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The Provocative Cinema of Lars von Trier

If I have a bone to pick with Lars Von Trier, it’s over his idea of what it means to be a ‘provocateur’.

He’s always engaged in a kind of provocation – the ‘Von’ in his name is precisely that, a barb designed to offend a left-wing, anti-old-money milleu. ‘Von’ is an appellation that denotes not only Junker forbears, but pride in those forbears. Doubtless, when he adopted it, most of whom were born ‘Von’ would choose to omit it. He, on the other hand, was born into this world just ‘Lars Trier’, the son of two left-socialists – his mother being the more radical of the two.

He tells a story of his application to film school in an interview – they gave each applicant 20 minutes of Super-8 film, and a camera, and sent them off to make a movie. All of his soon-to-be classmates went of to document the relatively grimy inner city Copenhagen. Lars, on the other hand, took a bus out to the suburbs, to document the wealthy suburbanites.

It’s exactly this gesture that is repeated throughout his work – the adoption of a reactionary sign to upset a progressive monoculture he is ensconced in.

In some of his films, this tendency has allowed him to deliver powerful and constructive critiques of the left. The argument delivered by Grace’s father to Grace (that it is arrogant not to hold the residents of Dogville to the same moral standards she holds herself to) is one all poor champions and champions of the poor ought to take into their thinking.

It’s an interesting formulation, because it resolves the question of morality into a simple choice – totalitarianism, or the abandonment of personal morality. Grace murders the residents of Dogvillebecause she, in the last scene, imposes her incredibly high standards of moral behaviour upon them. The conclusion is clear – if these liberal vegans who hold themselves to such exacting standards ever gained power, if ever they started to consider those they supposedly defend as humans with the same degree of agency as their own, the result would be a totalitarianism so intolerant of deviation that it would inevitably end in genocide.

Grace has a near-complete mastery of her own nature – she is invulnerable to negative, non-progressive emotions of every kind. The danger Trier is interested in is the danger of this mastery of nature becoming the rule. In Nymphomaniac, this

rested in is the danger of this mastery of nature becoming the rule. In

Nymphomaniac, this twin spectre, genocide and totalitarianism, is what confronts Joe, the protagonist. When she goes to the sex-addict support group, she’s asked to remove everything that reminds her of sex from her life. It’s one of the most funny scenes in the film – Joe throws away nearly everything she owns, covers every corner of every piece of furniture with bubble wrap, and lies in bed with socks over her hands.

The support group is a kitchen sink totalitarianism – it demands she call herself a ‘sex addict’, not a ‘nyphomaniac’ because ‘we’re all the same here’ – even the setting, a vast and empty stadium, is evocative of the mass parades of the Nazis, or the panoptical.

Whatever else  Trier is, he’s not subtle, and he’s not trying to be. Joe’s rejection of the group explicitly evokes the monstrous shadow of the innocuous fake empathy of ‘society’s morality police’ – their duty being at base, to ‘erase [her] obscenity from the surface of the earth, so the bourgeois won’t feel sick.’

What he’s trying to do with the film is contained within it, in the scene where Joe reads out an encyclopaedic list of sexual fantasies to a man, who turns out to be a pedophile. The film contains an encyclopaedic list of sexual situations, almost always wrought with some level (from mild to extreme) of social prohibition, and through this, Trier attempts to provoke his audience’s suppressed desires, and thus gain himself allies against bourgeois morality.

Basically, the thesis is like that of Vol. 3. of Foucault’s History of Sexuality – we must accept our drives, but we must also strive for mastery over them. Joe’s nymphomania is not the problem – the issue is her complete lack of control. So when she abandons her child in her drive for orgasm, the crime isn’t the drive itself – it’s her subjection to it. The pedophile in the film is a heroic figure precisely because he never submits to his desire, even for a moment.

Like Foucault, he is interested in Marquis de Sade – Joe’s storytelling is, I think, a reference to Passolini’s Salo. Like Foucault, Trier has a healthy dislike for projects to reform the drives. Like Foucault, Trier is mobilizing a Sadean, Neitzschean disdain for morality against a society that surveils and condemns not just the action, but also the intent.

The hypocrisy of bourgeois morality is typified by the support group leader, who masks a desire to eradicate with fake empathy, or the figure of Mrs H, played by Uma Thurman, who subjects her children to incredible emotional violence in order to condemn her husband’s sexual infraction, and most of all, the interlocutor – Seligman.

For the first time in all his films, he actually introduces a totally contemptible straw man for his academic, leftist targets. He’s a professed asexual, who reacts with ludicrously off-topic observations (e.g. ‘those are Fibonacci numbers’ while Joe is describing the number of thrusts involved in her first time having sex) to Joe’s dirty stories

For all the spine Joe has, he has none. He does not defend himself against Joe’s barbs. For all the sex she’s had, he’s had none. His life is entirely textual, while she has (and this is showcased throughout the film)apparently read no books. Seligman is interested in religion, but not a believer. Even masturbation ‘does nothing’ for him.

