Lars von Trier wants to hold us accountable. His films sear and contain a rawness that’s rare in cinema. He shows a small town community protecting people who abuse a fugitive, sexually and emotionally, and a religious culture that allows its elders to be dispassionate towards a woman who expresses her sexuality in an unconventional fashion for the love of her husband, subsequently deeming it unworthy of being saved. His fictional congregations do not respect women. They do not abide by the idea that a woman owns her body. They allow men to get away with sexual assault and violence, allowing the women to be dehumanized. They perpetuate this dehumanization through subtle ways, feeling entitled to these women’s bodies. The seemingly meek female protagonists subject to this abuse, though, transcend the very culture that takes advantage of them, revealing its rotten core. The Danish auteur isn’t just being sadistic for his own sake; he confronts it. Lars von Trier is attacking Rape Culture.
According to Marshall University’s Women’s Center, “Rape Culture” can be defined as
“an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.”
Perhaps one of the most critical aspects of Rape Culture is that it exists more implicitly than explicitly, from the lyrics of a song (Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” comes to mind) to what most viewers would consider a “tame” scene in a film (James Bond has been questionably treating women for years, not least with his assault on Pussy Galore in Goldfinger). Rape Culture exists as something insidious, slipping into the vocabulary and actions of everyday life. Outside of media depiction or perpetuation of Rape Culture, all one needs to do is take a look at the #YesAllWomen tweets that exploded after the recent tragedy that occurred in UCSB.
Lars von Trier has been able to astutely pin point the dangerousness of how Rape Culture works within a society: the excuses that are made; the blind eyes that are turned. The deliberate ignorance of his characters makes von Trier’s depiction of Rape Culture that much more unsettling and real. In Dogville, Nicole Kidman’s Grace enters the small, tight knit town of the same name as a fugitive from gangsters. The town reluctantly agrees to house her. In exchange for their protection, Grace agrees to do little tasks for each person in town. She sits and talks to the blind man (Ben Gazzara), she looks after the children, she puts her alabaster hands to work. She truly embodies her name and exists perhaps as an honorary member of the Golden Heart Trilogy, Lars von Trier’s thematically connected set of films driven by a selfless female lead, made up of Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998), and Dancer in the Dark (2000).
For the town of Dogville, the stakes get higher and, as one of the chapter headers says, the town finally begins to bear its teeth. It is particularly a shame that such a thing would happen, because the inhabitants of the town seem incredibly meek, perhaps with the exception of Tom Edison (Paul Bettany), a big thinker who cares far more about thinking about big ideas than the very ideas themselves. Though he is ostensibly the only character that bothers to root for Grace in any sense, even he falls to the temptation of taking advantage of her (more emotionally so).
The biggest excuse that the town operates on is “the stakes get higher, we are committing a crime by protecting, and thus Grace owes us more”. This aggression mounts gradually, lurking quietly. They begin to more explicitly treat Grace like the Other. The viciousness of “small town ideals” and how the culture exists within Dogville is accentuated by the parable-like structure of the film, especially John Hurt’s deadpan narration.
Chuck (Stellan Skarsgård) acts as an aggressor to Grace, but her kindness gets the better of her. He guilt trips her after she rejects a kiss from him, but pivotal to this dynamic is the understanding that the wallowy Chuck does not see Grace as a person. She exists to him only as someone to be had as opposed to someone to exist.
Grace, though, reports other things later that evening to Tom, saying that the blind man tried to put his hand on her knee. Tom makes an excuse, saying that it must have been an accident. Instead of actually comforting her or demanding that such an action be stopped, Tom defends a perpetrator. Rape Culture thus seems to manifest itself as a town mentality, Dogville existing as its own vacuum with its own culture of excuses and ideas of morality.
Chuck’s insatiable desire comes to its apex when he forces himself upon Grace, but his reasoning is even more disgusting: blackmail. As he suggested before, if she does not cooperate, he will turn her into the police. Von Trier makes a point to primarily shoot this scene from a distance so that the town’s residents can be seen. The use of a black box theater technique allows the viewer to essentially see through the building and thus see every person carry on about their lives without noticing Grace being raped. Also implied is that the townspeople (that is to say the actors) can see what is going on and yet do nothing about it. It is exactly this kind of apathy and ignorance that von Trier is calling out within society. The Dogme derived aesthetic that adds elements of documentary realism makes the scene even more unsettling.
Dogville’s women come together when Vera (Patricia Clarkson) and Liz (Chloe Sevigny), pay a visit to Grace’s shed, the former revealing that she saw Tom Edison Jr. leave there early in the morning. What Liz says, therefore, is crucial to how Rape Culture operates: “I’m also grateful for you for turning Tom’s wandering eye away from my skirt, but on the other hand I expected more from you than that.” It first reveals that Tom’s leering is not unusual and it secondly reveals that Grace must hold up to an unwritten standard of conduct. Women are a) always subject to being objectified and b) even when there is agency, they are subject to criticism. There is an internal misogyny at work here, a form which manifests itself as defying an unwritten rule of morality.
