6. He depicts male nature as evil
One theme that runs throughout Von Trier’s films is that humans are, by nature, evil. Not all male characters in Von Trier films are the source of this evil, and sometimes the female characters are pretty terrible as well, but male nature, more so than female nature, is represented as sinful, self-serving, driven by greed and desire, and morally weak, and typically the most despicable act is committed by a male character. If “Antichrist”’s message really is simply that women are the origin of evil (previously, I explained why it’s not), then every other film he’s made is the counterargument to that.
Bess from “Breaking the Waves” and Grace from “Dogville” are both brutally raped and physically abused by multiple men. Male society in both Bess’ misogynist church and the citizenry of Dogville is depicted as evil. Although in all cases they are in denial about their guilt, Bill from “Dancer in the Dark”, Tom from “Dogville”, and Seligman from “Nymphomaniac” all garner and exploit the trust of the female protagonist in order to eventually commit a deplorable act against her.
If the female protagonist commits a sin, as when Joe from “Nymphomaniac” exploits the vulnerability of P, it is typically proposed or forced by a male character. As in “Dancer in the Dark”, “Dogville”, and “Nymphomaniac”, balance is restored when the female protagonist kills the male character who has committed the travesty against her.
7. Other characters treat his female characters like they’re irrational or psychotic
As mentioned earlier, all of his female protagonists’ feelings are constantly being invalidated and dismissed by other characters, but oftentimes they’re taken to the next level and called pathological. As mentioned earlier, this doesn’t say that women are crazy, but rather exhibits the destructive effect of treating sane human beings as if they are crazy.
The mother, sister-in-law, and doctor from “Breaking the Waves” are all continuously on the verge of committing Bess to a mental institution every time she displays emotion. Her love for her husband is extremely intense, but to be fair, her society gives her no other role in which to feel purposeful or validated, and it ironically alludes to her sister-in-law having had a similar intense love for her husband before he died.
After her death, the doctor finally admits that all they were committing Bess for was, not for being crazy, but for being too good. “Instead of writing ‘neurotic’ or, um, ‘psychotic’ uh, I might… just, um… use a word like… ‘good’” he says when pressed about the cause of death.
All of the embarrassment and self-hate that Joe from “Nymphomaniac” experiences relating to her sex addiction isn’t because she thinks she has something wrong with her, but because other people tell her she does. She goes to a therapy group not because she’s seeking help, but because others think that she should be.
8. His male characters arrogantly try to “save” the female characters
Arrogance is a huge theme in Von Trier films, and in many cases, it comes in the form of an attempt to save someone who doesn’t want to be saved, thereby making matters worse.
Typically, in Von Trier films, this characteristic is exhibited by a man towards a woman, but in “Manderley”, we see an alternative: the female character arrogantly attempts to liberate the black characters from slavery, projecting upon them her own desires, and inflating her own ego, rather than asking them what they want. This departure shows how Von Trier’s main interest is in examining oppression, and typically chooses sexism as a framework, but could just as well use classism or racism.
Bess’ husband from “Breaking the Waves”, the brother-in-law from “Melancholia”, Tom from “Dogville”, Jerome from “Nymphomaniac”, and “he” from “Antichrist” all claim to care about the female protagonist, and therefore, know what’s best for them, rather than asking them what they want and letting them decide. It turns the “damsel in distress” narrative on it’s head by suggesting that the princess have agency, and be given a voice to say whether she even wants to be saved.
Bess’ husband’s attempt to give Bess sexual freedom, Tom’s attempt to physically save Grace and morally save the citizenry of Dogville, and in Antichrist, “his” attempt to psychologically save his wife all lead to the central conflict of the plot, clearly pointing the blame at male arrogance.
9. He shows the double standard placed upon women in society
If Bess from “Breaking the Waves” doesn’t sleep with other men, she’s not honouring her husband, as was her vow to her church. If she does sleep with other men, she’s excommunicated and condemned to hell. If Grace stays in “Dogville” suspicion will be raised on her by the female citizens because the men of the town are attracted to her, if she leaves, suspicion will be raised by everyone in the town because they’ll think she’s guilty of crime.
If Joe freely expresses her sexuality in “Nymphomaniac”, she gets blamed for the sins of the men that are sleeping with her, or later, blamed by her husband for his own unhappiness in the choice he made to marry her. If she suppresses her sexuality, she is numb and miserable. For women in Lars Von Trier films, they just can’t do anything right, and there is no position in which they can be both free and happy.
This societal double standard forces the characters to make choices they may not have otherwise made to attempt to preserve the sanctity of their positive relationships. For examples, Grace from “Dogville” doesn’t sleep with Tom, in part, because she trusts him and doesn’t want the corruption visited upon her by the other members of the town to taint their relationship.
Joe, also, resists sleeping with Seligman, because he is one of the only characters that shows her compassion and sympathy, and she knows too well how sex has destroyed her positive relationships. This is one of many reasons for the choice she makes in the film’s dramatic final moment.
10. He shows the damaging psychological effect of shame on women
Grace in “Dogville”, “she” in Antichrist, Justine in “Melancholia”, and Joe in “Nymphomaniac” all exhibit a quality of being numb, paralyzed, detached, unapproachable, or emotionally inaccessible throughout the films as a result of having internalized the guilt or shame that is being projected upon them.
This is one of many ways that Von Trier shows the detrimental impact shame can have on the human psyche, and presents it as a prevalent issue that women face in society, and one that should be taken seriously.
Bess from “Breaking the Waves”, when she prays, speaks aloud what she imagines to be God’s voice, which gives us a window into her psyche and how she views herself. It is a voice that is harsh, judgemental, merciless, and critical, and eerily similar to the voice of her mother, and everyone else in her life.
“She” from “Antichrist” internalizes the misogynist readings of her thesis, her guilt about the death of her child, and her husband’s beratement until she becomes convinced that she, and all women, are truly evil and at fault for all of the sins of mankind. Joe from “Nymphomaniac”, upon meeting Seligman, is full of self-hate and self-loathing from having internalized all of the guilt and shame projected upon her by society.
Author Bio: Tori Galatro is a freelance writer and film junkie living in Austin, Texas who wants to write about film, art, and culture for you. You can find her work and contact info at torigalatro.com.