It is said Lars von Trier’s oblique contribution to the STORY OF O culture, forecasts in many ways, the “women in peril” films that he’d start making in the 1990s. Inspired by Dominique Aury’s Histoire d’O,
Menthe – la bienheureuse (1979)
tells the story of a voluntary female submission. “But,” writes Swedish commentator Ulf Kjell Gür, “it also draws on the narrative style of Marguerite Duras as if retouched by Jean Genet.”
Ulf Kjell Gür continues, “The title has been translated into English as Menthe – the blissful but it would probably be more accurate (if apparently awkward) to translate it as Mint – the blessed one. The question of the addressee’s name is disputed through the dialogic narrative that unfolds as Menthe’s history is elliptically told by the speaker who attempts to entice her to travel with her to the “South”.
… Besides the ecstatically mutilated woman who reappears at the center of von Trier’s Golden Heart trilogy and in the figures of “Grace” and “She”, this film also introduces the Ascension motif which has its counterpart in the final shot of The Orchid Gardener also where the Dreyer-esque “Jew” appears to impale the film itself as if it were Vampyr.”
“chains and whips and lustful punishment…”
Lars Von Trier was born on April 30, 1956 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Trier, who invented his “von” as a sarcastic joke in his youth, grew up in an affluent neighbourhood north of Copenhagen in a typical “cultural liberal” home. He began making films from the age of 11, experimenting with a ‘Super 8’ camera given to him as a gift.
Menthe la bienheureuse was created within the framework of Triers’ membership to Filmgroup 16, a small filmmaker group founded in 1964 in the small town of Hvidovre, near Copenhagen, which pursued a noncommercial kino concept and produced in 16 mm format.
Danish film professor and author Peter Schepelern has written, “sexuality has always been an important element of fascination in von Trier’s work, though he does not connect to the jovial, humorous Danish tradition but rather, as in Bergman’s oeuvre, presents sexuality as a field of torment, obsession and depravity. Not only did von Trier read Nietzsche, Strindberg and Freud as a young man, he was also fascinated by Pauline Réage’s “The Story of O” and Marquis de Sade’s “Justine”, as well as films like Cavani’s “The Night Porter” and Pasolini’s “Salò”, which he later re-imported for distribution in Denmark.”
Schepelern continues, “Von Trier’s fascination with sexuality as a dark, demonic force is quite evident in the first two films he made during his student years in the late ’70s. Privately financed, “The Orchid Gardener” and “Menthe la bienheureuse” (freely adapted from “The Story of O”) with their chains and whips and lustful punishment clearly anticipate both “Antichrist” and “Nymphomaniac”.”
Menthe is a fascinating short film. It’s sexual frankness is perhaps curtailed by what became the myth of Scandinavia being the haven of pornography. Peter Schepelern explains; “Danish culture and society in the years when von Trier grew up were marked by a political
decision that could be seen as a sensational triumph for cultural liberalism, though it was mainly the product of a right-wing government. Denmark was the first country in the world to abolish laws against pornography – text in 1967 and images in 1969. Moreover, in 1969, Denmark was the first country to abolish film censorship for the grownup population (in 1997 all film censorship was abolished)…
…In Denmark, the legalization of pornography was, perhaps somewhat naively, seen as a victory for freedom of expression – in line with the new spirit of liberation that washed over the Western world in the 1960s. This new freedom, however, did not result in an explosion of pornography in Danish films.”
In its 31 minutes Menthe briefly and freely applies motifs and imagery from Histoire d’O in a style which leaves the viewer wondering what von Trier might do with the material if he chose to return to the chateau, so to speak, today.
Not only is the grand house situated in Roissy represented but also its gardener raking leaves, as observed by ‘O’ from her ‘cell’. This is one of many splendid moments in the original novel which one might wish to see explored fully on the silver screen:
“O watched the slow birth of pale dawn… It was broad daylight by now, and O had not moved for a long time. A gardener appeared on the path, pushing a wheelbarrow. The iron wheel could be heard squeaking over the gravel. If he had come over to rake the leaves that had fallen in among the asters, the window was so tall and the room so small and bright that he would have seen O chained and naked and the marks of the riding crop on her thighs.”
“banishment of certainty…”
The rings “O wore at her belly”, the brand bearing Sir Stephen’s initials, and the owl mask from the novel’s closing chapter all appear briefly in von Trier’s Menthe, set against other unconnected images including “exotic” landscape and an image of emaciated African children. Images, images and sounds, making connections which, Dr Angelos Koutsourakis in his Politics as form in Lars von Trier: a post-Brechtian reading points out, “refuse any sense of dramatic linearity.”
Koutsourakis talks of a combination of “austerity with spectacular fragments”, a “banishment of certainty” and “a plethora of interconnections between desire, power and domination”. The visuals in front of us becoming analytical and thus producing a sense of “critical distance and detachment and authorial uncertainty” is something Koutsourakis maintains, “that characterizes the whole corpus” of von Trier’s filmography.
Von Trier referred to the need to make films which go beyond the authority of the text and do not follow the classical psychological formula in which the actions justify the characters and vice versa. In his own words, “the story line is the pretext of the film but the other elements don’t have to point in the same direction.”
Not surprisingly von Trier’s oblique trajectory finds the inspiration for Manderlay (2005) in the introduction to the novel Story of O, Happiness in Slavery. Trier; “The French writer Jean Paulhan tells of the former slaves on the Caribbean island of Barbados who ask their former master to take them on as slaves again. When the man refuses, he and his family are massacred.”
At the close of the 1980s von Trier had, by all accounts, serious plans for adapting two erotic classics for the big screen: Story of O and de Sade’s Justine.
Swedish-Danish film critic and author/editor of books on Lars von Trier, Jan Lumholdt asked the obvious question, “What happened?”
“Well,” replied von Trier, “I had some contact with the son of “Pauline Reage” – who by the way amazed me in that she was actually a woman, I always thought that the novel had been written by a man – and I told him I was interested in the rights. But when he found out who I was, he said, “Never!”. He had seen The Element of Crime and he absolutely hated that film. And then I gave it up altogether.”
Will von Trier return to “O”? Who knows. However, Jan Lumholdt informs me ” I do my best and ask him every time we meet. I will keep asking him. We’re still young. It will happen. Will, will, will.”
|Inger Hvidtfeldt||…||The Woman|
|Carl-Henrik Trier||…||The Gardener|
|Lars von Trier||…||The Driver|
|Jenni Dick||…||The Old Lady|
|Brigitte Pelissier||…||Voice of The Woman (voice)|