An Autopsy of the Soul

March 26, 2015

 Lars Von Trier’s alternate worlds

by Dónal O’Brien

11902021944_39ed6ce8e6_oSat by the side of his bed smiling plaintively, her husband lies paralyzed from the neck down. It’s his birthday, he softly declares; “I’m finished, Bess. Go take a lover without anyone noticing, but you can’t divorce me, they’ll never let you.” This is a scene from Lars von Trier’s first international sensation, Breaking the Waves (1996). It brought this uncharacteristic director to the world’s attention.

Now, as he is gleefully presented for his provocations, Lars Von Trier is a man well known for his wicked vision. However, is there more to him than just a delegator of madness, something deeper to the controversy he attracts? His work is continuously engaged with images and issues of a strong and potent nature that seizes the viewer. He claims himself that films should be like a stone in a shoe, to stick with whoever watches it and shock them to thought. Von Trier must be seen as one of those unique artists who upsets the public yet makes them wait restlessly for another entrance into his peculiar mind.

In Von Trier’s films we can trace from his Danish beginnings a gradual transition into an internationally renowned director. Making films since the age of 11 with his Super 8 camera and completing his formal education at the National Film School in Copenhagen, his distinctive vision developed from his childhood up until today. Growing up with liberal parents combined with an unrestricted lifestyle his connection to the human soul is evident, treating such subjects as religion, mental illness, romance and sexuality in heavy and serious ways. The visual bluntness attacks our commonly perceived notions and reveals a side of humankind generally veiled, as is shown in the ill-treatment the protagonists receive by members of their family, community, society and religion. Von Trier observes the world and presents it back to us in gaunt fashion.


Gradually becoming blind

Over the last two decades we have witnessed the attachment to the female figure as one that inspires Von Trier the most. The male counterpart in comparison is shown as a much less impressive character. To quote the director himself, he delivers it rather more candidly; “The male protagonists in my films are basically all idiots who don’t understand shit. Whereas the women are much more human, and much more real. It’s the women I identify with in all my films.”

In Breaking the Waves, Bess (Emily Watson) is a character devoted to helping those she cares about. A pure and sacred soul the affection towards her newlywed husband, Jan Nyman (Stellan Skarsgard), surpasses extreme lengths, once crying out of control and chasing down a plane when she witnesses him leaving for work on an oil-rig. The acts of self-sacrifice for her husband have no bounds, as she obediently sleeps with other men upon his request. Von Trier reveals the madness of love and unbridled dedication, akin to that of religious faith, driving the innocent to punishing acts. Here, there is a fine-line between mental illness and religious devoutness. Speaking to God, Bess hears him encourage her to abide to the request of Jan in order to achieve salvation. Ultimately, it takes a brutal rape to cure her beloved Jan, of which she dies.

In his common trend to subvert genre conventions another film showing the essence of Von Trier is Dancer in the Dark (2000).The story is centred on the protagonist Selma played by the equally eccentric Icelandic musician, Björk, with an added ersatz cockney accent. Similar to Bess, she is afflicted by guilt, the guilt of her son’s inheritance of her visual ailment. While being starkly visually impaired, we witness her gradually becoming blind as she struggles to keep her job and to survive the circumstances that are constantly keeping her from fulfilling her wish to pay for the operation to save her son. Only this can be the redemption to end the cruel life she endures.

A musical made in a typical Von Trier bleak manner, Selma daydreams of her life being a part of a musical. Seen as a form of escape from her gloomy reality she says herself “I used to dream I was in a musical, because in a musical nothing dreadful ever happens.” However, in Dancer everything dreadful that can happen, does.  Selma, like other characters of Von Trier, is seen as a Christ-like figure, ultimately sacrificing herself to protect the people she loves. Containing the characteristics of gendered violence, punishment and eventually retribution, the film presents us a view of human nature at its deepest point of desperation.

When Bill, a local policeman and Selma’s landlord, steals the money that she has saved up in order to pay debt and lies to his wife saying that she tried to sleep with him, the brutality of life reveals itself. Selma is forced to shoot Bill in order to take back her money. This culminates in her death by hanging. Von Trier’s films present us the essence of humankind, thrown in our face, and then subsequently taken in as we step back from viewing. If a person like Selma can be treated so cruelly, then, is there hope for us at all?

Small-minded communities are presented in a manner that attacks their views on outsiders and their devotion to religion, allegories of corrupted human nature. In Dogville (2003), just as in the previous two films, distrust and harsh treatment fall upon those coming from outside these places.  Grace (Nicole Kidman) has to gain the confidence of the inhabitants of the little remote town called Dogville. Based in Depression era America the set is a theatre stage, Von Trier strips away visual colour and architecture to reveal a skeletal world where no one can hide from their sins. The turn of the benevolence of the female figure in Von Trier’s work occurs here. We see the progression of Grace’s tolerance of those who committed acts of unkindness upon her quickly transcend into hatred. Ultimate redemption is enacted by the murdering of all the inhabitants for their cruelty by her father’s Mafioso. “The world would be a better place without Dogville” she declares upon her command.

