Breaking the Waves: Britney Spears and Lars von Trier in Lockdown

May 18, 2021   •   By Philippa Snow

I put off finishing the documentary Framing Britney Spears for longer than I had expected, not because I didn’t care about the particular ins and outs of Spears’ legal battle with her father, but because I could not bear to see her suffering again. For many years, even if I have not self-identified as a Britney “fan,” I have been fascinated by her ugly treatment in the press. Here was Britney Jean, a pretty, smiling and pure-hearted small-town girl whose sexual awakening begat her downfall, and whose sexuality had become muddled, as if by some cosmic mix-up, with morality and Godliness in such a way that her eventual persecution did not feel contemporary, but Biblical. That she was eventually judged to be incapable of thinking for herself by the same patriarchal forces that had urged her, for the sake of modesty and dignity, to toe the line and shy away from self-expression feels, in hindsight, ironic enough that if it were not happening to an actual human being, it might raise a bitter laugh. That she responded by rebelling, occasionally behaving in a way that appeared risky or undignified or nihilistic — acting out, going commando, snarling “I don't know who you think I am, bitch, but I'm not that person” at a fan as if another force entirely were speaking through her mouth — should not be all that surprising, given the tremendous pressure placed upon her to be perfect, quiet, chaste but gorgeous, girlish in her style and womanly in the performing of her duties.

Spears’ contract with her public, as even a casual observer of her early career and her later struggle with the media will have noticed, is and always has been one that requires that she occupies two simultaneous, contradictory modes of being. At first, we required her to be both virginal and slutty; later, she was asked to play the role of the compliant mental patient and the sleek, productive pop star at the same time, living under a conservatorship and still making millions at her tautly-performed residency in Vegas. In the first half of Samantha Stark’s distressing Hulu documentary, we are mainly offered a reminder of the genesis of Britney as a pop star, which runs more or less concurrently with the genesis of her as a sexual object: we are introduced to her as a minute girl with a big, precocious voice, just ten years old, being told her eyes are pretty and asked if she has a boyfriend while on Star Search. (The year is 1992, and for some reason, when presenter Ed McMahon, who is sixty-nine and white-haired and bespectacled, says “how about me?”, the audience laughs instead of rising to their feet as one and stoning him to death.) Talking heads repeatedly inform us that although her family were poor, they were determined to make Britney very famous, so that by the time a clip of her appearing on the Mickey Mouse Club rolls around, the story of her journey to enormous stardom feels familiar and fated, like a fable. Each stage of her development is met with some new challenge to her dignity and intellect, interviewers asking her about her body or virginity as casually as if the question were about her latest album. Britney smiles, and smiles, and smiles, and tries her best not to appear too frightened or too hurt; when it is time for her to actually perform, a light goes on, the girl transforming from a shy young ingénue into a different thing entirely, her charisma and her competence making her seem finally powerful, at ease. As they’d hoped, she makes her family very rich.

As the viewer might have guessed, being famous does not make her very happy for too long. Two brief snatches of Spears being interviewed on television that appear in Framing Britney Spears stick in my mind. In the first clip, from the Dutch show TROS TV, a male presenter notes that “everyone is talking” about one thing in particular, then quickly clarifies: “your breasts.” “My breasts,” the eighteen-year-old pop star says, a little wearily, turning her head to face the audience momentarily as if check that everybody else just heard the same thing she did. Her regulation dazzling smile does not let up, nor does it flicker; she is in this moment an advertisement for smiling, or for dentistry. “You seem to get furious when a talk show host comes up with this subject,” the Dutch presenter says, smirking audibly as Spears says absolutely nothing, and looks as if she desires to be anywhere else but there. In the second clip, she appears with Diane Sawyer, “telling all,” and there is a ghoulish moment in which Sawyer — taking on the role of judge, jury and executioner, trying a twenty-one-year old for the dual crimes of having danced on television in a top that showed her navel, and having appeared to be unfaithful to her famous boyfriend — reads verbatim an extraordinary comment from the then-wife of the Governor of Maryland. “Really,” this middle-aged politician’s wife had said, “if I had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would.” “Oh, that’s horrible,” Spears winces, her eyes flashing with distress. “Because of the example for kids, and how hard it is to be a parent,” Sawyer clarifies, in a stern, sing-song kind of cadence that suggests that she does not think that the First Lady of Maryland is entirely wrong. If one of these interviews was meant to be suggestive, playful celebrity gossip TV, and the other was intended to be seen as harder-hitting journalism, both sprang from a similar impulse: the humiliation of, and the dismantling of, a girl who’d dared to stoke America’s desire. After this, Framing Britney Spears moves on to the inevitable downhill slalom of her image in the noughties — her marriage to Kevin Federline, her pursuit by the paparazzi, her first and her second pregnancies, her status as a media pariah for being an “unfit mother” who ate Cheetos and did not wear shoes to enter public bathrooms, her alleged madness. I switched off around the point at which photographers, clamoring wildly, were jostling to get million-dollar shots of her being lifted from her mansion on a gurney and delivered to Cedars-Sinai Hospital, feeling as if I were looking at a snuff tape.

