My summer with Lars: Some thoughts on von Trier and resistance

I’ll be posting next week about von Trier’s The Kingdom (1994), which I and my intrepid viewing companions are currently in the middle of watching, so I thought I would float out some ideas this week about the near-vitriolic resistance to von Trier’s work that I’ve repeatedly encountered in the month or so since I began this project.  In chatting with various friends and acquaintances (some of whom are more cinephilic than others, all of whom are smart, artistically inclined people), I’ve found that von Trier’s name generally prompts some form of teeth-gritting, if not outright consternation.  When pressed, these folks have raised objections to von Trier’s work ranging from “his presence as a filmmaker is too imposing” to “it’s always about a suffering woman”; one person even told me that she turned off one of his films in the middle and vowed never to watch another one. 

All of these people, incidentally, have also been women.  Without resorting to too many generalizations about the effect of von Trier’s films on “the female spectator” (two of my most dedicated viewing companions for this project are also women, so there’s that), it seems safe to say that women often don’t take kindly to von Trier for any number of justifiable reasons: that he returns almost obsessively to narratives of female suffering is undeniable, and that these films are often difficult to watch, even traumatic at times, almost goes without saying.  And yet the subject of women in von Trier is an extraordinarily complex and at times paradoxical one, as Linda Badley acknowledges: “after having written some of the most compelling heroines in recent cinema and elicited stunning, career-topping performances from Emily Watson, Bjork, Nicole Kidman, and Charlotte Gainsbourg, he is reputed to be a misogynist who bullies actresses and abuses his female characters in cinematic reinstatements of depleted sexist clichés.”  The same argument continues to structure discussions of women in Hitchcock’s films: are they strong or weak?  Are they powerful or oppressed?  Do they hold sexual power, or are they reduced to sexual objects?

While these questions may be useful entry points into von Trier’s work, I can’t help but feel that they need to open onto larger, more complex questions about the relationships between gender, sexuality, narrative, and cinema if we wish to arrive at any conclusions beyond “he’s bad for women” or “he’s good for women.”  Which is to say that the good/bad binarism doesn’t get us very far, and—to be more blunt—doesn’t make for very canny or thoughtful criticism.  While I certainly don’t wish to tell people how they should feel about von Trier (or any other filmmaker), nor to discount one’s deeply personal affective responses to his work, I would encourage us to sit down with and stew over those responses in order to arrive at even deeper insights about them.  Whatever else they may be, von Trier’s films are never simple.  Being good critics of von Trier, then, means attending to their complexities and their contradictions as thoroughly as we can.       

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