Thursday 28 May 2009
Deborah Orr: Motherhood, sex, and a woman's deepest fears
What might a controversial new film say about the female experience?
There just aren't many really good roles for women in the movies, are there? Especially when they are over 30. It's a common, irrefutable complaint, and one that implies an institutional, even cultural bias. So it's slightly weird that the one film director who nearly always opts to have a woman as his central character is so regularly labelled a misogynist.
Charlotte Gainsbourg is not complaining that Lars von Trier is a misogynist though. On the contrary, she refutes the claim. The star of von Trier's latest film, Antichrist, she was happy enough to receive the best actress award at Cannes for her undoubted artistic pains.
Antichrist's première at Cannes has been greeted, as von Trier's films so often are, by feuding among the critics. That's always a good sign. Von Trier himself revels in being a controversial figure, in a way that infuriates even his most enthusiastic supporters. The guy is probably a jerk. But since I don't have breakfast with him every morning, I don't care.
Antichrist certainly sounds like strong stuff, even from a film-maker whose stock-in-trade is doling out strong stuff. Few people have seen it, and the prediction is that even if it gets a British release, it will be censored, to protect our little sensibilities.
Billed as a gothic horror film, Antichrist is the story of a couple, played by Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, who retreat to a secluded log cabin in order to recover from the grief of their son's accidental death. They are unable to do so, and descend instead into violent recrimination, involving Gainsbourg's mutilation of her partner's genitals and her own. Repulsive, horrible – movie scenes I'd most definitely avert my wussy eyes from anyway.
Some critics say that the film is misogynist because the mother takes on to herself all the guilt and blame for the loss of her child, while the father seems almost completely untouched by it. I'd say that sounds rather more like misandry, but what do I know?
It is suggested that the woman is portrayed as liking sex rather more than she likes her baby. She sees him falling from a window to his death, as she and her partner are copulating. The sight does not stop her orgasm – which is an involuntary spasm anyway.
But I think that might be construed as an obvious and too-little-aired point about the sexuality of mothers. Our girded vaginas, valued sexually for their tightness, used to the enjoyment of penetration, widen without the bidding of our minds to expel our babies in a physical experience that is a reversal of sexual intercourse.
Our erogenous breasts become nurturing mammaries when we feed our babies, and the dual function can feel deeply confusing. Male genitals, whether fertilising or not, perform the same sexual functions, relay the same physical sensations, whether they create children or they don't. It's pointless to suggest that women's deepest notions of the division between sex and procreation are not far less tidy than men's.
Ah, though, it is argued: In this film the woman is portrayed as culpable. We see her thrusting her son's shoes on the wrong feet and at the post-mortem, those feet are revealed as deformed. Maybe that is a salient fact in this film. Or maybe it is a manifestation of a maternal horror the character always carried. You could put your child's shoes on the wrong feet just once, and trigger the idea that they died because you failed them.
As I say, I haven't yet seen Antichrist. But I do know that it is billed as "a dark dream" and that mothers, even of healthy, happy children, commonly have recurring dark dreams of guilt about their offspring's imagined deformation or death.
I was plagued for a long time myself, in the moments before sleep, with worries about the low sash window at the top of the house, with a long drop to a concrete staircase below it. Over and over again, I'd see my naked, tiny children defenestrated, and all because I'd been too lazy to fit any window locks. Occasionally, I'd perform an exercise during the day, touching the window-locks, reassuring myself that I'd had them fitted before any baby had arrived in the house. But that didn't stop the nightmare visions that screamed: Lazy woman! Bad mother!
My own mother had her own version of this strange self-flagellating ritual. Whenever my dad was on night-shift, she'd either drag herself out of bed to check the telly plug was out, or, if she was just too exhausted – and these thoughts usually come when one is just too exhausted – call for me to do it for her. I never minded popping down, to check that, as always, she'd removed the plug. I understood without being told that my mother feared being the agent of the death of her precious children in a terrifying inferno.
I don't think I'm the only woman who finds that one's relationship with the sexual body changes after childbirth. On the contrary, the complaint that babies ruin sex lives is much repeated, Von Trier himself left his first wife when she was pregnant with their second child, for the babysitter. It's not hard to analyse what might have got him thinking about such things.
Nor do I think my mother and I are the only women to have suffered from obsessive and irrational thoughts about our ability to keep our children safe. The maternal psyche, at the best of times, can be fragile.
I value von Trier's films because they make me think about things that I'd rather not think about, things that are rarely acknowledged, and often those films make me angry or distressed. Breaking The Waves, in which sheltered, simple Bess McNeill is driven mad by her paralysed husband's demands that she should have sex with other men, then describe her encounters to him, was one of the best, most awful films I have ever seen.
An eminent and admirable film critic once told me that he'd hated it, and that he had purposefully taken his wife to see it. She'd hated it too, which relieved him. If she'd liked it – and he had to know – he wouldn't be able to bear the things this said about her. Men and women alike are divided by von Trier's films.
The director denies being a misogynist, though he admits that he finds female sexuality "terrifying". Like most men who find female sexuality terrifying, he likes pornography. But he is also interested in what the effects on women are, when their sexuality is challenged by motherhood, or their life becomes an exercise in acting out the sexual fantasies of their crippled husband. He is interested in what goes on in the minds of women under stress. If he is a misogynist, then he is a curious one, and not the more usual bland or annihilating sort.
Perhaps our popular culture is simply too fond of blaming the messenger. I think misogyny, intended or unintended, acted out by women or by men, is merely von Trier's favourite subject. This subject that is paid lip-service to, then bundled out of sight, much too often for society's good. That's why I'll be going to see Antichrist at the very first opportunity, and hoping that it gets the serious critical attention it deserves.
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