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 explore.
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
.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.