The Romantic Cynicism of Lars Von Trier

Melancholia

By Kyle Turner

If you try to elevator pitch any of Lars von Trier’s films, they sound like they come from the mind of an idiotic, perverse, trolling provocateur. “A simple woman has sex with other men at the wishes of God and her sick husband.” “An immigrant woman going blind starts imagining herself in a musical.” “A couple retreat to a cabin in the woods after the death of their child and there’s genital mutilation.” “As the world is about to end, one woman’s depression ignites a crashing finale to her wedding.”

These incredibly simplistic and reductive descriptions of plot do offer interest, but what they do not reveal is the nuance and complexity of Lars von Trier’s filmography. It would not be totally unreasonable to assume that, based on how sadistic and provocative von trier can be, that the Danish auteur is a nihilist, but a closer examination of some of his work would reveal that Lars von Trier is very nearly a paradox: a romantic cynic. In Dogville, Antichrist, and Melancholia, each film bursts with emotion and contempt, two concepts that would initially seem at odds with one another. But these films seem to be Lars von Trier’s cognitive dissonance articulated in film form. A desire and an acknowledgement for what reigns rampant in life.

In all of Trier’s films, emotion, subjectivity, and intuition are in their fullest forms by female characters: from Grace (Nicole Kidman) in Dogville, She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in Antichrist, and Justine (Kirsten Dunst) in Melancholia. Logic and rational thinking are represented by male characters: Tom (Paul Bettany) in Dogville, He (Willem Dafoe) in Antichrist, and John (Kiefer Sutherland) in Melancholia. In these pairings, the concepts or ideologies often face off against one another, a brutal and exhausting battle.

Nicole Kidman in DOGVILLE

Dogville

Grace Mulligan’s self-described greatest strength is her ability to forgive. Throughout the film, she is subjected to terrible treatment, but she tolerates it. She epitomizes her name in more than just her elegant form and gait. The key word here is “tolerates”, for, as her father points out, she is arrogant. She dares to forgive people who should be held accountable for their actions and for whom morality is a grey area that can be talked around, especially by the town philosopher Tom Edison Jr. It is as much of a disservice to suggest that this supposed arrogance does not have its advantages.

In a way, one could argue that for a majority of the film, besides the ebullient thankfulness that Grace feels when Dogville initially is hospitable towards her, she actually needs to distance herself from emotion in order to survive. The moments she is allowed to indulge in desire, despair, or anger, the town lashes against her in some way, undermining her very existence. After the prim Vera (Patricia Clarkson) discovers that Grace “made advances on her husband (Stellan Skarsgaard)”, when in actuality he raped her, Vera dares Grace to exemplify the Doctrine of Stoicism. She says that if she can break two of Grace’s little figurines, representations of the hard work Grace had thus far accomplished, and hold back tears, then she would stop. But Grace sheds tears, and the audience weeps for her. It is impossible, Lars von Trier seems to say, to divorce oneself completely from emotion, and it can, in fact, be detrimental.

Tom, however, is the town pseudo-philosopher, obsessed with the idea of big ideas. It’s an interesting and cutting distinction to make: Tom talks in circles like someone who is truly pretentious. He is less interested in the actual ideas themselves and more with the idea of ideas. He enjoys thinking about the idea of big ideas. During his lectures, he never really says anything of significance. Grace, though she does not get to speak often in front of the Dogville congregation, is the only one whose ideas are concrete.

Tom’s supposedly rational thinking is also merely a form of loving the sound of his own voice. For he is not truly rational, as he at one point throws Grace under the bus defending himself. He is just as arrogant, if not more so, than Grace. Late one night, he pleads for Grace to sleep with him and to consummate their relationship. She declines, saying that it would not be right. He immediately sits up, like an entitled and wounded dog. He begins speaking in a “give me a cookie” tone, justifying his desires “after all he’s done for her”. She looks at him coldly, saying that if he wants to, he can have her like an object, like the rest of the town has.

In the town of Dogville, stripped down like the Hellish nightmare of Thornton Wilder, romantic cynicism will reign. Grace’s father returns, after a call from the no longer loyal Tom. After a long conversation with her father in the car, she walks around the town to look once more at the people who helped her and then abused her for their own good. What follows is one of the most emotionally cathartic scenes in von Trier’s filmography: she realizes that she can no longer disassociate herself from the abuse that has occurred and the terrible impact it has had on her. So she destroys the town, as the world would be a better place without Dogville. She reserves a special bullet for Tom, someone she allowed herself to be vulnerable with and who betrayed her.

