Any other bride would panic if the stretch limo carrying her to her wedding got stuck en route, too long to make a tight turn on a narrow country road. Not Justine, though. Her face lights up with perverse glee. She laughs. And we have our first sign that the heroine of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia does not respond to the world around her in precisely the way she’s supposed to.
Kirsten Dunst’s Justine, who suffers from depression (or, in the film’s less clinical, more romantic parlance, “melancholia”), is a character as nuanced as her illness is, at times, debilitating. Von Trier’s camera hones in on her face as she drags herself through what is supposed to be the happiest day of her life. We see the muscles in her mouth strain as she forces grimaces into smiles. Both the celebration itself and the idea that she is about to live blissfully ever after are slowly suffocating her. On the brink of ruining her own wedding – which she eventually does, sleeping with a stranger and sending her sweet, simple husband packing – she describes to her sister, Claire, the sensation that has overtaken her: “I’m trudging through this gray, woolly yarn.” In the second of the film’s two parts, Justine becomes all but immobilized by her affliction, mumbling that her favorite food “tastes like ashes” and incapable of lifting her own foot into the bathtub. When the story takes its surreal, apocalyptic turn, Justine is revealed to be the only member of her family well adjusted enough to the futility of human existence to guide them through their sudden annihilation.
In Justine, von Trier – aided in no small part by the strongest performance of Dunst’s career –paints the best portrait of depression I’ve seen in any medium. At the same time, he gives us one of cinema’s most empathetic, multifaceted portrayals of a female character by a male filmmaker. This isn’t to say that Melancholia gets at anything particular about the female experience (although von Trier has done that, too, in other movies). It simply presents a woman as a distinct, fully realized human being, defined not by her gender but by her intelligence and suffering and – most importantly, for von Trier – struggle to fall in line with a sick, doomed society.
And yet, Lars von Trier has a reputation for misogyny. Although there have been some impassioned defenses of his gender politics over the years, this myth persists. Critics and feminists and right-wing reactionaries posing as either of the above who failed to sniff out any woman-hating overtones in Melancholia have returned to protest the very existence of its follow-up, Nymphomaniac, a film most of them probably made up their minds about the moment they heard the title. If the current round of woman-hater name-calling hasn’t achieved the same momentum as the outrage around 2009’s Antichrist – the first installment in von Trier’s Depression trilogy, preceding Melancholia and Nymphomaniac and containing an infamous scene in which Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character snips off her own clitoris – that likely has more to do with the staggered coverage of Nymphomaniac’s two-part, month-long rollout than any cooling of the widespread anger at von Trier’s depictions of women.
[Spoiler alert: this piece discusses major plot points — including the ending — of Nymphomaniac, as well as many of Lars von Trier’s other films.]
While the charge of misogyny has remained the same over the years, as von Trier has continued to write female protagonists, the specific accusations have changed along with the films’ storylines and themes. Beginning with his 1996 film, Breaking the Waves — which won Cannes’ Grand Prix and brought the Danish director’s work to a global audience – he was tarred for martyring his women, for appearing to revel in the pain of these saintly creatures.
Breaking the Waves is the story of an odd, childlike young woman named Bess (Emily Watson) who has spent her life in tiny, austerely religious Scottish community and believes that she can talk directly to God, conducting conversations in which she speaks in his deep voice as well as her own. After Bess marries an “outsider,” Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), a Norwegian man who works on an oil rig, she throws herself wholeheartedly into their romance, becoming entirely dependent on him as their relationship grows more and more physical. Soon after she begs God to bring him home, Jan is critically injured in an accident on the rig. When Bess visits him in the hospital, he tells her how she can help him: by having sex with other men and recounting her exploits to him. Out of unquestioning faith in her husband, she obeys – against the urging of her family, despite being cast out of the community – sacrificing herself so that Jan can be healed. And finally he is, although Bess doesn’t live to see it.
Despite their very different premises and scopes, the two subsequent films in von Trier’s Golden Heart trilogy, The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dark (2000), have similar heroines: innocent women who offer themselves up to save the people they love. Like Bess, Dancer in the Dark’s Selma (Bjork, whose relationship with von Trier was so strained on set that she vowed never to act again) meets with a tragic fate; in The Idiots, Karen’s (Bodil Jørgensen) suffering precedes her sacrifice.
The shift in von Trier’s protagonists came with 2003’s Dogville, an Our Town-style allegory in which the titular tiny Colorado town agrees to hide a woman on the run from the mafia, Nicole Kidman’s Grace. At first the townspeople welcome Grace – but as they realize how dependent she is on their protection, they begin to exploit her. Little by little, she becomes their scapegoat and slave, routinely raped and, after an escape attempt, chained by the neck to a large iron wheel. What makes her different from Bess and Selma is that, in a final twist, Grace comprehends the futility of her martyrdom. Rather than continuing to labor under the increasingly foolhardy notion that the people of Dogville are goodhearted despite the way they persecute her, she seizes the opportunity to visit Old Testament-style retribution on them. It’s a Pyrrhic victory, one that brings with it disturbing implications about group psychology and American culture, but it also marks the moment when von Trier’s heroines stopped being sacrificial lambs and started fighting their oppressors.
These are the women of the Depression trilogy: Antichrist’s purposefully named She, who reacts to her young son’s accidental death by lashing out at both herself and her husband in the goriest possible way; Melancholia’s Justine, who tells her boss and (in subtler ways) new husband and family to go fuck themselves because she can’t keep swimming against the current of her brain chemistry – and of what she realizes about life on Earth – for their benefit; and finally, Joe in Nymphomaniac (also played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who appears in all three Depression films), who remains stubbornly driven by her appetite for sex – which is really an appetite for transcendence, an uncompromising, essentially creative impulse that can be fed but never fully satisfied – despite its chaotic, destructive effects on her life and others’. Nymphomaniac begins with a seemingly kind, avuncular man bringing home filthy, beat-up Joe for some tea, but, full of allusions to von Trier’s earlier films, it ends in much the same way as Dogville: with the snuffing out of any hope for human kindness or generosity, followed by a gunshot and an escape into uncertainty.