It would be easy to impose a simplistic feminist narrative on the evolution of von Trier’s heroines: originally passive martyrs, they developed personal agency. But that just plays into the typical accusations leveled at his more recent work. Now that his female characters have come down from the pedestal to fight, critics invested in the idea that von Trier is a misogynist insist that Antichrist and Nymphomaniac paint women as intrinsically evil and carnal (respectively).
This is a misunderstanding born out of the refusal, or the inability, to see von Trier’s body of work as a whole. The similarities between the Golden Heart trilogy and the Depression trilogy turn out to be more important than the differences. Both of them, and every film of Lars von Trier’s I’ve seen (which is almost all of them), are arguments for the hopelessness of human society – the inevitability of it exploiting goodness and vulnerability, crushing difference and dissent. Just as Breaking the Waves is about a woman whose authentically divine mission requires her to behave in such a socially stigmatized way that it terrifies her supposedly religious community into exiling her, Antichrist is about a woman whose traumatic experience and paternalistic husband have left her open to internalizing thousands of years of socially sponsored propaganda about womankind’s evil nature.
(I don’t think feminism is the chief motive behind most of von Trier’s movies, but Antichrist – not accidentally his most hated film – is his most radical statement about the brutal fallout of misogyny. A few writers took up similar arguments after its release, and their analyses are well worth reading. I’ll simply add that those who remain convinced the film is making a case that women are the spawn of Satan should keep in mind that even the concept of the Antichrist is, itself, socially constructed.)
Much – but thankfully not all – feminist criticism of Nymphomaniac has been myopic in its disregard for von Trier’s career-long obsessions, and fueled by the acceptance of his alleged misogyny as an article of faith. One critic has clearly heard so much – and understood so little – about his films that she mostly comes off as indignant that he’s still allowed to make them. “How is a film that uses porn stars’ genitalia and movie stars’ heads in any way avant garde?” asks Batya Ungar-Sargon, as though that is a choice with only one possible meaning or explanation. She cites a single scene in which Joe suggests that eating rugelach with a fork makes a man effeminate as proof that “the film and everyone in it hates anything feminine.” Ultimately, she pronounces: “[T]o cast Joe’s appetite for sex, which is clearly explained by the film as an attempt to dull pain and recover self-esteem (revolutionary, I know!) as a search for transcendence… is to accept the film’s terms that a woman trying to please men sexually is the only form of transcendence open to women.”
Ungar-Sargon’s reliance on isolated examples and willful misreading to reach general conclusions about von Trier’s message betrays a stubbornly superficial engagement with the film. A dialogue between Joe and her ostensible savior, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), as well as a hit parade of his themes, Nymphomaniac outlines von Trier’s belief system in clearer terms than any of his previous films. “Deciding whether you’re a bad human being or not, I’ve no problem with that,” Seligman – a character Noel Murray identifies as a surrogate for von Trier’s critics in his excellent review of Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 for The Dissolve – says in the film’s second half, as moments of tension creep into their conversation. When Joe tells Seligman, “I’m in doubt that you’re even listening,” that’s the filmmaker speaking directly to critics like Ungar-Sargon.
At The New Republic, Eric Sasson makes a more earnest attempt to understand Nymphomaniac; von Trier may have had revolutionary intentions, he argues, but “[o]ne can’t make a movie about nymphomania and not have it be about female sexuality” – which in this case means getting mired in the central character’s decidedly un-liberated guilt and shame about the way she’s lived her life. Sasson concludes that a “truly novel film would star a sexually adventurous woman, not devoid of love and compensating for her lack of it, not hating herself, but instead embracing her sexuality and feeling content with her decisions. I guess we’ll have to keep relying on Lena Dunham for that.”
Sasson’s strange interpretation of Girls aside (Hannah Horvath is a woman “embracing her sexuality and feeling content with her decisions”?), to demand a movie like that from von Trier would be to fundamentally misunderstand his worldview. Amid accusations of anti-Semitism after a poorly articulated comment about Adolf Hitler got him banned from Cannes in 2011, he told Time Out London, “I believe we can learn things from what has happened [during the Holocaust], and if we make a lot of taboos about it, it will slow this process down or stop it completely – which would be so unfair to the people who died in Auschwitz, for instance.”