So blatantly a parable, stripped down to its rotten soul, Lars von Trier examines the most painful of situations one after the other, subjecting his protagonist to each one of them. The de-eroticization and the unfeeling quality of those scenes might suggest that von Trier is a childish sadist, but, again, though he may want to unsettle his audience, his intentions are far greater. The burning of Dogville is an acknowledgment from Lars von Trier that the world is a cruel place, a dog eat dog world, but we still must feel and react to it in order to live.

shower

Antichrist

After Lars von Trier’s mother passed away, he received some therapeutic treatment. Antichrist was his “sarcastic response” to that treatment, as he says. Given the biting portrayal of psychotherapy in the film, it is very apparent how “sarcastic” the film is. He is a therapist and He is treating his wife, She. The problem here is that much of the treatment is not the purging of emotion or even the organic manifestation of such. The approach He takes is clinical, like the rest of the male characters in von Trier’s films, almost trying to suppress emotion. We do see Him briefly expressing emotion while walking behind the hearse carrying his dead son (he is openly weeping), but He seems to push that way for the rest of the film.

It is clear that whatever weird approach this film has to emotion, it will become the most important thing in determining the story. Lars von Trier indulges in a perversely romantic sex scene in the prologue, shot in stark black and white and in slow motion. Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Rinaldo plays. The first verse of the aria translates as such:

Let me weep

My cruel fate,

And that I

Should have freedom.

The aria’s very stance is that the purging of emotion and catharsis allows freedom. It is interesting that this, from the Romantic Period, should work as a prelude to a film that can be read as the battle of Emotion and Logic.

The battle lies in His approach to therapy: although He continually tries to reassure Her, his attempts at alleviating anxiety seem almost counterintuitive. He does not explicitly say that the expression of strong feelings is bad, but the overly rationalization of the situation and of her feelings ends up coming off as demeaning and condescending.

However, She manifests her emotions in severe manners, from banging her head on the toilet to some of the abuse she causes to Him and Herself later in the film. She allows herself, though, to openly express how she feels. If emotion is an animal, she wants to let them reign, without the bondage of the cage that He is trying to box them in. She does not merely cry, she weeps. She, like the singer of “Lascia ch’io pianga”, is able to find freedom in the expression of her emotion. She, however, is plagued with debilitating anxiety, something that is articulated in an intriguing visual: extreme close ups and extremely shallow depth of field.

The film sets itself up as intentionally sadistic, with the chapters of the film carrying the names of the Three Beggars: Grief, Pain, and Despair. Nonetheless, these are powerful expressions of emotion, regardless of how morbid they are. They manifest themselves as animals: deer, fox, and crow. It does not seem to be He who is subjected to these emotions but She. It seems to be Her story. She is the one who feels everything, while He is closing himself off to these feelings for a majority of the film.

However, She manifests her emotions in severe manners, from banging her head on the toilet to some of the abuse she causes to Him and Herself later in the film. She allows herself, though, to openly express how she feels. If emotion is an animal, she wants to let them reign, without the bondage of the cage that He is trying to box them in. She does not merely cry, she weeps. She, like the singer of “Lascia ch’io pianga”, is able to find freedom in the expression of her emotion. She, however, is plagued with debilitating anxiety, something that is articulated in an intriguing visual: extreme close ups and extremely shallow depth of field.

However, She and He are extreme opposites on a spectrum.

She and He are extreme opposites on a spectrum. The continuing theme for von Trier is for him to ask his audience to balance these conflicting ideas and that, yes, one can embrace emotion and yet understand the reality of the situation. If Lars von Trier’s films weren’t so intentionally weighed down by morbidity, you might argue that von Trier is a realist. But, like He and She, von Trier’s own romanticism and cynicism are two extremes on a spectrum. While his other films suggest that the ability to compromise between these two ideologies is possible, Antichrist (and Manderlay, in some ways) illustrates when one is not able to do that.

What occurs is a violent chain reaction. As the couple continues to descend into madness, both seem to go off the deep end in their respective ideologies: She lets her emotions control every action, forcing her to commit violence, while His over rationalization puts him in danger and makes him even more prone to using his frigid methodology of treatment.

The battle rages. But no one wins. Despite Him killing Her, He seems to have ended up in Purgatory. (The Biblical comparisons are obvious, given the connections to historical Gynocide, the Three Beggars, and woods being known as Eden.) He wanders out of the cabin, and seemingly hundreds or thousands of faceless people fill the woods. Paradise has been lost.