To crown all this, when Joe expresses her desire to have him as her first real friend, in the closing moments of the film, he tries to rape her.

In short, he’s everything Trier hates about the left – hypocritical, unable to stay on topic, repressed and repressive, too cowardly for either hatred or desire, politically correct, and incapable of direct engagement.

For me, this a similar case to Trier’s Nazi joke at Cannes. While the reaction over Trier’s Nazi comments was as idiotic as it was hypocritical, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that Trier shouldn’t use the Nazis to piss people off at a film festival, and he shouldn’t use an image of rape to score points against imaginary enemies.

The image he has in mind is of the salmon lure – a fly designed to irritate the salmon into biting, but the result is callous. It brings up the question, who are these salmon he’s aiming to hook?

Essentially, I think he’s missed the point of what provocation is about. Provocation is supposed to attack society’s dominant ideology. When Trier includes immigrant ‘Africans’ in his chapter ‘The Dangerous Men’, who must be spoken to with a translator who speaks ‘African languages’, and even then don’t understand, it’s deeply annoying, because far from being provocative, he’s simply re-affirming old and nasty ideas about Africa.

The ‘Africans’ aren’t even characters, they’re just a stereotype – an entire continent brought in to score a minor point about a word. And this is how Africa is typically used in capitalist mass culture – as a simple backdrop to Western angst, identity, or existential crisis.

His stand-in, Joe, argues that neglecting the word ‘Negro’ is an act of cowardice on the part of the liberals – that each word unused is a foundation stone taken from democracy itself. But like with his comments on the Nazis, what Trier doesn’t appear to understand is that people don’t refrain from calling others ‘Negroes’ because the word frightens them – but rather, because they actually have some inkling of what the word means, what its history is, and sensibly wish to avoid bringing up the rolling atrocity of the flesh trade and 20th century racism to make off-hand points.

It’s as childish as people playing hide-and-seek in the Berlin Holocaust memorial.

The whole film, from start to finish, was a open provocation – from a man who never had a clear idea of what provocation meant. Just like the ‘Von’ in his name, he’s allying himself with the dominant culture (racism, sexism, xenophobia, conservatism) in order to provoke the culture that immediately surrounds him. And, the problem is, these ‘provocations’ are inevitably humdrum – it’s not exactly novel to depict a scorned woman (played by Uma Thurman) as a bunny boiler. It’s not novel to consider an entire continent as one vague unit. It’s not novel to depict liberals as hypocrites. It’s not novel to condemn political correctness as cowardice. I can see all this on Top Gear. People willing to defend the existing order have always been two-a-penny and they typically own the loudspeakers, so their voices ring wide and far.

Through Joe, through all his films, he wishes to paint himself as the bold truth-teller – she never refrains from saying what she thinks. But, in truth, his evil characters seem superhuman because real people don’t act so terribly with so little cause. His Africans don’t seem like real Africans because they’re as non-specific and vague as colonial notions of the ‘dark continent’.

The fact is, his statements aren’t the exception, they’re not obscene – they’re just tired, and the people who are disgusted are not the bourgeois, but rather those the bourgeois prey upon.

Even the explicit obscenity – the sheer amount of sex depicted, is really very run-of-the-mill. I’d hazard a guess and say if you rolled out all the miles of film of people naked and fucking, it’d be longer than the miles of film where people are clothed and talking In rarefied atmospheres, ordinary things become exotic. I’m sure Jeremy Clarkson would be a pariah amongst Danish academics. However, in society itself, he’s paid a huge amount to dance club-footed around the most repulsive but most pervasive prejudices of the last century, and his statements are broadcast everywhere.

You don’t have to look far to see that we don’t live in the kind of stale, hygienic world Trier imagines he lives in – obscenity is a tool for the rulers, indeed, it has become one of the main tools of statecraft. Berlusconi and Sarkozy were just two of the most adept employers of the obscene method of creating resonance and engagement. Berlusconi’s claims to being an everyman, so crucial to his electoral success, rested primarily on the obscene abuse of his position – abuse that his media outlets gleefully broadcast.

Perhaps Foucault knew this – his greek citizens, the masters of their own pleasure were, after all, feudal rulers over a nation of slaves. The depiction of Damien’s death in Discipline and Punish shows a clear understanding of the manner in which the obscene display can express and perpetuate sovereign power. Trier, seems to be totally unaware – and so, the truth-telling becomes tawdry and tasteless. There’s no ambiguity in his defence of obscenity, and there’s no subtlety in Seligman, its imagined detractor.

It’s a clever film, it’s a funny film, it’s sensitive in its depiction of depression, and of what you’d do to escape it. It’s beautifully made, and the acting is superb. But, ultimately, it seems a regression from his earlier work. Trier has grown backwards, become childish with age. His cause is that of every 40-something wealthy would-be revolutionary bourgeois – a tired Nietzscheanism wed to a messiah complex.

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