Maybe I had simply had enough of ambient misogyny, or of the sight of women being tortured for the sake of something close to entertainment. At that time, for reasons that remain vague and mysterious even to myself, I had been spending what was then the third full lockdown here in England revisiting the filmography of the puckish and prickish Danish auteur Lars von Trier, a filmmaker I love and am provoked by in more-or-less equal measure. Like his near-contemporary David Lynch — who shares with him a proclivity for depicting sexual violence, but who has the notable distinction of being loved by his lead actresses rather than feared — von Trier is a controversial genius and a serial chronicler of fucked-up heterosexual dynamics, with a major in the kind that end in women being killed. It is possible that the sudden and startling timeliness of 2011’s Melancholia, a faultless film about being clinically depressed while all about you lose their heads at the apparent hastening of the apocalypse, put the desire to renegotiate my feelings on his oeuvre in my head; what it meant, however, was that I had spent an inordinate amount of my time wondering what exactly split depiction from endorsement. It is funny to suggest that a mother and academic might be driven to believe that women, including herself, are evil and in league with Satan because of a combination of bad therapy and research for her thesis, but only if you are saying so in order to elucidate a larger point that is not “women are evil”; it is funny to produce a serial-killer film in which the women are called “Lady 1” and “Lady 2” and, most preposterously, “Simple,” but only if you are doing so to satirize your own terrible blind spots, and not because you believe most women to be simple ladies.

Eventually, anyway, for the first time in maybe twelve years, I re-watched Breaking the Waves, his 1996 masterpiece about Bess, a pretty, smiling and pure-hearted small-town girl whose sexual awakening begets her downfall. As ever with von Trier, the mystery is tonal, and not narrative: any ambiguity has less to do with what he says than what he means. Taken at face value, the film is almost unbearably sincere and saccharine, a tender paean to being good in what is ultimately an unfeeling world. Bess is Godfearing and gentle to a fault, incapable of malice or of cruelty; the community she lives in is religious, patriarchal, and convinced that she is not in her right mind, asking her whether she is capable of understanding what it means to be a wife when she announces her intention to get married. Her new husband, an outsider who excites her, introduces her to sex, a revelation that sets off a chain reaction whose eventual result is that she ends up being ostracized and shamed. Beginning with the loss of her virginity and ending in her being martyred, via an attempt by her immediate family to have her institutionalized, Bess has a kind of simultaneous breakdown and erotic breakthrough, morphing from an abstemious good girl into someone who wears cherry-colored vinyl and is generally perceived as being a slut. Complicating things, there is a metaphysical element to her transformation, her conception of her sexuality becoming muddled, as if by some cosmic mix-up, with morality and Godliness — always, she believes that what she does is honorable and true, making it doubly poignant when the local children shower her with stones, or her contemporaries shower her with sexual insults. “God gives everyone something to be good at,” she informs her doctor, plainly enough to break any viewer’s heart. “I've always been stupid, but I'm good at this.” That Bess has mistaken her goodness and compliance for stupidity is almost as distressing as her eventual destruction at the hands of hateful men.

