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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.

Picture three young women, all sensitive and ravishing.

One greets the end of the world by offering her naked body to an oncoming asteroid. Another pursues dangerous sex with an undead creature, conceiving a monster that threatens to kill her. A third enjoys a naked beating from her doctor as she contemplates the relation of sex to death.

These three wild and disturbing scenarios greeted moviegoers in recent weeks, begging the question: What’s up with all that?

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, and Bill Condon’s The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, each explore the labyrinthine connections between women, sex, and death. One of them, A Dangerous Method, actually tells the story of the woman who contributed a theory of their linkage to psychoanalysis with a question: Why does sex, the most powerful human drive, harbor both negative and positive emotions? Her answer convinced Sigmund Freud that his theory of sexuality was missing something.

In quite different ways, these three films investigate that something.

Sexy Time With Vampires

The Twilight film series, based on the best-selling teen books by Stephenie Meyer, presents a love story between a girl and a boy who happens to be an animated corpse — a fact that hardly promises the normal path of courtship and marriage. For starters, coupling with preternaturally strong vampires is potentially fatal to humans. There’s also a presumption that male vampires can’t impregnate live women. So in choosing Edward as her one and only, Bella signs up for sex that may result in severe bodily harm, if not death, and forsakes the traditional basis for marriage, i.e., reproduction.

Part of Edward’s appeal is that sexy time with him carries the exhilaration of danger. In marrying the vampire (who has nobly restrained himself sexually through two films), Bella chooses to plunge into a grand and melancholy world of dazzling sensual imagery, forbidden emotions, and sex that brings the house down — literally. The broken furniture and the small bruises that mark her body after sadistically tinged hanky-panky are a source of anxiety to the tender Edward — but not to Bella. She’s into it.

Anglo-American vampire stories took off in the 19th century, serving up tales of irrational desires struggling for expression in a social world unwilling to acknowledge them. The Twilight films offer an update by making a young girl’s desire central to both the spectacle (those muscled young men ripping their shirts off!) and a romantic trajectory in which she presses for sex, not he. On her wedding night, the virginal Bella prepares her body as if for a ritual offering, and then joins Edward in a moonlit swim/baptism that symbolizes her rejection of the “normal” world. In the aftermath of the Night of Broken Bed-frames, the two lovers frolic in a primeval jungle of splendid natural beauty, awakened to a primitive realm of sexual — and spiritual — fulfillment. Fun times!

But the conventional moralist in Meyer can’t openly endorse the subversive sexual freedom that the coupling promises. The idyll abruptly ends when the radiant bride is transformed into the monstrous mother, a corpse-like being pregnant with a creature that is literally eating her from the inside out. A conservative pro-life theme centers on Bella’s decision to go through with the unexpected pregnancy, even if it kills her (she is saved by a last-minute transformation into a vampire). The wages of sexual transgression for the female are steep, as plenty of mythic women punished for their sexuality and beauty attest — Medusa, Lamia, Scylla, Arachne, Melusine, Eve ... The list goes on. Bella’s horrific gestation puts the destructive element of sex and reproduction on full display.