Friday, May 22, 2009

God and the Cinema Part XIV: Lars von Trier

With Lars von Trier’s latest film, Antichrist, causing such a stir at the Cannes Film Festival this week, I decided to go back and have a look at some of his previous films for this week’s God and the Cinema Column. According to Roger Ebert, Antichrist is an alternate version of Genesis, replacing God with Satan as the creator of the Garden of Eden, and changing original sin for eating the apple to gain knowledge, with rejecting knowledge. I am not sure if the movie is good or bad – it has drawn wildly differing reviews – but I know it’s jumped to the top of my must see list for this year’s Toronto Film Festival.

Obviously however, I cannot write about that film. Instead I plan to look at what I like to call von Trier’s female martyr movies – Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005). Personally, I love all four films, although I know that many hate them with just as much passion. The one thing you cannot deny about Von Trier however is that his films are all interesting. You made appalled or offended by them, but when you talk out of them you’ve seen something unlike what anyone else would put on the screen.

Breaking the Waves tells the story of Bess McNeal (Emily Watson), who is simple and childlike. On her wedding day to Jan (Stellan Skarsgaard), she is still a virgin, but soon she finds that she likes sex. Her Church, which is Calvinist, does not really approve of Jan for Bess, but she marries him anyway. He goes away to work on an oil rig, and Bess has trouble dealing with being by herself. She prays to God that next time Jan comes home; he will come home for good. When Jan comes home paralyzed, she is convinced that it was her selfish pray that led to Jan being that way. Jan then convinces Bess to start sleeping with other men, and coming back to tell him the details. Bess does and the sex becomes more and more deviant as the movie goes along – and Bess becomes more and more convinced that she is on a mission from God, and that by doing these things, Jan will be cured.

And so it seems, she’s right. Yet I think it’s important to note that Bess achieves her “martyrdom” outside of the church, not inside it. When she is attacked and lies dying in the hospital, she asks a friend from outside her religion to pray for Jan to walk again. When she dies, and Jan has indeed made a recovery, her church wants to bury her in the disrespectful way they bury all sinners – and it’s only Jan’s intervention that prevents this. The final shot of the movie is of ringing church bells – Bess it seems has been accepted into heaven.

Breaking the Waves is in some ways Von Trier’s most optimistic of his four female martyr movies, which may sound strange considering how grim and dour much of the film is. But Bess does accomplish what she wants, and receives God’s blessing in doing so. It’s also worth noting that after this film, which is set in Scotland, he turned his sights on America for the other three films, in which the women do not fare as well as Bess does in Breaking the Waves. God, at least according to Von Trier, seems to have abandoned America.

Dancer in The Dark shares many similarities with Breaking the Waves. Like Bess in that film, Selma (Bjork) in Dancer in the Dark is almost childishly naïve. She is a Czech immigrant working in a factory in America trying hard to save money. She has a genetic, degenerative disease that will soon cause her to go blind. She needs the money, not for herself, but for her son who has the same disease. She is going to go blind, but she wants to ensure that her son does not.

Selma’s only escape is her love of Hollywood musicals, which she and her friend (Catherine Denueve) go and watch all the time. When Selma gets bored, she daydreams that she is in the middle of these movies. These sequences are in stark contrast to the rest of the movie. The dramatic sequences are shot in a similar way to the Dogma 95 approach, of which Von Trier was a founding member, but the musical sequences have the gloss of the old Hollywood musicals that Selma loves.

Selma gets into trouble when the police officer she rents her small house from (David Morse) comes and asks her for a loan, because he wants to hold onto his materialistic wife and is broke. Selma refuses to give the loan, but to make the cop feel better about sharing his secret; she tells him that she is going blind. The cop will later sneak into her house, and hide, and watch where she keeps her money and then proceeds to steal it. When Selma finds her money gone, she goes to report the theft to the cop, and is confronted by his wife. She tells Selma about the money her husband brought home from their “safety deposit box”, and also how he confessed that he was having an affair with Selma, so she’ll have to move out immediately. Selma later goes to confront the cop, a struggle ensues, and the cop ends up shot. He is wounded, but will survive, but asks Selma to kill him, which she eventually does, and takes back her money to pay for her sons operation. She is put on trial for the cop’s murder, where she still refuses to divulge his secret, and is found guilty and sentenced to death. When her friends get her money back to hire an expensive lawyer to help get her off – she refuses again. Her son’s operation, which goes flawlessly, is more important to her then her own life. She goes singing and dancing down to the gallows.

While Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark has many similarities, they also have significant differences as well – not just because the later contains musical sequences. In Breaking the Waves, Jan’s recovery is because God cured him, because of Bess’ actions, and she is given a pass into heaven. In Dancer in the Dark, it is not God, but science, that saves Selma’s sons eyesight, and we are given no indication as to whether Selma gets to go to heaven or not. Both women sacrifice themselves for the well being of others – essentially dying for humanities sins, not their own – but one does so with a higher calling in mind, the other does not. If this represents a turn away from God in the work of Von Trier, you really haven’t seen anything yet. Wait until we get to Dogville.

Dogville is the bleakest film yet from Von Trier. In the film, Grace (Nicole Kidman) arrives in the small Colorado mountain town of Dogville during the great depression, with gangsters hot on her trail. Tom (Paul Bettany) hides her in the mine, and gets rid of the gangsters, then convinces the rest of the town to go along with protecting her. At first, things seem to be going well, but soon the townspeople think that because they are putting themselves at risk, that Grace should repay them by doing jobs for them. So they work Grace like a slave, but she never complains. One day when the gangsters return, Grace is working in the house of Chuck (Stellan Skarsgaard). Knowing that Grace cannot scream out for help, because the gangsters would hear, Chuck rapes her. Soon the rest of the men in town are visiting Grace every night so they too can have sex with her – after all, she is prettier than any other woman in town. The one man who doesn’t is Tom – he says he loves her, and wants to marry her. He pressures Grace to have sex with him to, and she offers herself to him. “Just do what the rest of the men in town do” she tells him. Tom, who acts like an idealist and looks down upon the town, is really no better than the rest of them.

Von Trier, who is always experimenting with his films, decided on a strange, bold tactic for Dogville. The movie is shot entirely on a barren soundstage, without the benefits of a set. The houses, the streets, everything is represented merely by chalk outlines on the ground. This Brecht-ian technique serves to boil the story down to its essentials, and is not nearly as distracting as you may think. You soon forget about it as you drawn into the story.

Dogville differs from both Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark in some very important ways. For one, Grace is not “martyring” herself for the well being on another person. Unlike Bess, who does it so Jan will be cured, or Selma, who does so her son can see, Grace subjects herself to the daily sexual humiliation for entirely different reasons. Tired of life in the “big city”, she has fled to a small town, where she thinks that people will be kinder and gentler, and life will be more simple and happy. When it turns out that the people in small towns are just as bad, if not exceedingly worse, Grace just sucks it up anyhow. She tries to escape at one point, but no one in town will let her go – they have too good a thing going with her. They seem to enjoy humiliating her at every turn. That is until the gangsters return again.

You see, Grace is not hiding from the gangsters because they want to kill her. The Big Man (James Caan) is Grace’s father, and he just wants her back. Eventually, when they return, Grace lets them know she is there. And this is where the movie really differs from the other two. Grace does not allow herself to be killed. She also, does not let the people who tormented her off the hook. She gets the gangsters to lay waste to the town, killing everyone in it. Grace herself puts the bullet in Tom’s head.

In three films, Von Trier has gone from allowing his central, naïve female character martyr herself to save her husband, to having a similar naïve woman play the role of Avenging Angel. Von Trier, who is openly on record as hating America (although he’s never been there), seems to be making the point that America is poisoned all the way through. Big towns, small towns, it doesn’t matter. The people there are shit, and God himself should smite them.

