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The Films Of Lars von Trier: A Retrospective

The Films Of Lars von Trier: A Retrospective


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What with all his provocations and (usually) self-manufactured controversies, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Lars von Trier is a truly gifted filmmaker, who yes, is a prankster and trickster as well, but also a man who imbues his characters with a rich sensitivity, even if the conditions they face can be cruel and harsh. Not all his films are masterpieces, but he’s been turning heads at home and abroad for getting on 30 years now with films like "Europa," "Dancer in the Dark," "Breaking the Waves" and "Dogville" making some of the biggest waves internationally. Never easy watches, but always rewarding, he’s slowly been assembling one of the most interesting back catalogues in recent memory — ranging from period dramas to musicals to comedies — even if accusations of misogyny and misanthropy aren’t easily dismissable.

Von Trier’s latest, the apocalyptic drama "Melancholia" with Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, Alexander Skarsgård  and John Hurt among many others, goes out on limited release in theaters this weekend (it’s also available on VOD), and while it’s not quite A-grade von Trier, it nonetheless finds him in the sharpest command behind the camera in years. It may be his most beautiful film as well, with its breathtaking cinematography asking for a big screen presentation. We’ve taken the opportunity to look back over the director’s career, spanning from 1984’s debut "The Element of Crime" to 2009’s typically controversial "Antichrist." Next up is erotic drama "Nymphomaniac," and a possible collaboration with Martin Scorsese on a new take on "The Five Obstructions," but in the meantime, even experienced von Trier watchers should find something they may have missed below. 

"The Element of Crime" (1984)
Though von Trier outright dedicated his last film “Antichrist” to Andrei Tarkovsky in the end credits, that couldn’t have been much of a surprise to anyone who’s been a follower of the provocative Dane’s career. The Russian master’s influence can be seen as far back as “The Element of Crime,” his first feature, not least of which in the film’s sepia-soaked visuals, recalling the opening and closing segments of “Stalker.” ‘Crime’ is certainly a beautiful film to look at it, but it’s not the most inviting: its opaque narrative – concerning an English detective named Fisher who undergoes hypnosis to remember his last case – kept this writer at something of a remove. We wanted to love it, as it’s so awash in noir conventions while also presenting a thoroughly realized dystopic dream world and a cool, pre-“Manhunter” cop/criminal yin-and-yang concept. But in the end it’s the visuals and mood that are most memorable in this first entry of the director’s “Europa Trilogy.” [B]

"Epidemic" (1987)
“A film ought to be like a pebble in your shoe," Lars von Trier says as a type of twisted toast off the top of the black and white feature, "Epidemic." Well, mission fucking accomplished. A bifurcated meta-narrative about screenwriting, von Trier’s sophomore film might be his most tedious effort. Shot in grainy and stark black and white and starring von Trier and screenwriter Niels Vørsel as themselves, "Epidemic" starts out as script that the duo hope to write about a virus that is slowly starting to spread around the word. Vacillating between the stylized "movie" version of the film – which stars Lars as a righteous doctor trying to save country folk from the disease – and then the raw portion of the narrative where Lars and Niels actually talk about writing the film, choosing the right wines to go with food and other inessential blather. Though it does feature the incomparable Udo Kier in a brief cameo role, it is certainly not enough. The only satisfying part of the drama is when the disease seems to travel from the fictional movie into the real plot – get that? Characters then commit suicide and/or then begin to (ambiguously) show signs of the disease. One of von Trier’s least essential films. [C-]

