In my writing group, a friend describes the way that, when
you edit a piece of writing, you should look for hot spots, places where the
strength of emotion is so great that heat radiates outwards. These are the
places that jolt the heart, that cause a vibration in your spine.
In Lars von Trier’s body of work there is nothing but this
kind of heat: piercing, exhilarating, painful, heartbreaking. When you watch
von Trier, every part of you wakes up, even parts you don’t like very much. A
von Trier film is a visceral experience. You can see this in Nelson Carvajal’s
brilliant video essay: a clamor of sounds, an array of confusing images,
panicked cuts. In a von Trier film you aren’t allowed to look away: not from
suffering, not from sex, not from heartache, not from desperation, not from
human evil, and not from the pain of lost innocence either.
In many of von Trier’s earlier works, like Breaking the Waves and The Idiots, overwhelming emotion is
evoked through quick, jerky camera movements and raw acting. In his Golden
Hearts Trilogy, von Trier is particularly interested in looking at the purity
of altruism, while his more painful films often beg the question of whether
there is anything noble in sacrifice at all.
Some feminists criticize the way von Trier depicts his heroines, his
obsession with their suffering, but von Trier’s films never struck me as
misogynistic, as some critics claim. His heroines are complex and authentic.
They make choices with conviction, even when those choices end up being the end
of them. In short, von Trier’s female characters are given permission to have a
kind of existential hunger that few “strong female characters” are ever able to
In recent films, like Melancholia,
Antichrist and Nymphomaniac, von Trier commands this same intensity as in his
earlier movies, while focusing more on languid scenes that showcase the horror
and beauty contained within the natural world. In von Trier’s universe, human
beings are brainy and removed from this landscape, yet also inextricably bound
up in it, constantly coming into contact with their animal selves, naked,
lustful, hungry. At the start of Antichrist a couple makes love to
classical music, while their baby falls out a window to his death. In Nymphomaniac,
a character muses about Fibonacci sequences and the intellectual pleasures of
fly-fishing, in between scenes of animalistic intercourse. And in Melancholia
all the scientific study in the world can’t save humanity from a star quietly
hurling itself into the earth.
While von Trier’s heroines are often presented as
Christ-like figures, he is less invested in exploring the fall from grace than in showing the messiness of the human experience and what happens when
Icarus flies too close to the sun.
In this way, von Trier’s power comes not simply from making
us empathize with another’s pain, but also allowing us to feel the dizzying
hope of free fall: from that moment before we give up, when all we can do is
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW
which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.
Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story
contests. She is currently writing her first book.