Reviewed by William J. Simmons, CUNY
The relationship between Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier’s filmography and women—but never feminism—has been the subject of intense debate, with a clear line being drawn between academics and laypeople. Lars von Trier’s Women, edited by Rex Butler and David Denny, contains 14 essays that span all of von Trier’s early and recent work, which is perhaps an admirable feat. It is the goal of these essays, at least according to the publisher’s summary, to “[reveal] hidden resources for a renewed ‘feminist’ politics and social practice.” The role of the scare quotes over “feminist,” I can only guess, is an allusion to a post-feminism, which is a meaningless stand-in for those who consider identity politics to be a tired methodology or activist praxis. For example, there are several instances wherein the authors in the volume explicitly dismiss feminist readings that are not in support of von Trier’s films. This is not simply an advertising technique; the editors claim that it is von Trier’s formal and thematic goal to “present something that breaks with it [the films’ formal construction], goes beyond it, can no longer be contained by it.” (12) In a tired analysis that has its roots in the sexist discourses begotten by masculinist and transphobic strands of psychoanalysis, the male auteur, simply by virtue of transgressing established boundaries, is assumed by critics to create something of progressive value that deals inherently with identity politics. This is actually sluggishness by critics to find authors or directors who can easily fit into postmodern critical strategies—of which feminism is assumed to be one.
If we continue to look only at the book’s cover, we might take initial issue with the title, as if von Trier owns these characters, or at least owns the female actors. The core issue with this volume, however, is deeper—an analytical and disciplinary reluctance to actually contend with feminist theory. This is moreover an undue adherence to the work of Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek, both of whom attain godlike status in constant, and at times nearly stream-of-consciousness, references to their writings. Lars von Trier’s Women, in its dogged adherence to outmoded and anti-feminist ideologies, fails as a work of feminist criticism, and, in this way, cannot be a truly progressive piece of contemporary film theory.
There are strangely very little references to feminist scholarship, and in their place is a highly masculinist interpretation of Lacanian analysis that would benefit from even a cursory glance at feminist or queer theory. Only the first chapter, an excerpt from Linda Badley’s Lars von Trier (2011), attempts to deal in any meaningful way with feminist politics, despite her unsubstantiated hypothesis that von Trier’s Breaking the Waves “break[s] men (in the spectatorial sense) down into transgendered beings.” (19) To say that transgender is a reduction of traditional gender categories is a misunderstanding of gender theory so egregious that it nearly negates her entire argument about von Trier’s self-identification with his female characters and the concomitant rehearsal of sexual politics in his films. However, Badley does at least consider von Trier’s own words in a useful way, as well as self-consciously masculinist Dogme 95 manifestoes.
Lars von Trier’s Women then launches immediately into the canonized essay by Žižek that has often been reprinted and cited as essential reading on von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Žižek rehearses Lacan’s long-disputed understanding of femininity as “a mysterious jouissance beyond Phallus about which nothing can be said.” (23) Žižek ambivalently attempts to complicate this narrative of Woman-as-inscrutable, but he only reinforces it. For Žižek, the central character’s beating, rape, and death at the behest of God and her husband “undermines the phallic economy and enters the realm of feminine jouissance by way of her unconditional surrender to it, by way of renouncing every element of the inaccessible ‘feminine mystique,’ of some secret Beyond which allegedly eludes the male phallic grasp.” (23) Versions of this simplistic argument, that Woman is either illegible or entirely legible, plague this book, and von Trier’s female characters are never offered an element of surety to their subjectivity that has been afforded to the male characters.
In this vein, most of these essays would benefit from Judith Butler’s recent assertion with regard to transgender activism that the romantic notion of the “inscrutable” subject is itself a retrograde methodology, that the facile argument for fluidity, or, in Butler’s own words, “existing ‘beyond all categories,’” is entirely limiting and latently transmisogynistic. (Ahmed, 2016, 490) In Chapter Four, Rex Butler falls into this trap, writing: “In each case here, these women occupy a ‘liminal’ or ‘interstitial’ space within the film….There is no place for these women, there is no exception made for them. And yet it is they who bring about and make possible this social order, or to put it otherwise it is they who are the makers of their own destiny.” (59) Are we satisfied with Woman always being in a state of becoming, always in a process of formation but never whole? Do we accept that the responsibility for criticality has always been placed on Woman in allegedly progressive scholarship, since it is She who remains perpetually in a state of incompleteness and resistance?
The chapters focused on von Trier’s more recent filmography (chapters 9 through 14) are perfect illustrations of the limits of the “Woman as beyond all categories” dogma. In his chapter on Antichrist, David Denny suggests, “Her [the main character of the film] freedom is less the recognition of guilt and more the radical gesture of assuming it.” (176) Once again, the female protagonist is somewhere outside the realm of interpretation and therefore bears the onus of interpretation. She cannot be understood in the terms we might assign to men; she must instead be somewhere between self-hatred and self-erasure. Likewise, Todd McGowan’s essay on Melancholia and fascism positions the female protagonist as being in between subjectivities, or what McGowan considers a fascist subject, “Unlike others who fear destruction, Justine embraces it. She finally discovers an authority that can save her…von Trier points toward the ultimate failure of the film to break from the paternal authority it mocks.” (197) In Melancholia, a story of crippling depression, it is apt to look at the particularity of the main character’s circumstances rather than generalize her as an incomplete stand-in for the female subject as a whole. Finally, the readings of von Trier’s latest film by Hilary Neroni and Tarja Laine, Nymphomaniac, constantly center on the excesses of female sexuality, as if that trite notion had never been challenged by Alice Jardine or Luce Irigaray.
Returning to the very real violence inflicted on women in von Trier’s films, it would seem that the authors have no interest in speaking beyond theory or considering the implications of their analyses upon lived experience, a core element of feminist/queer art histories and criticism. In his essay on Manderlay (which incidentally suffers from a lack of any awareness of anti-racist criticism), Ahmed Elbeshlawy makes a distinction between film acolytes and “the common viewer.” (134) The same is true in Magdalena Zolkos’s essay in which she calls journalist Julie Bindel’s reading of Antichrist terse, as if an activist-journalist lacks the necessary vocabulary to make an effective argument. (143) Whether or not one agrees with Bindel, her writing style should not be denigrated in favour of academic formalism. There should be no difference in how a film historian/critic and an informed moviegoer can engage in the discourse produced by scenes of intense racial and sexual violence onscreen. One may have a more advanced or historically aware vocabulary, but the sentiment should be the same—how can the discourse surrounding film be mobilized in a way that supports the accurate and complex depiction of underrepresented persons?
Lars von Trier’s Women is thus a case study in all the ways that a masculinist postmodern criticism can go wrong. The editors and authors fall woefully short of their stated goals, and the assumption of irony or illegibility becomes a stand-in for any real engagement with feminist or queer analysis. In all, one must understand this not as a mistaken lack of acknowledgment, but rather an active disavowal of feminist politics for the sake of a generalized argument that lacks any relevance for the embodied experience of the female characters and actors the volume claims to represent. What von Trier’s films require is not intellectual remove. Instead, authors must foreground their personal investments in their chosen theories, and, in so doing, perform their argument in an instructive manner. This, after all, is this crux of feminist theory—to make the structures of power inherent in theory freely available to all readers, without resorting to trite methodologies that rely on ambivalence or theoretical smokescreens.
Additional Works Cited
Ahmed, Sara. “Interview with Judith Butler.” Sexualities 19, no. 4 (June 01, 2016): 482–492.