As the film continues, Rape Culture continues to display itself through the actions of Dogville’s citizens. When Grace is confronted by Chuck’s wife, Vera, she blames Grace for the regularly occurring rapes, her husband Chuck having told her that Grace had been flirting with him and making advances. If this were not despicable enough, when Vera discovers the true nature of what happened, she does not do anything about it. She turns a blind eye. She deliberately ignores the situation in order to give her husband the protection, not the victim. Too often it seems that the culture suggests that victim must have been doing something to warrant the attack, whether it was flirting or the wearing of certain clothes. While generally considered victim-blaming, what Vera does might just be understood as cruelty. She understands the situation but does nothing about it.
The most disturbing scene, though, is when she is assaulted in the back of the truck in her attempt to escape the town. Despite having paid the driver his desired fee, he still feels entitled to more. The tarp transparent as the assault happens, she stares up and sheds nothing but a tear, as if accepting it as her fate. And in a town where everyone is against you and abuses you in various manners, even if she did say something, it would not matter. It’s this silent aspect that rings as despicable; Grace is the silent victim, unable to speak up because the environment both encourages these actions and does not discourage them. It is an important distinction and normally only one exists, both equally horrific: either the behavior is encouraged, usually by peers or it is not discouraged, the most common form of excuse being “boys will be boys”. The evasion of guilt and accountability, thus, ends up being one of the most serious problems, both in the film and in the real world.
Before long, Grace almost ceases to exist as a human. The children ring a bell every time someone goes to her cabin and uses her for their sexual desire. By now, she is a prisoner of the town, its people believing that she is unworthy of the same rights as they have.
The director also tackles the problem of the archetypal “Nice Guy”. Tom Edison Jr. spends his time rhapsodizing about philosophy, and although he seems to be the only person on Grace’s side, he is just as entitled as every other character in Dogville. He wants to sleep with her on the final night before she is to depart again, but she protests, saying that it will not be as meaningful. He is offended. How dare she not give Tom what he is entitled to, after all he did for her? Grace concedes that if he really wants her, he can use her like everyone else in the town. The funny/terrible thing about Tom is that his “mansplaining” characteristics put him in a group of people who would most certainly proclaim “Not all men”, were the abuse of women to be brought up in front of the congregation. Again, it is the problem of entitlement; that he believes he is owed something.
The way Rape Culture impresses itself upon the viewer is in the form of a pact. Though different characters act in their own separate way, the town as a whole does not grant Grace agency or any kind of power in owning what is hers: her sexuality and body. The women in the town predictably treat her like a pariah, as if the abuse is her fault. She came onto Chuck, so she deserved it. It was Grace who dared try to escape from the town, and thus she deserved to pay a little more given the danger. Dogville’s ethics go so far as to chain her, place an anchor on her ankle and a bell around neck. The town of Dogville reduces her to an animal, carnality and all. As the title of the film suggests, everyone in town is merely a beast “obeying their nature”, as Grace suggests. All of this matters because he is portraying the idea that these actions can be ignored and excused, that the people who are both committing these acts and who are not protecting Grace do not need to be held accountable for their actions.
Fascinatingly, Dogville is not posited as an outright patriarchy save for Tom Edison Jr’s philosophizing, he being the one who seems to hold a good amount of weight in the town. It seems fairly democratic, but the patriarchal notions of how women are to act are illustrated overtly by how the men and women treat Grace. The men think it is their right, the women are resigned to their traditional gender roles. Grace, by that time, is no longer human to them. It is with this in mind that the violent ending of the film is as satisfying as it is. It’s cathartic. Retribution. The victim finally getting revenge. But, unlike many rape and revenge films, von Trier seems to desire to eradicate an entire kind of thinking, the idea that women are both subhuman and deserve to be abused in any sense. The burning of the entire town represents a need to be rid of an entire kind of mindset and ideology: what Dogville represents is a mindset of entitlement and deceitfulness. She destroys it.
Perhaps the most crucial part of Dogville is why the town needs to be destroyed. It’s a little nowhere Podunk place, but even here, this kind of culture exists. He confronts the audience with these actions point blank and makes the audience witness the consequences. Coyness is not von Trier’s style, so approaching such subject matter forces the audience to acknowledge that Rape Culture is toxic. And von Trier is calling for it to be destroyed.
Rape Culture in Breaking the Waves manifests itself far less obviously or explicitly than it does in Dogville, but it nonetheless exhibits what happens when a woman defies a decidedly sex negative culture. Childlike Bess (Emily Watson) marries a Norwegian oil rig worker, and immediately, she devotes herself to him wholeheartedly and obsessively. Waves is like von Trier’s realist presentation of amour fou, the story of a woman not only in obsessive adoration with her new husband Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), but also in love with the approval of God.
