Bright Lights Film Journal

Lars von Trier: Pornographer?


The widely admired if polarizing Danish director is the personification of the art-house aesthetic. Auteur, trailblazer, genius — he’s been called all of these things too, and pornographer hardly fits the mold. Sure, he included a few brief seconds of hardcore action in his 1998 film, The Idiots, but to serious students of screen sex, this was employed in the cause of “erotic realism” — not pornography.

And he was hardly the first to confront subtitle-reading aesthetes with the reality of the old in-and-out, as art film classics like Oshima’s In The Realm of the Senses by Oshima and Pasolini’s Salo already included much more sustained, not to say deviant, scenes of sexual explicitness.

Context is everything. These are art films, and art films have dignity and significance, or so everyone assumes. In debating the release of The Idiots in the U.K., British censors acknowledged this and passed the film. Von Trier, they reckoned, was an artist with masterpieces like Breaking the Waves behind him, not a pornographer. And pity the poor punter down in Soho dressed for rain and cruising stacks of adult videos only to pick out The Idiots on a whim — surely a let down of catastrophic proportions. Some of the gals were nice-looking enough, and one of them, Trine Michelesen, was even a pedigreed silicone-injected pin-up girl, but the spirit of the film was the antithesis of porn, which demands a certain mood and attitude. In one scene Michelesen capers through the woods topless, breasts smeared with tartar sauce she applied in a spastic fit. Not the sexiest behavior unless one is attracted to mentally retarded women (which she was pretending to be).

Censors saw the film as art, while viewers and critics saw it to varying degrees as either von Trier’s most honest movie or his most cynical, but for reasons other than his handling of sex and nudity. Von Trier himself would characterize the hardcore scenes as an attempt to draw a genuine portrait of the spiritual and physical life of the mentally handicapped. A “porno film” it was not.

And yet, while von Trier is clearly no pornographer in the traditional sense, some viewers have, since Breaking the Waves, detected a lingering sense of prurience lurking around his films that borders on the obscene. Dancer in the Dark for its part was blasted as “emotional pornography” by more than one Danish critic. And take the most recent example, the otherwise fully clothed Dogville. In it the character Grace (played by Nicole Kidman) finds refuge in a small mountain town where she is at first accepted and then exploited and eventually enslaved by the townsfolk, the men stopping by to rape her as it suits them. These rape scenes clearly have a pornographic resonance despite the absence of nudity or close-ups. Grace has become resigned to the inevitability of these encounters and doesn’t fight back.

Von Trier’s fondness for explicit sexuality is further evidenced in the various script drafts of Breaking the Waves and The Idiots, versions of the films that reflect his original thinking more accurately than the finished motion pictures, which were driven in a mainstream direction by commercial considerations.

Breaking the Waves

With Breaking the Waves, suspicions that von Trier harbors a sadistic and hostile attitude toward women were confirmed to a segment of the viewing public. Heavily inspired by the novel Justine by the Marquis de Sade, this was the first installment of his “Golden Hearted Trilogy,” in which he explores the nature of unconditional female love and willingness to sacrifice all.

In the various script drafts analyzed by Danish film professor Peter Schepelern, the sexual fantasies exchanged between the couple (Bess and Jan in the film, played by Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgaard) after the man’s accident were more sustained, extreme, and specific than in the finished film. In the first synopsis, dated Oct. 10th 1991, the woman, named Caroline, is much more aggressive and enthusiastic than Bess, pressing her paralyzed husband to divulge his most debauched fantasies so she can act them out.

In a subsequent draft penned on July 16th 1992, Schepelern notes that

the sex scenes become more elaborate and take on the character of pornography. Her Caroline has sex first with the doctor, thereafter with the man in the bus and then with a man in a rowboat before participating in an orgy with a woman and many men in a cottage in the woods. This is followed by a rape in a stream where she is about to drown … the scenes often have a perverted and violent character.

The following quotes are from von Trier’s script:

Caroline caresses the other woman’s vagina. The woman lays for a while with closed eyes. Then she opens her eyes and looks at Caroline. ‘You well know that you must also have a kiss…? Caroline looks at her. ‘Yes,’ she says quietly. The woman opens Caroline’s pants, pulls them down and proceeds with enthusiasm. The three men look on silently.

The rape scene was particularly violent:

He knocked her down. She screamed in terror. He ripped her clothes into pieces. She splashed out into shallow water. He beat her to get her to stop screaming. Now he grabbed her by the hair while he fucked her. She struggled to hold her head above water. Then he finished. He rolled away from her and lay quietly on his back in the water with eyes closed.

Commercial considerations eventually forced von Trier to tone down the explicit elements of Caroline/Bess’ behavior, and Breaking the Waves turned from a sex film into an anti-sex film, all the emphasis on sexual obsession now placed on the “obsession” rather than the “sexual.” The sex acts Bess performs at the behest of her paralyzed husband only disgust her. An (off-screen) act of fellatio she performs on a fellow bus passenger, for example, causes her to vomit. This is a clear break from von Trier’s original idea, but it rendered the picture more commercially palatable, in more ways than one. He need not now shoot any actually explicit scenes (save one brief glimpse of Jan atop Bess), and audiences would be better able to abide Bess’ victimhood and humiliation as long as there was no hint that she was actually enjoying any of the sex. That would have led to charges that von Trier was being prurient and pornographic. Better that Bess be spiritually raped by the church than physically raped by some depraved pervert. That censors could pass.

