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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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Von Trier’s fascination with female psychology and sexuality was most recently displayed in the controversial Antichrist, in which a husband/therapist’s attempt to understand his wife results in her subjecting him to sadomasochistic fantasies so gruesome as to render the film nearly unwatchable. In Melancholia, he presents a world in which modes of existence are barren; capitalism has emphasized greed, arrogance, and shallowness, ineluctably distancing one human being from the other. The complete negation of the will to live is terrifyingly embodied in a young woman of plentiful gifts. Her sexuality is stripped of all positive emotion, save the intense rapture she finds in lying naked in the woods, bathing in Melancholia’s incandescent rays and giving herself, Endymion-like, to the massive rock hurtling toward Earth. It’s the “big death” that Justine desires, and her expectant pleasure gives her an increasing sense of calm as the day of destruction approaches. Strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde call forth a story in which young lovers find peace only through annihilation. For Justine, dissolving back into nature is the cure for estrangement.

Spielrein points out that young women often have dreams of lying in a coffin, symbolizing a desire to return to the womb (the tomb). When she explained the forces that drive human beings, Spielrein noted that the essential desire for transformation is often constructed as death. The Twilight movie’s subtitle, “Breaking Dawn,” signals that in order to fully connect with her beloved, Bella must become a vampire and relinquish her humanity. Justine is not willing to relinquish her humanity. She rejects an inhumane future for a headlong plunge into undifferentiated nature. The world can be saved only when life returns to its primal source.

The three films show an increasing willingness to express the subjectivity of women on the screen — each young woman pursues her desires and is not simply a passive temptress waiting to be captured. They think of how to please themselves, not just their men. But a frustration with social institutions, particularly marriage and motherhood that still do not accommodate women’s desires and creative potential are evident. Consumer culture is deadening for all: In Twilight, ever-flowing money is a compensation for emptiness, while in A Dangerous Method, Jung's allegiance to the kingdom of wealth is sterile and limiting. But it is Von Trier’s film that speaks most clearly to why these expressions of women, sex, and death are so popular just now in this era of late capitalism. We are experiencing fearsome global dislocations, vampiric financial forces, and distorted social and economic systems that are killing our nurturing, loving instincts. Climate change and the destruction of our Earth feel much like a slow-moving asteroid on its way. The death drive is perennial, but when a society seems to hover on the eve of destruction, the "Eves" of destruction we see in these films — monstrous mothers, suicidal brides, young women pondering pain and death — emerge to speak our well-founded anxieties. They signal that just now, the death drive is very strong. We'll have to be damned creative to avoid the destruction.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet contributing editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture . Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.