The religious culture that endures in the small Scottish town where the film takes place is extremely patriarchal: women are not allowed to talk during the congregation. In the opening minutes of the film, Bess must seek approval for marriage from the presiding male authority figures. They question whether she can handle the “responsibility” of having a relationship with both God and her husband, who is an outsider. They have her define “matrimony”, as if she does not understand what it means. Despite Bess’s history of psychological issues, they nevertheless seem to underestimate her abilities.
When Jan is injured in an oil rig accident and his body becomes paralyzed, he requests that Bess take on lovers and come back to him and describe the encounters in detail, so as to live vicariously through them. This in itself does not seem overly problematic, but Jan is sure to tell her that it is not for her sake, but for his. Thus, the various encounters she has (the therapist, the old man on the bus, etc.) garner her judgment in two ways: the townspeople think she is crazy for listening to Jan in the first place and they believe she is lowering herself by having sex out of wedlock.
The men and women within the community have, for the most part, the same approach, in that it is important to shame Bess for her actions, to make her feel as if she is doing wrong by trying to please her husband. The ambiguity lies in whether they are most discomforted by the sexuality of the matter or by the woman’s perceived blind devotion to her husband. Her sister-in-law Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge) tries to keep her from seeing Jan and forces her to see a psychiatrist, and her mother stops talking to her altogether. The men in town look down upon her in their smarmy ways. The blame seems to be split; explicitly blaming Jan, but by proxy implicitly blaming Bess for listening to him.
Rocks are thrown at her by children screaming “Who’s a tart?” over and over again. She is unable to find real solace. She lays on the ground. It is hard to pick which is more disturbing: children throwing rocks or the young woman full of despair trying to do what she thinks is right on the ground, weeping. It is clear that the children are taught how to approach morality and sexuality at an early age: if it does not fall into the generally accepted idea, it must be driven out. On the ground in the outfit she is wearing (a light jacket, tight red skirt, and stockings), she is at her most vulnerable. A priest tells the children to stop, but when he looks her over, he walks away, again the depiction of an authority figure deeming a woman’s body unworthy of protection.
When God tests Bess’s love for Jan in the form of a meet-up with rough-looking sailors, Bess realizes the danger in the situation. The sailors do not take kindly to this. Barely escaping that encounter, she returns later to the sailors in order to save Jan’s life, whose days are numbered. Bess, as the film shows, believes that her devotion to Jan is keeping him alive, as he seems to wither away in a hospital bed. Atop a gurney, she is brought in battered and near death, having been abused by the sailors. And yet, despite her untimely death, she is resigned to Hell by the church elders. The elders are making a definitive decision on whether she is worthy of Heaven based on her sexual conduct, though everyone in the town is well aware of her faithfulness to God and, unconventionally, to her paralyzed husband. This misunderstanding of her actions causes her to be ostracized within the community, explicitly, and essentially from being saved.
Nevertheless, Breaking the Waves is still confrontational about its subject matter, revealing the inherent sex negative ideas within religion and the harm it can have on other people. Having Bess accepted into Heaven seems to prove that virtue is subjective, more measurable by human kindness and love than by the defiance of dated rules.
Breaking the Waves’ less obvious depiction of Rape Culture juxtaposed against Dogville’s explicit brutality represents the slyness of its nature. Waves is primarily concerned with the religious aspects of the dynamic between sexuality and love, with the environment demanding that the two be inseparable in the most conventional way possible. Were someone to question that, as Bess does, she is labeled a sinner, unworthy of being granted entry into Heaven. So, while Waves examines the religiosity of the matter, Dogville considers the very present-ness of Rape Culture in a society where men are taught to own women, where women’s bodies are not their own.
The Danish provocateur’s trend of putting his female characters through the most horrific situations seems not without reason. Through Dogville and Breaking the Waves, he tackles the problem of a mainstream culture and a religious one which encourages men to own women, for women to be shamed for sex, and for excuses to be made for the sexual assault and violence towards women. Grace’s father (James Caan) briefly acts as the mouthpiece for von Trier, telling his daughter, “Rapists and murderers may be the victims according to you, but I, I call them dogs. And if they’re lapping up in their own vomit, the only way to stop them is with a lash.” Lars von Trier called out Rape Culture more than a decade ago (Dogville was released in 2005 and Breaking the Waves was released in 1996). He does it throughout his work, in Antichrist, Dancer in the Dark, and most recently, in Nymphomaniac with “Gray Rape”. Yet we still choose to ignore it or deny its existence. Von Trier has confronted this issue explicitly. So what are we going to do about it now?