Lars von Trier is a filmmaker for whom each day probably feels like another installment in a long, slow slog toward the end of the world. Therefore, his recent 65th birthday on April 30 might not feel like something to celebrate. But for better and oftentimes for much, much worse, the most dour Dane of all time has served up a catalogue of extraordinary, shocking, and bracing films spanning more than half his life.
The controversy-courting filmmaker is shameless about his signature abrasiveness, and it tends to plop him into an uneasy camp: from walking himself straight into becoming “persona non grata” at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival with his comments about understanding Hitler, to Björk swearing off acting following a grueling experience making “Dancer in the Dark.” (Cannes, of course, welcomed him back in 2018 with the premiere of “The House That Jack Built.”) He may be another in a long line of toxic male directors, but his body of work has produced some of the best performances ever put to film. Whether that’s his doing or due to his very game actors remains a subject of debate.
From the body horrors of “Antichrist” to the punishing despair of “Dancer in the Dark” and “Dogville’s” angry howl at America (a country he’ll never step foot in, and not just because he hates flying), von Trier dares the audience to look away, his critics to run screaming, and often his actors to push themselves to the lowest possible low. It might amaze some that Charlotte Gainsbourg, who played a scholar of witches in mental and physical hell after the death of her small child in “Antichrist” and a sex addict searching for orgasms in terrifying places in “Nymphomaniac,” continues to hang on for the ride. But she’s proved to become one of his most deft muses in fearless turns, usually as a surrogate for the director himself.
One thing’s for sure: Lars von Trier is never not trying something new, even when he’s surveying and regurgitating his own oeuvre to a smattering of varied results, spanning the studio-rejecting ideology of the Dogme 95 movement he sparked with Thomas Vinterberg (jettisoning all technological flourishes to focus exclusively on story and character) to the maximalist indulgence of grandiose epics like “Melancholia” and the meta serial killer saga “The House That Jack Built.”
Soon, von Trier will return to episodic storytelling with a third season of his dark hospital comedy “The Kingdom,” which with its first two installments in the 1990s stands as some of his most deranged work. Ahead of that highly anticipated return, look back at 15 of his best feature films.