The Doctrine of Stoicism is a creed practiced by Grace and taught to the village’s children. It is requested also of Bess and Selma, the endurance of pain without showing emotions or reacting against it ultimately leads these characters to their demise. However, in Dogville, Grace breaks the mould by surviving and given the power to enact her revenge. The female figure, in the image of Christ, transforms as they can no longer stand the abuse they receive. Human nature takes its part; religion cannot control the soul forever.


A darker side

Human nature and its relation to nature itself is what at the centre of the horror Antichrist (2009).The abandonment of stoicism further finds its form in the innately evil She (Charlotte Gainsbourg). Depression cripples the mother after the death of her baby from a window sill fall. Her gradual progression into psychosis is intensified when her husband, He (Willem Dafoe), brings them to their cabin in the woods to help treat her. The events reveal a darker side of She as it becomes evident of her cruel acts. The husband discovers while she was writing a PhD thesis on witchcraft and misogyny she was torturing their baby in very same cabin prior to his death. Nature in the film is an aphrodisiac and also an instigator of intense acts of brutality.

As Grace got revenge and abandoned the guilt of her family’s gangster history, the female protagonist here, instead of embracing responsibility for her son’s death, tortures the male figure for his naivety in dealing with her problems, his inability to understand her grief.  Violence and sex are closely entwined, self-mutilating herself as if she doesn’t deserve the satisfaction of sex. There’s an absence of any form of redemption for her acts, the satanic overcomes the Christian penance.

The extremity of the transition from Bess to She in character shows Von Trier presenting women in various forms yet they are all constantly troubled by their guilt. Guilt it seems is the core overarching theme in these films. A guilt that is produced by society who finds it difficult to accept behaviour outside of their own beliefs and eventually leads to a marring effect on those it entraps. The soul becomes a harbourer of inner emotions produced by the circumstances that surround them as well as a gateway to how the world affects us.

Religion is ultimately the main cause of this pain as it pollutes the minds of people that follow the faith. From the ardent Calvinists in the remote village in the Scottish highlands in Breaking the Waves to the Christian founded AA meeting that Joe must attend in Nymphomaniac (2013), for those not abiding by their doctrines judgement is fiercely made. Sin is the name branded on the (un)natural acts, acts against societal and religious values. So, are we to believe religion and societies restrict human nature? Viewing Von Trier’s work one could certainly say that. We can see how his characters deal with these religious and societal pressures. A detailed autopsy of the soul in times of crises, it may be termed.


Increasing women power

Among his latest works we see the power of women increase; Von Trier reflects the post-feminist ideal of women taking their own control. Despite being approached in different ways, from a psychological disaster movie of Melancholia (2011) to the pornographic drama in Nymphomaniac they encounter the subject of societal conventions. They break down barriers that constrain people from being themselves. In presenting us unrestrained intimacy into the lives and activities of the characters, we see how relationships are outlined by society.

Melancholia attacks the convention of love and marriage, the ceremony of two people before God has no appeal to Justine (Kirsten Dunst). Her depression of not being able to enjoy the ‘happiest day of her life’ coincides with that of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) worrying the planet Melancholia, hurdling towards earth, will end existence. Depression can be seen as the meaningless of existence. Justine embraces the oncoming end of a life without pleasure. Nature is her release, as we see her lying nude on grass in the dark of night, illuminated by the glow of Melancholia above. Her form of love and excitement springs from the outdoors, not by the extravagant ceremonies created by humankind.

The question of conventional love is also contested in Nymphomaniac. The main character Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) recounts her overt sexual history to a complete stranger, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). She finds pride in her gift as she denounces the term ‘sex-addict’ to define her; “We are not alike. I’m not like you who fucks to be validated”. She declares her pleasure of being a ‘nymphomaniac’, while ‘sex-addict’ is claimed to be an invented stamp from society who can’t accept people like her.

The narrative told to the virginal Seligman, literally meaning ‘holy man’, can be seen as a confession. Joe confesses her sins but doesn’t ask for contrition. It is a natural condition in her eyes. The female protagonists in Von Trier’s films can be seen to be voicing his own opinions and views of the world. Understood as Lars Von Trier’s own sort of He for She campaign with the added ingredients to shock the public to self-examination.

By creating a reflective world through film and presenting it to us we can subsequently assess ourselves through different perspectives. The visual richness and unorthodox narrative style transports the viewer into an alternate world encountering the same issues as in our own. This transportation can have a redemptive effect by exposing common world issues that are too harsh to present with factual accounts. His films question our faith and convictions; be it in religion, romance, or sexuality. They urge us to contemplate our social condition; how we react and reveal ourselves to others. They are the complexities of the human soul laid bare.

“You’re right. They do look like human souls. Twisted souls. Regular Souls. Crazy souls. All depending on the kind of lives human beings lead,” says Joe’s Father in Nymphomaniac.