Agonies, ecstasies: Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe played warring spouses in Antichrist, the hotly controversial 2009 film from director Lars von Trier.
Agonies, ecstasies: Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe played warring spouses in Antichrist, the hotly controversial 2009 film from director Lars von Trier. IFC Films
Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier seems to be a gift and a curse to actresses. His films are notable for the strong leading roles he writes for women, but many of his films are controversial for the way they depict women as willing martyrs — or as vindictive and satanic.
He's been called "the punisher" for his demands on actresses such as Nicole Kidman in Dogville and Icelandic pop star Bjork in Dancer in the Dark. But there are often prizes at the end of the battle; Bjork was named best actress at the Cannes Film Festival, as were the stars of von Trier's two most recent films, the horror fable Antichrist and Melancholia, a tale of two sisters and the end of the world.
Charges of misogyny routinely come up in interviews with von Trier, says Caroline Bainbridge of Roehampton University in London. She's the author of The Cinema of Lars von Trier.
"His response seems to be always that these are not female characters," says Bainbridge, who points out that Trier's films began to focus intensely on women in the 1990s. (This was also the period during which von Trier co-founded a small but influential movement called Dogme 95, which sought authenticity in cinema through simpler techniques.)
"They're expressions of him, an expression of his internal life," Bainbridge says of von Trier's women. "He's even claimed that he feels himself to be feminine to some degree."
In Breaking the Waves, Emily Watson played a Scottish woman who degrades herself willingly to please her injured husband. The film, which earned Watson an Oscar nomination, demonstrates how even von Trier's filmmaking style began to change as he turned his attention to the feminine, says Bainbridge.
Arte France/Blind Spot/Dinovi/The Kobal Collection
Bjork won the Cannes Film Festival's best-actress prize for von Trier's Dancer in the Dark — but the experience of making the movie made her swear off film work.
Bjork won the Cannes Film Festival's best-actress prize for von Trier's Dancer in the Dark — but the experience of making the movie made her swear off film work. Arte France/Blind Spot/Dinovi/The Kobal Collection
"He starts to become much more interested in using the hand-held camera and getting really up close on the female protagonists' faces in particular, as a means of revealing something of their interior experience and the emotional strain that they find themselves under in these narratives."
The strain isn't always, it seems, to what's in the stories. Take Dancer in the Dark. Bjork won best actress at Cannes in 2000, but she became just as well known for trying to escape the set. Neither she nor von Trier said exactly why, but Bjork vowed never to make another film. Von Trier has often commented that they were both used to control and recently ventured that both she and he are "nuts."
In a recent BBC interview the filmmaker gave — just before swearing off interviews last month — he marveled that the troubles did not deter Kidman from starring in the film that followed, "even though Bjork sent her a letter saying she should not take the part because I would eat her soul."
Francois Guillot/Getty Images
Von Trier's newest film is Melancholia, with Kirsten Dunst as a depressed woman confronting the prospect of the end of the world.
Von Trier's newest film is Melancholia, with Kirsten Dunst as a depressed woman confronting the prospect of the end of the world. Francois Guillot/Getty Images
Von Trier acknowledges that he and Kidman took long walks during the filming of Dogville so they could have good long shouting matches without interruption. Kidman played a fugitive who's ultimately exploited and raped by the good people of a small American town. Von Trier, a self-described control freak, goes on to say in that BBC interview that he and his leading ladies must share a goal — but that ultimately they must rely on him.
"Yeah they submit," he says. "I don't think I've misused anybody, but I could, of course." He giggles. "And I could be tempted to. But I don't think I have."
It's clear he just can't resist the opportunity to make a joke of what others might take seriously, which is a continuing source of amusement and trouble to him. And it's irresistible to the international press, as he knows.
The idea of abuse — of his characters and the women (and men) playing them — was again a source of controversy in von Trier's 2009 film Antichrist. Stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe had nothing but praise for their director (in fact Gainsbourg returned for a role in the latest film, Melancholia). They play a nameless modern couple who retreat to their cabin in the woods after the accidental death of their child. They end up torturing each other emotionally, sexually and physically. Literally torturing each other — with the help of prosthetics and body doubles — in scenes that usually have audiences gasping.
Antichrist bears a credit for "research on misogyny." And the couple's psychological battle eventually involves accusations and fulfillment of history's prime instance of misogyny — witchcraft — amid the explicit scenes of sex and violence. But as many writers about the film have pointed out, it seems to be about the subject of misogyny more than being an example of it.
Von Trier wrote Antichrist as therapy while hospitalized for depression in late 2006. He was back to his old self when he brought it to the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, says Bainbridge.
"When he was first publicizing Antichrist, he was talking about this being a film that blended the genres of melodrama and pornography." She says it was typical of von Trier. "A deliberately insightful and inciting provocation, I think, is very much part of his master plan. He's very adept at playing a provocative role as an auteur, quite knowingly. I think that's central to understanding Lars von Trier as a cultural construct that's very distinct from Lars Trier the man."
That's not a typo. Lars Trier ambitiously added the "von" to his name while in film school in the 1980s. It was a teasing nickname that stuck, alluding to brilliant auteurs of the past who'd also added "von" to their names: Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg. Both were also great promoters of their films and themselves.
Von Trier's personal life has had other twists. He was raised by independent thinkers, former resistance fighters in World War II, who were committed to left-wing ideas and who were practicing nudists. His mother expected her child to make up his own mind about everything — something von Trier decided later in life that he just hated.
And his mother waited until she was dying, in 1989, to tell her son that the man von Trier thought was his father was not. For his conception, she had sought out a German man from an artistic family. It seems she had her own master plan for her son. He's been paying her back ever since, he told BBC reporter Matthew Sweet.
"Every film, I try to irritate her, even though she's dead, so she's still having a lot of influence. But every film is basically to irritate her and provoke her," he said with a combination of resignation and glee.
"What in Melancholia would have got her goat?" asked Sweet.
Not very much, von Trier replied. "And that's why I'm not so crazy about the film."
Ah, well. There's always his next film. It's called The Nymphomaniac.