This was no pornographic film, quite the opposite, but in the view of detractors nonetheless obscene. Von Trier wasn’t indulging in pornography to turn people on — the basest but perhaps most honest motivation — but rather was depicting the spiritual degradation of a woman who had the emotional development of a child, and subjecting her to depraved sex was just a means to an end. This was the real pornography in their view. And just maybe also in the view of Helena Bonham Carter, who originally had been cast to play Bess but suddenly left the set just before shooting was to start, reportedly because of the sex scenes.

The key to von Trier’s attitudes no doubt lies in his upbringing. He was raised as something of an only child, growing up distant from his half-brother, Ole, who was ten years older, and kept in the dark about the fact that his father was not his real father. His mother was strong-willed and dominating but had modern ideas about child-rearing and rarely set limits or disciplined the boy. He experienced a home life without boundaries and a school life with too many, and this clash proved traumatic, resulting in numerous trips to the psychologist’s office, where he was tagged as maladjusted. He brought all his phobias and complexes to his filmmaking and whatever ingrained attitudes he had about women were also hauled along. Nothing wrong with that; a true artist always wrenches his material from the id.

The Idiots

The sexual element in his next film, The Idiots (1998) would be of a completely different character — sex as the playful, natural expression of the (pretend) mentally handicapped unaffected by the inhibitions of the “adult” world rather than sex as a tool to assert psychic control.

The explicit sex was contained in scenes 56 to 58 — the birthday party that develops into an orgy — in the manuscript von Trier handed to the actors (and which has been made available to this writer). It caused them some amount of apprehension as they read through it and came to this part.

These scenes are noteworthy in their specificity and detail, unusual for what was really little more than a treatment, and they also contain a kind of pornographic/voyeuristic quality that never made it into the finished film (or the published script).

In this manuscript, the idiot with exhibitionist tendencies, Nana, played by Trine Michelsen, begins to shed her clothes as soon as Stoffer suggests a gang bang (“Gruppeknaald”). Idiot, Katrine, described as a “tease” at the start of the manuscript, is also willing to go along.

In due course a pile of idiots are fornicating on the floor. Suddenly, wannabe idiot Karen stands naked in the middle of the floor.

The others notice her. They rise up and go to get her. She is led compliantly forward. She holds her hands in front of her crotch and breasts. There is something very awkward about her tentative spazzing. The others caress her but she doesn’t uncover herself. They are loving and warm but she is far away. Katrine tries to remove her hands from her crotch but that is impossible. They battle a bit on that and then it becomes a kind of masturbation. Katrine leaves her again and Karen masturbates a bit herself in the middle of the pile.

Much of this never made it into the finished film. These scenes were completely at odds with the way that actress Bodil Jørgensen — who never shed her clothes in the film or on location, even during the “all naked days” of solidarity — developed the troubled and introspective character of Karen.

The orgy continues.

Stoffer sticks his head up out of the pile and sees Susanne. He gets up and starts toward her, playfully threatening with laughter and erection. The others follow. Susanne understands immediately and flees, half laughing and half scared. They all run after her. They end up catching her and tearing her clothes off. It’s violent (voldsom) but not scary. There is laughter and not so much spazzing now, it’s just fun. Over in the corner sits Karen and masturbates. She smiles a bit.

The pursuit of Susanne in the film loses any edge of force or coercion. It is only playful and goofy, and she is in fact never caught. The orgy itself also turned out in the film to be much briefer, only several seconds of screen time, despite the fact it took three days to film. (And difficult days they were for the cast, which found it hard to deal with the presence of professional porn models von Trier brought in to deliver the explicit close-ups.) But unlike Breaking the Waves, the explicit sexuality did survive the final cut, however briefly.

From examinations of these two scripts we can see that von Trier started out with films that had been conceived as much more sexual, even perhaps, to use the ambiguous term, pornographic, than the films ended up. Von Trier is celebrated the world over as one of the few filmmakers who makes the films he wants to make on a personal level, but it seems that even he does not enjoy total freedom. It would be interesting to someday see a “pure” Lars von Trier film.

Von Trier’s occasional jibes to the domestic press over the years that he intends to make a porn film are not so outrageous in Denmark as they might be elsewhere, in the U.S. or U.K, for example. Either because they are more liberal minded or more blasé, Danes are comparatively easygoing and don’t get so angry or dogmatic about sexual issues. In fact, von Trier’s film studio, Zentropa, does make hardcore pornographic movies under the banner of its subsidiary, Pussy Power ApS, and the only objections to that have come from the wife of his business partner, Peter Aalbæk Jensen, who fears he’ll pose for the press with a naked woman on his desk. Von Trier is not involved in the creative genesis of these films, although release of the pictures is dependent on his say-so.

So is von Trier a base pornographer? A segment of the feminist community and various von Trier-haters think so, although that begs the impossible: an immutable definition of “pornography.” To others who maintain that a work of art must be judged unto itself irrespective of the creator’s personal proclivities, it’s a moot point. Conventional wisdom says that the work must stand on its own.

And yet von Trier runs against the grain of this oft-repeated idea. To many viewers it is crucial to know where he is coming from, to see who is behind the curtain pulling the emotional levers. This is the result of his determination to deal with life’s most primal issues, but in so doing he forfeits the luxury of the anonymity that he craves in his personal life. He absolutely angers some viewers who are not about to let him hide behind his fictions. He must be exposed!

They would strip him of all these trappings of an art-film icon …artist, auteur, genius, sensitive suffering soul… these attributes and qualities ascribed to him as an article of faith by his admirers who sometimes seem prone to blind devotion. This tempts an analogy with another Danish “genius” — Hans Christian Andersen, who penned, of course, a story called “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Ironically no one seems more willing to go naked than Lars von Trier himself … but is this nakedness just another layer of protection?