Beware of Spoilers
Karen: Wow – not at all what I expected. We just finished this and here’s my immediate impression. This is a men’s story. It’s about the way they mess up even when they are trying to do right and love the people they’re hurting. Jacob – he thought Helene would come back and so he let her slip away. He hurts the Indian boy by not keeping his promise to be there for the birthday. Jørgen – what a control freak. It doesn’t occur to him that his wife and daughter might want to share in the decisions he’s making for them after he’s gone. He tears Jacob from the life he’s created – I raised your daughter, raise my sons. The women (and children) are there, and they are loved by these men, but it’s about the men. And they’re good men who are trying to do right. Except the asshole son-in-law. Who cheats during the first week of marriage? Please. What was that about? I felt this men theme right when the film first started and Jacob was in India. He was talking to that kid and hugged him and I started thinking about how it’s different for men being around kids than it is for women. Trippy camera close-ups of eyes. I gotta go sleep.Me: Hm. This is a very Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick point of view. I wasn't thinking about maleness so much when I was watching it. It is a really smart movie, though, I think. Jacob has sort-of adopted this boy in India, and then he finds that his place is really in Denmark with his family, but he thinks the boy will want to leave India and go live with him. But no. And I feel like Susanne Bier is on top of that sentiment. Because the West (capital W) is not necessarily better than the "East" (whatever that means). Right?
Sure, Jørgen is making decisions behind his wife's back and that's wrong, of course. But I was so struck by Rolf Lassgård's performance. He's so scared and so human and so sure that what he's decided is right. He's wrong, maybe, but he's trying so hard and he's so fucking terrified. It's an amazing, honest performance and I was incredibly moved. The movie is really a long-form melodrama, something like a Lars von Trier film, I guess. But I found it difficult and interesting and the performances were wonderful.
So I understand your notions of males exchanging females as so much capital, but for me (call me a misogynist if you need to) the film is about male notions of legacy and caretaking and how they fail and work (sometimes) and are inadequate. The men in the film come up short.
Karen: I know I tend to see things through the feminist point of view, but… I thought the “there’s people to help right at home” theme was a unifying thread rather than the main message. The performances were all wonderful and I cried – a lot. And that is the men thing – they want to fix things. To take care of everyone and fix it and make everyone happy and provide for, etc., etc. And I’m not talking about misogyny. I’m talking about men who adore their women and children anddogs and whatever.Me: I am a feminist. I totally agree with you. And I think what you're describing as noticing in the film is what we should be terming "misogyny." Male notions of caretaking that disregard female knowledges and input are definitionally misogynistic. I'm not trying to make the film into a feminist film either. I think you were wise to the film more than I was, to be honest. I took the whole film from Jacob's point of view (of course) and so I didn't notice quite so much what you've pointed out. I read Jørgen's behavior as significant and interesting but not as a statement about men generally or a description of typically masculine behavior. I wonder if Bier is as good as you're giving her credit for being. (I hope so.) Have you seen her film Brothers? I think that had a similar exploration of homosocial bonds with the woman in an ancillary position to the male relationships.
Also I think it was the totally right thing for Jacob to do, leaving the boy in his own environment and staying with his family in Denmark, however painful it was. The boy would have been an alien his entire life. And that comment about “I thought you hated those people”– cutting. From the mouths of babes. Jacob thinking that the boy will want to go with him is another unifying thread – he thought Helene would come back to India to be with him. Rolf Lassgård was fabulous, fabulous. Did you understand what I’m trying to say about male legacy and caretaking? I’m not saying it is misogynist. It’s done out of love in this situation. But it’s such a stereotypic male response to problem solving. And in my (feminist) opinion, done with blinders on, in total disregard to what the recipients may want or need. For example, the daughter telling her Dad she needed to know he was dying. He: I didn’t want you to look at me and see a dead man and be sad before you had to. She: How about letting me spend what precious little time we have left together. And his reaction to his wife’s grief when she confronted him after the fishing trip was totally self-centered. And I understand it was his fear. Again, men afraid of expressing their emotions.
Or maybe it’s just two different points of view and I’m imposing my value judgments on it! But I’m telling you, I started getting this message very early in this film. It was shouting to me, not something I mused about and came up with later.
I think I'm understanding what you're saying about maleness and notions of caretaking and legacy. For me, all of those things are misogynist ideals: the propagation of male (homosocial) culture, notions of family purity, paternal responsibility, etc.
That scene at the end with the boy is incredible, because of course, the boy is right. As though bringing the boy, whom Jacob obviously loves, to the West is going to solve everything. Of course Jacob wants the boy to come with him, but what makes the film so smart, I think, is that Bier knows that the West isn't the solution. It has its own brand of problems and the way of living in the supposedly advanced West isn't any better necessarily than the way the boy lives at home in India.
Karen: Exactly! We’re on the same page. I do want to see some more of her films. I remember looking them up at one point, but I don’t remember if I put any in my queue.**
In Woman in the Dunes there is a feminist interpretation to the film that occurred to me as I was watching it, but I rejected it in favor of larger issues. Then I was watching the essay that comes on the disc and they mentioned it. So I figured I’m not the only rabid feminist out there!
Thanks, Karen! I had fun. If this is fun for readers, I will recruit you to do more of these when we both have time. Or if anyone out there wants to have discussions of movies we're both watching, I am game. Comment on this entry or send me an email.