Melancholia - 3

Melancholia

With regard to the idea of romanticism, the easiest film to conjure such concepts is Melancholia, a film so inherently connected to German Romanticism that it seems to flaunt those very ideas. IN one scene, Justine takes all the art books displaying modern art and switches to paintings from the Romantic Period, including Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow, which is shown burning in the prologue. (If this is an attempt to show the Death of Romanticism, it doesn’t work, Lars.) Using Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde Prelude” to imbue the film with lush feeling, Melancholia is not merely doused in its eponymous emotion but with awe and wonder. It makes sense that such a film is so filled with fervor: it is, along with Antichrist, a film about depression. But as opposed to portraying depression in a de factor negative light or to make it a token quirk like many films do, von Trier pushes ideologies against one another, attempting a sense of realism. Its painterly prologue, featuring Dunst recreating Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais, contrasts against the rest of the film’s use of handheld camera work, a remnant of the avant-garde Dogme 95 movement of which von Trier helped create and which sought for realism. Kirsten Dunst’s naturalistic performance exudes despair rarely seen on the screen. But, as Trevor Link points out in his impressive and deeply personal essay on the film, despite the film “end[ing] with the annihilation of life on Earth”, Melancholia is “beyond beautiful”.

Justine suffers from clinical depression. Though she does her best stave off the outward symptoms of her illness, from nearly every direction she receives very little patience and sometimes even contempt. She tries to speak to the people she cares about, but she is either unable to articulate her complex feelings or when she is able to, she is ignored. She describes the indescribable as “gray wool, clinging to my legs… it’s heavy to carry along.” Such powerful emotion is a weight on Justine, as she struggles to survive what people, including her sister, keep telling her should be the happiest day of her life. She is berated with the question, “Isn’t this what you wanted?” But she tries and, at the time of the wedding, no one notices. “I smile, and I smile, and I smile.”

Justine’s overwhelming depression (as in, it literally overwhelms her ability to function) is contrasted against the cold and logical John, the husband of Claire. Ostensibly a scientist, throughout the film he is shown having no patience and a great deal of contempt for Justine. He is the epitome of those skeptical of others with depression. He is so deeply rooted in what he considers rational thinking that he seems cruel. This calculated way of living does not serve him in his ability to comfort his wife as the planet Melancholia drifts closer and closer to earth. John is demeaning towards Justine for her illness, making snarky remarks like, “You better be goddamn happy” and snorting when Claire is being sympathetic towards her sister. He thinks Justine is ridiculous, maybe even faking it.

It’s the end of the world, though, and Justine knows it. It is unfair to assume that her depressive state and subsequent calmness as the planet is ready to collide with earth as cynicism. “The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it.” That sounds cynical. But it is more complex than that. The deep despair that Justine harbors may sound cynical, but it has given her an advantage. Justine is, like the other female characters, an impressive stand in for Lars himself. Justine is fraught with the emotion she feels, but recognizes the reality of the situation. Not exactly cognitive dissonance, though it feels close. She is, for all of her flaws (which make her all the more textured a person), the ideal person. She may not recognize it and it may not always be perfect, but there is constant shift and occasional balance between the two ideologies that inform her being, for lack of a better word: romanticism and cynicism. Von Trier, in his statement, said that “the film is not so much about the end of the world as about a state of mind.” While John’s logical thinking is, contrary to his desires, unable to get him through the end of the world as he thought, it is Justine who triumphs.

It is the death of logic and the birth of emotion.

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Conclusion: Battle Royale

The best cinema is able to illustrate the invisible in a medium primarily rooted in visuality. Film is the marriage of image, words, sounds, music. Lars von Trier uses these to make these intangible ideas of romanticism and cynicism converge or battle against one another, and his brutality is not merely childish sadism but the desire to make his audience feel as he feels and to make these abstract ideas palpable in a way that they are normally not.

Throughout his filmography, Lars von Trier subverts how we define femininity and masculinity. For ages, people have been conditioned to understand that “women are emotional and men are rational”, the emotionality often considered a disadvantage. Instead, von Trier gives the characters that experience the most emotion the most power, in an abstract way. Yes, they are subjected to terrible things, but the power is not necessarily in controlling the situation, but in recognizing and handling that situation. Often, this results in a cathartic end, such as in aforementioned films.

About Kyle Turner 46 Articles
Kyle Turner has had a love for the magic of film in his blood since he was five. Since then, he has created his own film blog, moviescene.wordpress.com, become a short filmmaker, composed a research essay for his high school on film noir, and written for VeryAware.com as news contributor and think piece enthusiast. He'll be covering various aspects of cinema in essays, probably from the perspective of a pretentious teenager. You can follow Kyle on Twitter at @tylekurner.

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