Exploiting the Innocent Heroine

By Elzemieke de Tiege

 breaking-the-waves-lars-von-trier.jpgBreaking the Waves, 1996

Haunted by phobias and frequent depressions Trier makes for a troubled personality. One can argue that his instability feeds his creative output, but as the quote above implies it does more than that. Trier creates to survive.

"It isn't just a need and a desire to create, but, primarily a means of survival'"

Co-founder of Dogma 95, Lars Von Trier gained international recognition through his Golden Heart Trilogy: Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dark (2000). The trilogy centres on innocent, vulnerable, all-sacrificing heroines and was allegedly inspired by a book Trier read in his childhood: Guldhjerte (Goldheart). The book recounts the adventures of the little girl Goldheart who travels through a dark wood. When she emerges at the other side of the wood she's lost all her belongings and is left standing completely naked saying '"But at least I'm okay"'.

Breaking the Waves is the first part of the trilogy. The film tells the tale of a young woman, Bess, who lives in a small pious community on the Scottish coast line. Bess is considered a 'half-wit' and seems to have the emotional development equal to a child. Her marriage to Jan, an outsider working on the nearby oil rig, is frowned upon by the elders of the community. Shortly after Jan is badly injured and becomes paralysed. His physical incapacity hurdles Jan into bitter depression. He starts coaxing Bess to take a lover, promising that it will make him better. Bess concedes and freely gives herself to other men within the community, in the false hope that her actions will cure Jan. The sexual misadventures eventually lead to Bess's fatal downfall and Jan's miraculous recovery.

breaking-the-waves-lars-von-trier-2.jpgBreaking the Waves, 1996

Bess represents the little girl Goldheart and Emily Watson's impersonation of her is devastating. Her childlike whims and frustrating naivety stand in direct contrast with her obvious strength considering that Bess, despite disapproval of the elders, bravely continues to fight until the very end. Interestingly, her strength seems to be intensified by her sexual awakening, resulting in a stark contrast between naivety and physical blooming. This is where the exploitation starts. One can't help but feel repulsed and intrigued at the same time when watching Bess lose her virginity in the toilet, still in her wedding dress. But this is just the beginning. The first cringe-inducing moment, however social-realist and unexpected, somehow manages to have sweet undertones. The sexual charity innocent Bess is to provide afterwards becomes ever more cruel and difficult to watch.

Camera direction is an important contributor to the film's uncompromising content. The documentary-like visuals serve a partly practical, partly stylistic purpose. According to Trier the decision was made with the intent to downplay the rather romanticised plot. What would otherwise be a miracle-driven romance between an innocent virgin and an experienced sailor becomes a super-natural drama of heightened realism.

breaking-the-waves-lars-von-trier-3.jpgBreaking the Waves, 1996

In addition, the shooting style facilitated an infrastructural shift on set. Shooting hand-held reduced the time and care normally invested in composing slick visuals and thus liberated the actors. Robby Muller, the camera operator, was asked to shoot with sensitivity to their performance, rather than the actors adapting their performance to the camera. Therewith Trier enabled himself to more freely experiment on set and focus on taking the performances, particularly the emotions, further. Emotional expressiveness was then even further exploited in the edit, as Tier prioritised expression over polished style and continuity. The remarkable result that these decisions delivered was to cause worldwide critical polarisation exemplified by the divided reviews the film received.

In the film, Bess and Jan's (played by Stellan Skarsgard) 'goodness' ironically leads them to do 'not-good' things. Intending to help Bess move on, Jan lies to her. He lies because he wants to do good. Bess, completely devoted to Jan and wanting to be good to him, concedes to his will and starts prostituting herself. The real depth of their actions lies in the fact that they are not pressured to make these decisions: they are made from their own free will and knowing their motivations it's hard to condemn them. This leads me to one of the core questions driving this article: can innocence exist without guilt? Can real pureness, or goldenness, exist without foulness? It can't. One enhances the other. Trier consciously antagonized Bess' innocence and the characters' will to do good to drive the story and present the question to a wider audience.

breaking-the-waves-lars-von-trier-4.jpgBreaking the Waves, 1996

The second part of the trilogy, The Idiots, depicts a group of young, middle-class Danish people who are (temporarily) living in a commune together and have decided to confront outer society with their 'inner idiot' (i.e. playing at being mentally disabled, or 'spazzing'). Karen, played by Bodil Jorgensen, is the films' Goldheart. She is the last to join the group and will remain a mysterious outsider. Strangely, she openly objects to the group's behaviour but decides to stay with them. Stoffer, the deranged leader, forces the group into increasingly threatening and nonsensical exercises, to such a degree that harmony eventually becomes discordant and the group disperses. Yet, just when everybody has lost faith in their 'inner idiot' Karen sets out to prove the validity of the practice to them which results in a shocking family confrontation and the revelation of Karen's secret.

Jorgensen exudes a frank pureness as she criticizes the group for spazzing in public, which Stoffer defends with weak and unconvincing motivations. However, Karen's own motivation is never revealed. Why does she stay with the group given her obvious abashment? It soon becomes clear that Karen carries a tragic secret. Her deep sadness and confusion are expressed through frequent emotional breakdowns and discomforting extreme close-ups on her face. It is not until the very end, when we learn about Karen's recent trauma and meet her Bergman-esque family, that we are able to form an understanding for her character. It is also then, when reflecting on her interactions with the group, that the profound darkness of the film emerges. The severity of Karen's pain and the non-support of her horrid family followed by her confrontation with a group of people who seem utterly self-involved and anarchic eventually leading to her turning to spazzing: Goldheart and the exploitation of her innocence.

idiots-lars-von-trier.jpgThe Idiots, 1998

The Idiots is Trier's first and only Dogma film. Trier wrote, directed and shot the film himself using only the sound and light available on location. The film was shot hand-held and, again, breaks all the rules of conventional cinema. Some scenes are so underlit that actors are reduced to mere dark shadows, shots slip out of focus and are badly composed, the cutting is generally abrupt and non-continuous. The film is raw but it's provocative content can simply not be ignored. Similar to Breaking the Waves, Karen's expressive performance is intensified through extreme hand-held close-ups of her face. This technique allows the viewer an intimacy which is quite unprecedented in cinema and its extreme confrontation with 'Goldheart's' vulnerability can be found disconcerting.