"Europa" (1991)
Released as “Zentropa” in the U.S. but recently restored to its original title with 2008’s Criterion Collection DVD release, the casting of expatriate American Eddie Constantine in a side role is telling as it’s not unlike Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville,” an oblique take on the science-fiction genre which starred Constantine in the lead. Shot in moody black and white with flourishes of color generally saved for blood and employing odd rear-projection effects, "Europa," like "The Element of Crime," is one of Lars von Trier’s most stylish and hypnotic efforts. Employing a Kafka-esque feverish dream tone, "Europa" centers on an imagined world where an idealistic American (Jean-Marc Barr) travels to post-war Germany in 1945 as a railroad conductor in hopes of doing some good for the world and the German people. Soon, he meets a femme fatale and becomes entangled in a Nazi-sympathizing plot to act out a terrorist attack on occupying U.S. forces. Co-starring Barbara Sukowa, Udo Kier, Max von Sydow and Ernst-Hugo Järegård, “Europa” is dripping with both melodramatic film-noir atmosphere – like Kafka’s take on “Casablanca” – and a drowsy surreal tenor that is all Lars von Trier. According to legend (and Roger Ebert), when the film won the Prix du Jury at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, von Trier flipped the jury the bird and stalked off, clearly thinking the film deserved the Palme d’Or prize. [B]

"The Kingdom" (1994)
Set amid the melodramatic hi-jinks of a legendary Danish hospital, given the titular name after it was built on ancient bleaching ponds, this mini-series is perhaps the crown jewel in von Trier’s oeuvre. “The Kingdom,” which he created (and appears at the end of every episode in a Hitchcockian coda), is easily his funnest effort, balancing soap opera plotlines and characters with a truly creepy paranormal undercurrent. It’s amusing to think how easily misunderstood this show could be to the uninitiated, or the unprepared. If taken seriously, a common and quick reaction would be to call the show cheesy, but look no further than the opening credits to understand what von Trier is after. Make no mistake – this is a comedy first and foremost, just as comfortable spoofing the silly tropes of hospital shows like “ER” (the first episode’s hilarious plotline mostly concerns who exactly should be allowed to order a CT scan in the hospital) as it is satirizing the hubris of the Danish medical establishment. But the humor would be less effective if the horror elements weren’t so pitch-perfect. The hospital rests on top of a portal to a demonic spirit world, and let’s just say weird shit is going down: ghosts appear, a phantom ambulance drives around the hospital, cadavers are beheaded, two dishwashers with Downs Syndrome act as a Greek chorus commenting on the action intermittently throughout each episode, and more. It’s in the finale where von Trier really hits his stride, though, with a lovely and hilarious Seinfeld-ian confluence of all the plotlines and a wonderful build up to a shocking final image, which beat Takashi Miike’s “Gozu” by nearly a decade with its truly fucked-up birth scene. [A]Breaking the Waves” (1996)
Though not as torturous as “Dancer in the Dark” nor as graphically violent as “Antichrist," "Breaking the Waves," the director’s first English-language film that also won him the Grand Prix at Cannes, began von Trier’s unofficial "Golden Heart" trilogy, a series of films led by wholly innocent protagonists taken through the wringer. Emily Watson (Oscar-nominated in her very first performance) makes an unforgettable film debut as lead Bess McNeil, a role originally intended for Helena Bonham Carter, who apparently pulled out due to the extensive nudity required. Bess, though full grown physically, is childlike in every other way, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, sheltered by her close-knit religious community.  She marries the worldy outsider Jan (the ever watchable Stellan Skarsgård), and is both awakened and liberated by their first two-minute tryst in a bathroom, and the honeymoon that follows. However what begins as a fleshy love story becomes a tragedy. Initially tinged with black comedy — in true von Trier style — it spirals further into sadomasochistic perversion. Watson is the core of the film as the increasingly disturbed Bess who sacrifices her own life through unconventional physical degradation to prove her unwavering faith and devotion to her husband and to God; the Christ parallels and nods to Carl Dreyer’s “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc" are unmistakable. The film’s chapter breaks are soundtracked by ’70’s classics from Elton John and David Bowie, which serve as some respite from the film’s devastating emotional intensity. [A+]

