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Women, Sex, and Death — From Vampires to Psychoanalysis

"Melancholia," "Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn," and "A Dangerous Method" explore dark passions, along with remembrances of death, violence, and dangerous female sexuality.

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Eros and Thanatos. The inseparable twins.

Why did it take a woman to make this connection? Links between women, sex, and death are as old as the primitive nature goddesses who both created and destroyed. Humans have always struggled with the disturbing recognition that cycles of nature contain both life and death. Women’s bodies express disturbing closeness to these cycles in their transformations through pregnancy and the way they bleed in monthly rhythms. They remind us that what is born must die. The womb and the tomb are intimately connected.

Sexual attraction evokes both the potential for life and for annihilation. There is the feeling of losing oneself in the moment of ecstasy (the French refer to orgasm as “la petite mort”). Especially for women there is also the introduction of a foreign body into the self and possibility of producing an entirely separate being — a source of both thrilling transformation and fear. Beyond the obvious physical fears, the notion of the mother “giving herself up” for her children is a powerful cultural pressure. And, of course, we still construct the compact of marriage and children as the end of sexual freedom — a condition that many humans find unbearable. For women, these restrictions are typically amplified.

Eve of Destruction

In Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, nature’s destructive force is an asteroid whose cycle is on a collision course with Earth’s. Kristen Dunst is Justine, a depressive whose name evokes the Marquis de Sade, from whom the term “sadism” derives. His novel Justine, subtitled The Misfortunes of Virtue, depicts a girl rewarded with sexual abuse in her quest for virtue; a meditation both on individual psychology and the social corruption of institutions. Von Trier, too, shows his character’s individual psychic disintegration as the mirror of a barren culture in which the life-instinct cannot survive.

Just as in the Twilight movie, we begin with a bride on the eve of her marriage. Justine tries to put on a good show for the wealthy European social realm she inhabits but secretly has no interest in the life expected of her. She thinks that her family is warped, her public relations job a farce, her boss an abomination, and if sex with her doting husband might mean the preservation of this malevolent species, she can’t have any part of it. On her wedding night, she prefers to have sex with a random young man on a golf course just after squatting to take a pee. The coupling is an expression not of creative union but the mere relief of a sexual tension shown to be much the same as relieving her bladder. Like Bella, she abandons the traditional path of marriage and motherhood, but in Lars von Trier’s treatment, Justine’s abandonment is total.

Meanwhile, the asteroid Melancholia is on the way, its name bringing to mind the famous 16th century Dürer engraving of a seeker of knowledge consumed with exhausted sadness amid all the instruments of science and learning. While scientists proclaim the asteroid harmless, Justine knows better. Far from being further depressed by this knowledge, however, she is gladdened by it.

Justine’s nihilistic pleasure in death is Von Trier's commentary on the corruption of a 21st century elite European culture in which a sensitive, truth-seeking woman like Justine can find no place. In a pop-culture production like Twilight, a girl may toy with expectations, but you won't get any great reordering of the world. Bella eagerly partakes of the prevalent consumerism of her day, enjoying endless goodies delivered by Edward’s inexhaustible supply of money (vampires, like bankers, always seem to have money), from private jets to a $35,000 wedding frock created by celebrity designer Carolina Herrera. The only avowed social challenge is the possibility of a bland, let’s-all-get-along truce between vampires and werewolves. But Von Trier faces the falseless and cruelty of the world in which his heroine finds herself head-on —- like an oncoming asteroid. “Life on earth is evil,” says Justine. “No one will miss it.”