Woman in Lars von Trier’s Cinema: 1996-2014 by Ahmed Elbeshlawy
by: Oliver Kenny , October 7, 2019
by: Oliver Kenny , October 7, 2019
Ahmed Elbeshlawy begins Woman in Lars von Trier’s Cinema: 1996-2014 by seemingly undermining his own premise, writing that he ‘cannot even claim that this writing project will constitute anything in the course of a message communicated to its reader’ (2). Nonetheless, he contends that this failure to communicate and his inability to speak from the position of “woman” is precisely wherein he purports to find parallels to von Trier’s project: ‘I would say that this already declared failure to communicate is precisely the subject matter of this book and what constitutes the secret of its enjoyment on the part of the writer as well as, hopefully, the reader’ (2). After a dense psychoanalytical exploration of the nature of ‘woman’ there follow eight chapters, each devoted to a single film directed by Lars von Trier: Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2006), Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011) and Nymphomaniac (2013).
The theoretical discourse is dominated by Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek as well as Jacques Derrida, Theodor Adorno, Emmanuel Lévinas, Mikhail Bakhtin and Bertold Brecht with a host of contemporary Lacanian scholars also engaged with in detail; Simone de Beauvoir makes a late entrance as a token non-contemporary female thinker although this is only for her comments on the Marquis de Sade. Given that it is a book about woman, it would have been nice to see more engagement with for instance Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva or Hélène Cixous all of whom wrote about Lacan and women. Nonetheless, the author expertly marshals a vast critical literature, engaging in close analysis across his chosen authors’ large and diverse oeuvres, as well as subsequent reconsiderations of those ideas by later thinkers. For those not familiar with Lacan and Žižek, this makes for challenging reading as there is little hand-holding in the theoretical exegesis and there is an assumption that the reader already has a good grasp of most key terms within Lacan’s philosophy.
After Chapter 1’s examination of the theoretical basis behind Lacan’s claim that woman does not exist, chapter 2 analyses Breaking the Waves, in particular through Bess’s relationship to God and the Name of the Father. Elbeshlawy concludes that Lacanian theory provides a reading of the film that is more feminist than feminist readings by demonstrating how woman’s non-existence is more radical than replacing or balancing out male existence because ‘while the presence of man is a symbolic possibility that does not actually explain either man or woman, the absence of woman, in its essence, is an impossibility, because it would be an absence that cancels out the presence of both genders— and the discourse’ (35). Chapter 3 discusses the Bakhtinian idea of crowning/decrowning to demonstrate the political ineffectiveness of all acts in the film except for the final act of Karen’s spassing which is read as a Lacanian passage à l’acte which is far more possible for the woman who does not exist, and allows for a true political act to take place: it ‘highlights Karen’s subjectivity as well as obliterates that subjectivity at once’ (64). Chapter 4, about Dancer in the Dark, is the most sympathetic to what could be called a feminist position, considering how the film subverts the fetishistic and voyeuristic tendencies of many films highlighted by Laura Mulvey; drawing on Levinas and Derrida, Elbeshlawy uses the issue of Selma’s blindness to suggest that ‘the blind siren upon which Dancer in the Dark stakes everything seems to call for a viewer who senses her’ (77). As such this chapter is the one most explicitly about the presentation of women, if not the Lacanian woman. Chapter 5 examines Dogville through parallels with Brecht’s experience of the USA, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Tomorrow’s Eve and the link made between desexualisation and violence in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Coriolanus, claiming that Dogville ‘reflects a vision that tries to render America as a feminized as well as desexualized mutant of Europe’ (86). Chapter 6 moves onto Manderlay and how its race politics and treatment of black skin can be understood through an examination of Lacan’s and Derrida’s ideas about the gift: ‘the black body, as an American cinematic gift, […] is just as imagined and “impossible” as the gift’ (130). This is the chapter which departs most drastically from any concern with ‘woman’, engaging mainly in discussions of fantasy in tandem with those around gift-giving. Chapter 7, an exploration of the voice, sexuality and love in Antichrist, is the one which fits most closely with