"The Kingdom II" (1997)
After the first season, which certainly works as a standalone four-hour film, there were still plenty of unresolved mysteries and much more comedy to mine in “The Kingdom.” Part two (episodes 5 – 8) picks up where things left off in the finale and is the “Evil Dead 2” of this series, upping the comedy, absurdity and outré gore and body horror to a degree that’s both organic and justified. Somehow it’s all a logical continuation and development of what came before. It’s just a shame von Trier and co. were never given the chance to make their “Army of Darkness.” A third and final season was planned, with a script already written, but after the passing away in 1998 of lead actor Ernst-Hugo Järegård as well as the subsequent deaths of four more cast members vital to the show, it appears we’ll never get a proper conclusion to this awesome series. Even though season two leaves even more questions left unanswered and ends on a bigger cliffhanger than the first, we still heartily recommend the entire mini-series, if for nothing else than Järegård’s brilliant performance as Stig Helmer. A hilariously crass and cartoonish xenophobe, Helmer is a classic hospital/doctor show villain, but with the arch assholery dialed up to 11 and played for endless laughs. [A]

The Idiots” (1998)
One of von Trier’s most provocative and divisive pictures – you’ll either love it or loathe it –"Idioterne" is also one of the director’s least seen films because of its NC-17 style depictions of soft-core porn-like sex which ensured the picture never received a proper U.S. release (and it remained unavailable on DVD for quite some time until recently; though bootlegs and imports abounded). Von Trier’s first film under the Dogme ’95 Manifesto, many can’t get pass the contemptuous-sounding premise: a radical group of anti-bourgeois bohemians decide to drop out of society and pretend to be disabled and mentally-handicapped to get in touch with their “inner idiot.” At first, the pretense of “spazzing” (acting like retards) is a socio-political statement under the guise of rejecting society and regressing to a romantic notion of uninhibited bliss. But soon the motivations vilely curdle with much inappropriate hilarity. The men abuse the notion to get laid among the various women in the group – they ask for a gang bang and they get it – and soon, to keep the charade going, they begin to abuse the concern and charity of those who live nearby who are worried about this group of "retards." It only gets worse when the group leader demands they take their spazzing to another level: it must invade their personal lives. A newcomer to the group, Karen, is the only one to take up the challenge and the results around her family are brutally funny and excruciatingly uncomfortable. Not for the easily offended, "Idioterne" is “wrong” on all levels, but it is also von Trier near the top of his confrontational  game. [A-]

"Dancer in the Dark" (2000)
Closing out his ‘Golden Heart Trilogy,’ which also included "Breaking the Waves" and "The Idiots," with a full-on musical wasn’t exactly what people had come to expect from the maverick filmmaker. But looking back, "Dancer in the Dark" which stars and features songs by Icelandic chanteuse Björk, is absolutely of a piece with the other two. The singer, who deservedly won Best Actress at Cannes, plays Selma, a Czech immigrant working in a factory in Washington State, attempting to pay for an operation to save her son from the hereditary blindness from which she’s beginning to suffer. Another one of von Trier’s Job-like female protagonists, she’s put through the wringer to the point where it just seems plain cruel — but like "Breaking the Waves," the director examines the notions of sacrifice and the depths we’re prepared to travel for those we love. And placing the film within the confines of a musical, a genre that traditionally deals with joy and happiness (the decision to borrow three tracks from "The Sound of Music" can’t have been an accident), was something of a masterstroke, particularly as he’s careful to frame most of the song-and-dance sequences as fantasy. It’s as divisive as you might expect (even Björk has gone on record as calling von Trier a sexist and vowed to never act again after her fractious experience with the helmer), but this is one of the films von Trier is likely to be best remembered for, long after the controversies have faded away. [A-]
"Dogville" (2003)
Considering he doesn’t have much in the way of a theatrical background, it’s a pleasant surprise that von Trier was behind one of the more effective hybrids of film and stage in recent years. Drawing on Bertolt Brecht and Friedrich Durenmatt‘s "The Visit," "Dogville" takes place on a mostly empty sound stage, with only markings on the floor to indicate the town’s borders and a few objects within the “homes” to indicate some kind of personality for each family. But somehow, it ends up being a piece of pure cinema, the artificial qualities only emphasizing the metaphorical aspects of von Trier’s tale. The action begins when a fugitive, Grace (Nicole Kidman), arrives in the town, fleeing gangsters. A young philosopher, Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), convinces the town to take her in and protect her, and the inhabitants (who include Lauren Bacall, Chloe Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgård and Patricia Clarkson) initially take her under their wing before brutally turning against her. The film acts as a scatching indictment against hypocritical American social and religious morale, a theme that is underscored by the brilliant use of David Bowie‘s "Young Americans" over an end credit sequence that includes images of poverty around the country taken by fellow Dane Jacob Holdt. It’s a tough slog of a watch, clocking in at just under three hours, but it’s a deeply rewarding one, perhaps the quintessential von Trier film, with the quintessential von Trier heroine in Kidman, giving arguably the greatest performance of her career to date. So much so that it’s hard to watch follow-up "Manderlay" and not miss her. [A]