To elicit an authentic performance from his actors, Trier aimed to erase boundaries between performer and character. 'Acting' and 'feeling'/'living' had to become one. For instance, eager to of get a truly authentic performance from Jorgensen, Trier went as far as reminding her of her real son during the shoot, who at that time was undergoing a serious heart operation. In the final scene, where Jorgensen is hit by her husband, an accident happened on set which produced real blood dribbling down Jorgensen's face. On this event Trier excitedly shouted 'Dogma blood!' and continued shooting. Trier has a reputation for being difficult and demanding of his actors, yet, considering the events described above 'difficult' does not seem to be the right word. I would argue that, in the rush of trying to get the best performance possible, Trier exploited his actors' emotions. By drawing from real events and real emotions he aimed to create a persuasive fictional performance. It is thus that hand-held close-ups record emotions that are part real, part fiction. An exploited performance visualised to an extreme extend.

dancer-in-the-dark-lars-von-trier.jpgDancer in the Dark, 2000

The trilogy was to close with a grand finale: Dancer in the Dark, and the internationally renowned singer Bjork Gudmundsdottir was to play the lead role. Dancer tells the story of Selma, a single mum and Czech immigrant living in a trailer in rural America. Selma harbours a secret: she is losing her eyesight to a hereditary disease which will soon affect her son, Gene. By working shifts in the nearby factory Selma has saved up enough money for Gene to receive eye surgery which should cure him. Then, Selma's neighbour and landlord Bill (played by David Morse) steals her money to falsely satisfy his wife's commercial needs. The story escalates as Selma tries to retrieve her savings and ends up killing Bill at his request. She is accused of murder and sentenced to death. Selma sacrifices herself for the well-being of her son and the film sadly ends on her being hung.

As a first-time lead actress Bjork makes a heart wrenching debut. Her child-like demeanour seems so vulnerable, open and singular that it becomes hard to watch the cruelties inflicted on her by her direct surroundings. Like Bess, Selma is completely selfless when it comes to loving her son. Selma's strength, similar to Bess, lies in her resoluteness to sacrifice all for his well-being. Bjork's convincing portrayal of the character in combination with Trier's now-trademark of unconventional shooting makes a remarkable viewing experience. Sadly, sensational media managed to take attention away from the film by focussing on the reported tensions between Bjork and Trier, rather than on the film.

dancer-in-the-dark-lars-von-trier-2.jpgDancer in the Dark, 2000

Trier's technique of making actors 'feel' and 'live' rather then 'act' appears to have taken on extreme forms during the shoot. Bjork immersed herself into the creative process of expressing a character to such an extent that she became unable to separate her personal emotions from what was happening to Selma. This is especially visible in the two most resonating emotional scenes of the film: when she murders Bill and when she is about to be executed. These are the scenes where the viewer squirms in their seat with disposition; the scenes where the realism in combination with exploited emotions (both personally and visually) literally cross boundaries. It is not surprising therefore, considering Bjork's inexperience of acting, that both the actress and the director suffered during the shoot. It was Bjork who coined the term 'emotional pornography' when referring to Trier's working methods. Which, according to Overstreet, should mean something along the lines of: 'Gratuitous emotion, removed from its appropriate context, robbed of respect and meaning, just as pornography accentuates carnal sex outside of a meaningful, beautiful context.' This leads me to re-emphasize the motivation behind this article, namely the irony behind the 'Golden Heart Trilogy', especially when made by Trier, and the inability to reach a just representation of innocence without counteracting the concept.

The very level of extreme emotion Von Trier elicits from actresses has been called erotic, and even likened to rape – of the characters (as with Bess), of the women who act them and of the audience that is, Von Triers detractors fear, forced to watch them, to open themselves up to them. The emotions portrayed in the trilogy are pushed to the edge and shot to the extreme. Goldhearts' innocence is exploited to the full by her surroundings, by the camera, by the director, and eventually by us, the viewers. Innocence is cruelly tested by sexual charity (Bess), social anarchy (Karen), theft and murder (Selma). Trier's conflicting personality influences his artistic choices, and determines his disputable directing methods. However, despite controversy over Trier's 'tortured artist' persona, he has helped his leads deliver remarkable performances reaching almost supernatural heights and resonating well into the 21st Century. A new take on innocence, an ironic take, Goldheart's purity is exalted by being placed in the midst of nudity, sex, anarchy, violence, death, and eroticism.

dancer-in-the-dark-lars-von-trier-3.jpgDancer in the Dark, 2000

The chosen path to represent the three Goldhearts has caused controversy, anger and critical polarization. Was it worth it? I do not believe Von Trier to be a sadist, indeed, most journalistic interviews about Trier express astonishment at the ease and softness of the director. Though who can deny an actors' frustration considering the emotional endurances as described above? One can safely argue the relationship between Trier and his actors, women in particular, is troublesome. Not one easily explained. To end in Von Trier's own words:

"I try to support my actresses the best I can, but in a way that I want them to be the best they can be in film...A woman has a tendency to give it all. Also, my main characters are built on my own person. I think women are better, more understanding. This is my female side."

Elzemieke de Tiege is a writer and filmmaker. She lives in London.