After that, I figured I might as well finish what I’d started, since I had already on some level just watched an entirely different, horrifying documentary about the experience of being Britney Spears. Framing Britney Spears is nominally about the dubious nature of the conservatorship that has remained in place since 2008 vis-à-vis Spears’ life and earnings, meaning that while she is considered to be entirely capable of regularly putting on a show, she is not thought to be capable of possessing her own phone, or of controlling her own finances. Its recounting of the episode surrounding her admission to Cedars-Sinai Hospital is swiftly followed by a move into addressing how exactly she first lost the power to live like an adult: Spears’ right to see her children, originally revoked after her struggles with her mental health, is rumored to have been used as leverage in order to ensure her full cooperation with the choice to appoint Jamie Spears, her father, as the co-conservator of her estate. She loses the ability to decide who can visit her at home, and is kept under twenty-four-hour surveillance; Jamie Spears is given access to her credit cards and her medical records, and permitted to make tour and TV bookings for her at his own discretion. “When I tell them how I feel it’s like they hear me, but they’re really not listening,” she says in a clip from the 2008 documentary Britney: For The Record, her brown eyes filling with tears. “They’re hearing what they wanna hear, they’re not hearing what I’m telling them. It’s bad.” Jamie Spears’ legal power over her might make more sense if many of those who were interviewed in Framing Britney Spears did not suggest that he had been an absent father in her childhood, an on-and-off alcoholic, and so terrible with money that he had to file for bankruptcy when she was barely in her teens. A lawyer she met with says that Britney has an issue not only with his appointment as her conservator, but with him in general “as a person.” “The only thing Jamie [Spears] ever said to me was ‘My daughter’s gonna be so rich, she’s gonna buy me a boat,’” Kim Kaiman of Jive records tells the camera, coolly, barely hiding her disdain. “And that’s all I’m gonna say about Jamie.”

Other writers with more detailed knowledge of both Spears’ conservatorship and the American legal system have already produced lucid, intelligent summaries of what exactly is at stake in the ongoing war over her independence, or the lack thereof. What I personally found striking about Framing Britney Spears was its exhaustive, chronological rehashing of the dehumanization of its subject — the slow distancing of Spears’ selfhood from her image, making her into a Lolita-sweet sex doll, then a target, then a joke, and then a cautionary tale — via the media, details piling onto details until the whole exercise resembled something like a true crime documentary. If we were not as outraged about this back in 1999 or 2003 or 2008, it was because the flattening of her into a two-dimensional figure who did not deserve our sympathies had been done in such minor increments that we had barely been aware of it, the heat being turned up on the pot so gradually that it did not seem as if boiling point were being reached at all. Seen like this, even her most infamous moments of extremity seem reasonable, even sane. Shaving off her platinum hair in all those famous photographs from 2007, she does not look like a madwoman at all in light of the evidence stacked against her tormentors, but like a woman who is cannily aware that being bald might help her separate herself from her destructive, suffocating public image as a pin-up. Her desire to close herself off from the sexy, girlish Britney who sold soda and pink Sketchers and who flashed her abdomen in magazines could not have been more crystal-clear if she had cut off her own breasts, or in some way scarified her perfect, all-American face; likewise, her animal rage at the unsympathetic paparazzo who has followed her to say, disingenuously and cruelly, that he chased her from the scene at which her former husband denied her the chance to see her children because he is worried for her is not loony or outsized, but understandable, the lashing out of someone threatened and in pain. “How’re you doing?” he asks her through the window of her car, photographing her as she sits with her newly-shorn head in her hands. “I’m concerned about you though, OK?” Who would not race out of the vehicle with a makeshift weapon swinging? Who would not scream fuck off at maximum volume? It is funny that so often when a man describes a woman — usually an ex-wife or a former girlfriend — as a “crazy bitch,” it turns out that he is the one who drove her up the wall, or sent her screaming to the madhouse. Britney Spears, in the lead up to 2007, suffered the unenviable fate of being treated as if she were the ex-girlfriend of America itself, her real ex-boyfriend piling on by acting like a quarterback whose high school love had jilted him before the prom. Never mind that Justin Timberlake had been the one to make a music video in which he broke into a Britney-a-like’s house and watched her shower — obviously, Spears drove him to it, being a mad hillbilly slut who could not live up to the promise she had made to him at nineteen or at twenty that the two of them were in it for the long haul.