"The Five Obstructions" (2003)
As evidenced by Dogme 95, von Trier is obsessed with rules, and within them his creativity has always flourished. “The Five Obstructions” is an unconventional documentary about filmmaking, with von Trier challenging his friend and sort-of-mentor, director Jørgen Leth, to remake his experimental 13-minute black and white short “The Perfect Human” (1967) five times, each time with a different obstruction specified by von Trier. Though initially concerned about the limitations von Trier sets, Leth makes a better and better film each time and seems to get more pleasure out of the project as it continues. Von Trier’s clear desire to trip up his hero, his perfect human, Leth, and have him make a film that is much less perfect, is clear. Though his mischief making seems to have a more serious, and perhaps misguided, purpose, his desire for Leth to destroy and reinvent his best work, and partially himself, in order to reveal his true self is almost touching. The final challenge turns the competition on its head somewhat and begs the question as to who has beaten who, and at what game? It’s hard to imagine this film being realized by anyone other than the puckish von Trier, and his target the calm and controlled Leth. Their differing ideals on film and filmmaking make the it a fascinating and fun watch for anyone with any interest in the creative process. It’s a treat and an insight for any von Trier fan to see him talk about film even if it’s not his own. [B+]

"Manderlay" (2005)
Von Trier’s direct follow-up to “Dogville” is, in many ways, half of its predecessor. Not only is the runtime nearly an hour shorter, but it seems to tackle a much smaller vision of von Trier’s America. After the events of “Dogville,” Grace and her father arrive in the South, seeing a farm where blacks are kept as slaves despite slavery long being abolished. Flexing her muscle, she gets the plantation owners to become the slaves, placing the blacks in charge. Of course, this simple-minded flip generates volatile results and is perhaps von Trier’s most predictable creative gamble yet. Von Trier’s direction is still both furious and darkly funny, and his Brechtian tactic of using an actual stage for a setting helps illuminate the notion of slavery thriving versus slave abolition and the weak line separating the two. Damnedly, “Manderlay” suffers from its lead performance. Nicole Kidman couldn’t/wouldn’t return to the role, leaving the reins to Bryce Dallas Howard. While Howard presents a warmer, much more openly duplicitous personality compared to Kidman’s icy angel of death, she’s not nearly as forceful or intense, and when she takes control of the situation, it’s not nearly as compelling as watching Kidman’s rage dominate the close of “Dogville.” It’s no wonder von Trier abandoned the third part of this potential trilogy, “Washington," as “Manderlay” finds a great filmmaker grasping for straws. [B]"The Boss of It All" (2006)
Our Danish boy has dabbled in comedy before with varying outcomes ("The Idiots" is strangely funny at times and the opening limo scene in "Melancholia" is hilarious; contrastingly he made an ill joke about, well, you know) but this one is his only flat-out farce, an oddity that sticks out so much that even the filmmaker argues for its existence in a goofy preface. The plot almost suggests von Trier had a plant in a Chuck Lorre writing room: Ravn (Peter Gantzler), unable to be the hard-ass he needs to be at his IT company, creates an imaginary boss whom he can blame when personnel get agitated. On the day he wants to sell the whole shebang, he hires desperate actor Kristoffer (von Trier regular Jens Albinus) to portray the fictitional administer. But when negotiations are pushed and the staff finally catch a glimpse of their hands-off asshole boss, Kristoffer finds himself having to keep the charade up a bit longer. It’s a fish-out-of-water comedy, with our main character constantly trying to keep up the ruse to sitcommy effects. Albinus plays it straight and dry, but that doesn’t keep the material from feeling very general and obvious at times — the large amount of improv-esque dialogue rarely ever leads to any surprise off-the-cuff zingers that the pros always manage to exhume. Seemingly edited by a maniac with a full bladder, maybe the most amusing thing about the project are the results of its shooting style, Automavision, in which a computer chooses the lens’s angle and movement. This lack of human sense causes a lot of laughable irregularities such as clipped bodies amd miles of empty space between characters or above heads. "The Boss of It All" musters up a surprising amount of heart towards the end, but its overdependency on unfunny dialogue-driven clowning make the road to it a tad laborious.  [B-]