Elbeshlawy’s main argument; ‘if there is any female character in the history of cinema that comes close to presenting the viewer with the clearest possible image of Lacan’s “Woman” who “cannot be said”, whom “nothing can be said of [her]”, who is outside the system of symbolization yet defined as its very subversion, it is Gainsbourg’s character in Antichrist’ (146-7). Chapter 8 then considers melancholy in Melancholia, returning to his critique of feminist analyses, suggesting that a focus on the sexual politics of the film disregards the emphasis Melancholia places on oblivion, destruction and death, which, Elbeshlawy claims, should be understood in degendered terms: the protagonist, Justine, wants ‘to commit to the oblivion of the real, not in a suicidal sense, but in the sense of the ultimate transgression of coming face to face with the very nothingness of her own being’ (169). Chapter 9 engages with Nymphomaniac, via readings of pleasure, jouissance and sadomasochism drawing especial parallels between the work of de Sade and the film. Elbeshlawy argues in particular that Nymphomaniac constitutes a work of transforming her sexual adventures into a narration the achievement of which fulfils the same erotic needs: ‘narration, to Joe, now constitutes a safe haven where she can live with her nymphomania in a literary sense without having to abuse her thoroughly hackneyed and worn-out body again’ (199-200).
However, whilst the opening chapter seems to lay the theoretical groundwork that will be necessary to understand the subsequent chapters, many of the film analyses do not require any reference to this first chapter, and on some occasions depart almost entirely from its premises. Indeed, although broadly about women in the films of von Trier, the chapters are frequently standalone analyses which engage with the women of the films but not really with “woman” as suggested in the title. At least three of the chapters are previously published as standalone articles and have not been substantially altered, sometimes even maintaining the original conclusions: the new chapters continue in the same theme and as such the book reads more like a collection of essays rather than a monograph with a coherent line of argument throughout. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the chapters are all weighty enough on their own, but is rather unexpected after reading the introduction. This lack of unifying argument is not helped by the author’s jumping between different main theorists within the chapters: whilst Lacan and Žižek are never far away, the predominance of other theorists for individual chapters serves to reduce rather than increase the critical coherence between the different analyses.
Thus while the Lacanian and Žižekan theory is very detailed and well worked through, there remains a certain lack of coherence across the book and a number of issues which suggest an unfortunate hastiness in the editing of the book. Numerous paragraphs from the introduction are repeated almost word-for-word within the ensuing chapters, obtuse phrases such as “soggy with masculine stresses” (47, 78) are thrown in without much explanation, and there’s even an unfortunate moment when a comment from the author to the editors has been included in the main body of the text. Furthermore, Elbeshlawy declares that Björk’s acting style in Dancer in the Dark is ‘uncinematic’ and Dogville’s formal construction is ‘anti-cinematic’ without explaining what these terms mean in contrast to ‘experimental’, ‘non-mainstream’ or ‘unusual’, a lapse in theoretical rigour that will likely frustrate cinema scholars. Woman in Lars von Trier’s Cinema: 1996-2014 therefore provides some excellent close analyses for scholars interested in individual films but does not constitute the sort of compelling overviews of von Trier’s work that have been undertaken by Linda Badley (2010), Caroline Bainbridge (2007) or Jan Simons (2007). Moreover, as the films tend to be used in order to demonstrate and explain Lacan and Žižek, rather than to advance or critique their ideas as say Žižek does with Lacan’s ideas through his film analyses, it is unclear what contribution this makes to psychoanalytic theory more broadly. Nonetheless, it remains a rich and thought-provoking book with some surprising yet productive comparisons from across cinema, literature, theatre and critical theory.
Badley, Linda. 2010. Lars von Trier. Contemporary Film Directors. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Bainbridge, Caroline. 2007. The Cinema of Lars von Trier: Authenticity and Artifice. Directors’ Cuts. London: Wallflower Press.
Simons, Jan. 2007. Playing the Waves: Lars von Trier’s Game Cinema. Film Culture in Transition. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
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