Can Lars von Trier be trusted to explore female sexuality on film?

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In the age of slut-shaming, can ‘misogynist’ Lars von Trier be trusted to explore the issue of female sexuality in the modern age with Nymphomaniac?

With the recent trailer for Lars von Trier’s new film Nymphomaniac being taken off YouTube for what was perceived as indecent sexual imagery, it seems the debate about sexually explicit content in film has been sparked off once again. Shia LaBeouf, criticising those who cry indecency, has stated that the film is exploring the way that “Sex is different than love, and there is a separation, and that middle gap is what the movie’s about.”

There’s something about Lars von Trier that suggests that his career has been a mean-spirited joke

Well yes, Nymphomaniac will definitely be about sex as a concept, but it’s Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe who is the ‘Nymphomaniac’ of the title. What this means is that, while Nymphomaniac is a film about sex, it’s a film that will exclusively follow the sexual development, and eventual downfall, of a woman whose existence seems to be defined by the act. It’s a film about female sexuality, basically, and it’s being directed by Lars von Trier, and we should be really afraid because Lars von Trier is an arsehole.

There’s no doubt in my mind that, if I met Lars von Trier, I’d find him spectacularly unpleasant. Everything he’s said or done seems to corroborate this; whether he’s referring to himself as a misogynist or a Nazi in interviews, or directing films that willfully fly in the face of sanity and taste, Lars von Trier seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself. It would be churlish not to admit von Trier is a supremely talented filmmaker. It would be even more churlish not to admit that I’m a huge fan of the vast majority of his work, but there’s just something about the man that suggests that his career has been a mean-spirited joke he’s been playing on us since The Idiots.

the idiots lars von trier

Lars von Trier’s schtick seems to be to talk a big game in terms of his themes and then utterly fail to deliver on them in an intelligent manner. Antichrist saw him cast Charlotte Gainsbourg as a demonic manifestation of all his menstruation anxieties, while his Dogme 95 classic The Idiots provided us with a nightmare hipster counterculture movement in which privileged white urbanites pretend to be mentally disabled in order to get away with publicly indecent acts.

Von Trier’s work is largely satire, of course, but it’s too clumsy and opaque to really be effective

Many would argue that these films are actually tremendously satirical, with von Trier positing these crass positions and depictions as his own viewpoints in order to challenge his audiences into a more active reading of his work. To some extent, I agree with this, but it’s the unrelenting unpleasantness and vitriol with which he posits his theory that just ends up ratifying the institutionally sanctioned conservative viewpoint he may (or may not) be criticising.

For instance, did we REALLY need another film in which women are depicted as shrill and murderous? We have plenty of them already, and using their filmic vocabulary verbatim isn’t the most effective way to make a point. Similarly, too many films play mental and physical disability for laughs while at the same time utterly divesting any of their mentally or physically disabled characters of a voice within the narrative. It’s satire, of course, but it’s clumsily handled and far too opaque to really be effective.

antichrist sex

Female sexuality is an issue constantly let down by its cinematic depictions. Room in Rome was touted as a treatise on sexual cultures exclusive to women, yet the film itself was just more porny, titillating male gaze. Michael Winterbottom’s groundbreakingly explicit 9 Songs was still told almost exclusively from the point of view of the male protagonist, with the female protagonist objectified by his viewpoint. And now, with slut-shaming becoming increasingly visible both online and in the news, more than ever we need some artistic explorations of female sexuality to help combat this institutionalised call-to-chastity being imposed globally upon women. We need to show that art accepts that women have sexual existences, that it’s abominable to try to deny half the population that right.

We need artistic explorations of female sexuality to show that it’s abominable to try to deny half the population that right

So, with this in mind and with all that’s stake, is Lars von Trier the best man for the job? No doubt he’s a master, and no doubt Nymphomaniac will garner a huge amount of press, plaudits and controversy, but what’s von Trier’s take on the subject matter going to be? Like it or not, this man has a platform and power and talent enforcing whatever artistic decisions he’ll decide to make with this tremendously sensitive issue. And without wanting to seem like a censor, or a prude, I really hope he makes the right decision. I really hope, however he decides to approach the issue, that it won’t be filled with the same gleeful contrariness that has defined his career up to this point.


All images: Zentropa

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