"Antichrist" (2009)
“Chaos reigns” became something of a cinephile meme in 2009, not unlike (but never quite reaching that level of pop culture cache) “I drink your milkshake” from a few years before. That line, of course, comes from a highly divisive scene in Lars von Trier’s stab at the horror genre, “Antichrist,” and is said by a talking fox eating its own entrails. It’s an important scene in many ways: the line is something of a manifesto for the director’s storytelling sensibilities as well as the nature of this film; it’s also a turning point in the film, the big clue that things are about to go from pretty damn bad to holy-shit-did-you-just-see-that-horrible. But how you take that scene – your visceral, immediate reaction to it (do you laugh or find it creepy?) – may be the moment where you go all in for the crazy that’s about to transpire or when you throw your cards in the middle and fold. For this writer, it’s the former. “Antichrist” is many things – arthouse shock gore film, an ode to depression, a fresh take on the cabin in the woods sub genre, sometimes pretentious parable for dealing with grief – but something that cannot be denied is the skill with which von Trier builds up to the really horrible stuff. You’ve probably already heard about the graphic violence in the film even if you haven’t seen it, suffice to say it involves bad things happening to people’s naughty bits (and we’ll just leave it at that). But if you can move past it or simply deal with the shock value on screen, which is effective and not gratuitous in the context of the film, you open yourself to a very interesting response from the director on his label as a sadistic filmmaker who seems to take pleasure in punishing his female characters, and the nature of misogyny. [B+]

Erik McClanahan, Sam Chater, Cat Scott, Christopher Bell, Rodrigo Perez

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Comments

Carter

Regarding Tarkovsky's influence on Von Trier, I'd say "The Sacrifice" planted the seeds for "Melancholia."

Steven Flores

Hey! What about "Medea" and "D-Dag"?

Ken

I always dig your filmmaker retrospectives, I wish you guys had a list of all the retrospectives that you've done so I can read all of them as I'm sure I've missed a few in the past.

hank

I've always been curious about "Medea" as well, was hoping you would mention it.

Also, I believe the sequel to "Manderlay" was actually to be titled "Wasington" not Washington.

Christopher Jason Bell

"Medea" is pretty good, but from what I remember, very undistinguished. As for the retros, you can click the "Features" tag at the bottom of each article and they'll all come up along with some others such as Oscar Race pieces, Yearly Best lists, etc.

Annemarie Hørsman

Very informative! There's more Lars von Trier on our website by the way:
http://www.dfi.dk/faktaomfilm/danishfilms/dfperson.aspx?id=1411 (more info, synopses etc. will be added shortly)
http://www.dfi.dk/Service/English/News-and-publications/FILM-Magazine/FILM–66.aspx
http://www.dfi.dk/Service/English/Films-and-industry/Danish-Film-History/1990-1999.aspx

Thanx!
Annemarie / Danish Film Institute

craig scott

Melancholia is the most atmospheric movie I have ever seen…would love to see on the big screen !

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