The mother and martyr
Danish film director Lars von Trier has enjoyed much critical acclaim for films such as the recent Dancer In The Dark. But do his movies betray a deep sexism? W0rds: Mark Brown
Lars von Trier’s latest movie, Dancer In The Dark, won the Palme d'Or at this year’s Cannes film festival, and has been the subject of many critical plaudits. Debate has raged over the aesthetics of this ’anti-musical', but it is the film’s profound misogyny which makes it such a thoroughly awful picture.
The movie's central character, Selma, played by Bjdrk, is every inch the von Trier female ideal. A combination of childlike naivety and self-sacrifice, this young Czech woman gives up her family, friends and her homeland in a desperate bid to save her son from the hereditary eye disease which is gradually blinding her. Her willingness to put herself at great physical risk by doing a dangerous factory job in order to raise cash for her child’s operation is imaginable. However, no matter how willingly you suspend your disbelief, her preparedness to be executed for a crime she did not commit, in order to prevent the money being spent on legal fees, IS not.
We are expected to empathise with a character who prizes her son's sight above her own life, and who has hitherto blithely refused to lift a finger in her own defence. Selma’s bovrne acceptance of her fate, indeed her virtual death wish, is not only conceptually ludicrous, it is also of a part with von Trier’s quasi-religious image of the female martyr in his 1996 film Breaking The Waves.
In that movie the character of Bess, acted by Emily Watson, is so overcome by her innocent mysticism that she convrnces herself that her deep desire for the return of her onl rig worker husband has caused the dreadful accrdent which has brought him back to her paralysed. She then embarks on a career of Joyless and dangerous promisCUity in the nasty belief that her sexual sacrifice will cure her husband. Her lover does finally regain the use of his limbs, but only as a direct consequence of Bess being gang raped and murdered. The film concludes with bells ringing, quite literally, and preposterously, in heaven in celebration of her healing self- sacrifice.
Dancer /n The Dark may not share the putrid reflections on female sexuality of the earlier movre, but the films do have in
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common the insidious idea of the Violent death of women as physically restorative of the males they leave behind. Furthermore, they also share a Christian, and, more specifically, Catholic, taste for the sanctified female martyr. Just as the heavenly bells ring out for Bess in Breaking The Waves, in Dancer In The Dark Selma’s death march is transformed into a religious ritual, replete wrth Catholic iconography, in which she becomes the Holy Mother bringing
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Viewers of Dancer In The Dark who found the central SChedU'e figure's passwity and selflessness unbearable did at least have fOr Charlie’s the outraged frustration of the character of Selma’s friend Angels-
Kathy, performed by Catherine Deneuve, to assooate With. However, von Trier is absolutely incapable of allowrng a female character to maintain her intelligence and life- affirming resistance. In the end Kathy too sucwmbs to mystiCIsm and mindless sentimentality, telling the soon-to-die heroine, ’You were right Selma, listen to your heart’.
Have we really gone so far down the road of post- modernist disdain for so-called 'political c0rrectness’ that Critics can’t point out the most obvious of oppressive ideas? Technically accomplished von Trier may be, but Dancer in the Dark IS not only emotionally crude and manipulative, it IS also a further example of the film-maker's poison0us attitude towards women.
This is an edited versiona of an article published in the Dec 2000/Jan 2001 edition of Product, on sale from Fri 24 Nov.
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