The sweetness of her character, in light of such heavy bombardment, is disarming. The pre-breakdown Britney, still resilient enough to bear the indignities of her early fame, has a sunny disposition, the enthusiasm of a preteen girl scout — if her longing to perform or her desire to please her fans is anything other than heartfelt and sincere, she does not show it. She has an infectious giggle, as tremulous and as candy-coated as her famous vocals, and a millennial American’s tendency to exclaim ew! when what she really means to say is ouch! An anecdote related in the documentary has her distributing hundred dollar bills around her neighbourhood in Kentwood, not to brag about her stardom or to boost her public image, but to repay the community she loved. “[She was] still [that girl] from Louisiana, and everything was so fresh and new. She was so humbled by everything,” her friend and former minder says. “We were home for Christmas, and she got out $10,000 and just drove through Kentwood and gave out hundred dollar bills. And it wasn’t ‘hi, I’m Britney Spears’—it was just ‘merry Christmas.’”

If Breaking the Waves had not already felt to me like a particularly elliptical and haunting biopic of Britney Spears, what might have swung it was the moment in which Dr. Richardson, Bess’ physician, testifies after her death. Asked to confirm whether or not he stands firm on his original diagnosis of her as “an immature, unstable person” who “gave way to an exaggerated form of perverse sexuality,” he is contrite: “If you were to ask me again to write the conclusion,” he stammers, “then instead of writing ‘neurotic’ or ‘psychotic’ [to describe her], I might just use a word like ‘good.’” Either way, it hardly matters, since the damage has been done: she has sacrificed herself, via a gang rape, for what she believes is something more important than herself. I said earlier that the mystery of the film was in its tone, and not its narrative — what I meant was that although the final shot appears to show a miracle, the question for me is not whether or not von Trier is suggesting God is real, but whether or not we are meant to think of any higher power that would drive a young girl to her own destruction as being good rather than evil.

Lockdown, in its stultifying, suffocating way, has made everyone I know a little mad. Some of them have shaved their heads, a la Britney; many of them have been crying, as if grieving, every day, the weight of all that loneliness and uncertainty even more unbearable as we end up slowly being released. Goodness, usually rare, feels in especially short supply. I stopped revisiting Lars von Trier’s filmography around the time that a young woman in the UK disappeared while walking home, and was later discovered to have been killed by an off-duty police officer, a story that encouraged many women to share anecdotes about their own experiences with harassment and assault on social media, and which generally left most of the nation’s women either furious, upset, or reliving their trauma. I could not, anyway, quite bring myself to re-watch Dancer in the Dark, an agonizing musical about a tender-hearted woman being executed by the state whose inventiveness and eerie, sickening melodrama have since 2017 been somewhat overshadowed by its lead actress Bjork’s accusations of sexual misconduct on the part of the director. The same question I had been considering about the difference between documenting women’s suffering and glorying in it as a piece of entertainment hangs regardless over every shot in Framing Britney Spears devoted to her unravelling, her humiliation at the hands of the tabloids and paparazzi. There is no doubt that the film is educational and instructive, and there is no doubt that many who were not aware of the intricacies of Spears’ personal history will have found themselves appalled and enervated by its horrors; it is said that Spears herself was grateful for the publicity it has brought to her attempts to free herself from Jamie Spears’ grasp. It has also been suggested that her preference is to tell the story from her own perspective, in her own words and — presumably — without the titillating, merciless rehashing of the most unpleasant moments of her life. (She has, a source informed US Weekly in mid-March, always longed to write a memoir.) I thought again about Framing Britney Spears on reading an article in The Irish Times by the journalist and novelist Ann Enright in which she quotes from a study about rape: “I felt I was repaying her,” a rapist who had been interviewed said, “for arousing me.” The word “repaying,” making it unclear whether he believed that the act had been a present or a punishment, destroyed me, as if being violated might be a reward for being sexy on the same level as earning enough cash to buy a boat.