Critics who sensed anti-American attitudes in “Dancer” and “Dogtown” were enraged by “Manderlay” (2005), their anger eclipsing charges of misogyny. A sequel of sorts, it follows the further adventures of Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard taking over from Kidman), who has moved on to Alabama, where in the remote plantation of the title slavery continues to be practiced seven decades after the end of the Civil War. Once again, Grace’s well-intended attempts to make things right backfire.
A reactionary version of Reconstruction? Brechtian liberal-bashing? There’s enough here to offend everyone. With “Manderlay,” von Trier emerges as a genuine Swiftian misanthrope, his target not America or women but the whole damned human race.
Which brings us to the apocalyptic “Antichrist” (2009). First off, let it be known that “He” (Willem Dafoe) is the worst psychiatrist in the history of movies. He treats his wife, “She” (Charlotte Gainsbourg), catatonic after the loss of their child, by taking her to a cabin (called “Eden”) for hands-on therapy. Then he makes the rookie mistake of getting stuck in a toolshed with a crazy person.
“She” crushes her husband’s genitals with a two-by-four, and that’s just for starters. As the talking fox explains, “Chaos reigns.” “Antichrist” is “Saw 6” as directed by Carl Dreyer, and in it von Trier presents his vision of a fallen universe.
But are women the cause of the Fall, or the only hope of redemption? In “Melancholia” (2011), Justine (Kirsten Dunst) suffers from the title malady. A newlywed, she’s paralyzed by depression. She seeks annihilation, even though it takes the whole planet with her.
Von Trier’s ultimate misogynist statement? The last scene suggests otherwise. In a simple, inspired and compassionate act, Justine vindicates humanity. As the end approaches, and all the men have fled, or succumbed to despair, only she remains unbroken. Building a tiny shelter made of sticks, a makeshift Eden or Magic Cave, she reaffirms the irrepressible creative impulse behind all art, including this movie: she tells a child a story.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.