The final film that I’m going to look is Manderlay, Von Trier’s sequel to Dogville. Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard – depending on what story you believe Kidman was either too busy to reprise her role, or refused to work with the egomaniacal Von Trier again) and her father have fled Dogville, and travelled through the rural South. They stop at a plantation named Manderlay, where Grace is horrified to discover that slavery is still in effect – 70 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Grace, with the aid of her father’s lawyer and a couple of gunmen, stay on at the plantation to see that the slaves are not only set free, but take the plantation over themselves. If they work the farm, they should get the profits. At first, Grace makes the white family who owned the plantation work as slaves themselves, but they soon take off. The matriarch, Mam (Lauren Bacall), is dying, but before she goes she gives Grace a book called Mam’s Law, which details all the rules for running the plantation, and tells her to burn it. In the book, Mam identifies seven different kinds of “niggers” and how to deal with each kind. Grace is horrified by everything she sees. She takes it upon herself to fix things in Manderlay, lecturing everyone on equality and democracy. She eventually implements a kind of communism on the plantation itself.

It appears that Grace hasn’t really learned much from her experience in Dogville. Again, Grace is almost hopelessly naïve and idealistic, allowing herself to believe in the inherent goodness of people. She allows herself to fall in love with Timothy (Issach de Bankole) and taken in by seemingly proud nature. One of the most striking images of the film is the two of them – Bankole quite dark, and Howard exceedingly pale – having sex.

Grace is not the martyr this time around though. If she did learn anything in Dogville, it’s that you need to control the situation, and she does. But she gets just as frustrated this time around. Timothy is not the man she thought he was. And Mam’s Law, which she thinks is abhorrent, was really written by Wilhelm (Danny Glover), the only “slave” who knew that slavery was over. He conspired with Mam to keep the others there to protect them from the outside world. “This country is not ready for the black man to be free. They were not ready 70 years ago, they aren’t ready now and they won’t be ready 70 years from now” Wilhelm says (the 70 years in the future he talks about is not coincidently the early 2000s).

Manderlay is the most troublesome film of those discussed here, for several reasons. One is that in changing the nature of the central female character, away for martyr and into more of a benevolent occupier (the parallels to the invasion of Iraq in this movie are undeniable) I think Von Trier made Grace into even less of a character than she was before. The film is not as interesting dramatically, because now everyone stands for something else. The film is all metaphor. The casting of Bryce Dallas Howard in the role of Grace is a double edged sword. It makes more sense that the woman be younger than Kidman was in Dogville, and Howard, although still beautiful, does fit in better with the cast of character actors around her than Kidman did, but perhaps that is a bad thing. The point is that Grace is different from those around her, so having a glamorous movie star in the role, I think, makes a little more sense. Howard is still terrific in the film, but as I mentioned before, playing a more of a metaphor and less of a character hurts a little. True, both movies have heavy on metaphors and allegory and with the distancing style of the chalk outlines, we know from the start we are not meant to take the movie as “realism”, but rather as parable. But Von Trier did a better job in Dogville in marrying the parable to characters and story that make more dramatic sense.

Yet, Manderlay is still a fascinating movie, and one that is likely to inspire lively debates among people – that is if you can find anyone else to watch it with you (I did not). In fact, all of Von Trier’s films suffer at least a little bit because they are much more interesting to discuss than they are to watch. Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville were all alive and engrossing movies, and to a certain extent so in Manderlay, but no matter how good they are, they are more interesting for the ideas they raise then how they raise them. This, of course, will lead to some charging Von Trier with pretentiousness and self involvement, and while those charges are no doubt true (how could they not be? At the press conference for Anti Christ at Cannes, he called himself the best director in the world), I for one am glad that Von Trier keeps making movies his way. Even if you hate them, you have to admit, they give you something to talk about.

I think Von Trier’s films, for a religious point of view, have grown increasingly cynical and less redemptive. In Breaking the Waves, we have a woman who sacrifices herself to God for the man she loves, and gets accepted into heaven for it. In Dancer in the Dark, again, she sacrifices herself for love, but it is less clear if she gains eternal life because of it. In Dogville, the woman subjects herself to repeated sexual humiliation, but instead of dying for their sins, like in the previous two movies, she strikes back laying waste to the town like a modern day Sodom and Gomorra. In Manderlay, she doesn’t even bother to do that – she simply leaves them to their own devices, to wallow in their own shit. If it’s true that Anti Christ is about a world created by Satan, and not God, then it would be in keeping with Von Trier’s approach. We start out in a world with a benevolent God, and end up in a world created by Satan. It’s been a fascinating progression to watch.

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