The Round Up, Vol 4: The Lars von Trier Edition

Lars von Trier

In anticipation of the release of Nymphomaniac, this week’s Round Up will focus on its director Lars von Trier.

Hailing from Denmark, von Trier has been making films since the 1980s, but only really began to make a name for himself in the ’90s following Dogme 95, a filmmaking manifesto created in co-operation with fellow Danish director Thomas Vinterberg. A celebration of the centenary of cinema, Dogme was an attempt to purify filmmaking by dragging it away from the artifice of contemporary movies. The manifesto commanded that only handheld cameras are permitted, that genre movies are not allowed, and so on (you can read the rest of the rules here.)

While von Trier deviated from the manifesto as early as one year after it was created, the two rules I mentioned are particularly prevalent in his movies. Nowadays, von Trier is better known as a provocateur and a director of challenging, uncomfortable movies, and the constant unsteadiness of the camera combined with a lack of identifiable genre sets an unnerving foundation for the ugly material that follows. More often than not, his movies focus on a psychologically unstable (usually female) lead character (or in the case of The Idiots, a group of people who pretend to be mentally ill), and sexual content and graphic nudity abounds, typically delivered in a highly confrontational manner.

These are the things that irk viewers and critics alike. His movies have consistently been attacked as misogynist pornography, and a regular accusation is that he’s simply out to shock without having anything valid to say. I agree with both of these points on occasion; he’s completely hit-and-miss. When he’s on form, his movies are excellent; but when he’s not, the results are along the lines of Antichrist – an angry mess of unsubstantial symbolism and non-events, with the occasional close-up of genital mutilation.

So here are four moments where Lars von Trier honestly comes across as a highly talented auteur:

Breaking the Waves (1996)

Breaking the Waves

Taking place in the Scottish Highlands and starring Emily Watson in the role that launched her career, Breaking the Waves is a raw and brutally emotional film that takes swings at the Catholic Church and male sexuality, battering its protagonist into the ground with each new development in the plot. Bess (Watson), a mentally ill young woman, has her faith put to the test when her Swedish husband Jan (Stellan Skarsgard) is paralysed in an oil rig accident, and persuades her to have sex with others. Bess complies, ignoring the advice from all those around her as she is completely and utterly besotted with her bedridden lover and consequently, her already unstable life comes crashing down around her in the most distressing of fashions.

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Dancer in the Dark

A musical by a director such as von Trier is an undoubtedly surprising proposition; the only thing more surprising is how well he handled it. Dancer in the Dark follows the heartbreaking story of Selma (Björk), a Czech immigrant who came to America expecting it to be like all the Hollywood musicals she grew up with. The first problem: it obviously isn’t. The second? She’s going blind due to a hereditary illness. Knowing that her young son will eventually lose his sight too, Selma works intensively to earn enough to pay for his surgery. Tragedy occurs, but I won’t spoil anything. Dancer is an incredibly touching movie with an unusual score and a fantastic lead performance by Björk who brings immense vulnerability to her role, upping the heartbreak of an already destructive story.

Dogville (2003)

Dogville Photo:  Framegrab

Dogville hits you pretty much as soon as it establishes its shooting location; a sound stage, sparingly adorned using only props that are necessary at some point in the story. It’s supposed to be a town, with each house is represented by an outline, and all the streets are named in a stencil font. Sounds difficult? It’s actually not – you’ll become absorbed in the movie far quicker than you think. Part of Dogville‘s mastery is that it can last for three hours and take place in a town that doesn’t even visually exist, and still make for great entertainment. The challenge here is its story, which follows a fugitive named Grace (Nicole Kidman) who stumbles across the town of Dogville and is taken in by its residents. The price on Grace’s head continues to escalate, and regular visits from the police provide higher risks for the townsfolk, which leads them to demand more from Grace in return for shelter. Their vicious nature eventually surfaces, creating a savage anti-American message that angered critics and audiences all over the States.

Melancholia (2011)

melancholia

Melancholia sees von Trier aiming lower than usual and ends up being arguably his best film to date. It also benefits from being broken up into two chapters, instead of the usual 8+, which provides more time to flesh out themes and ideas. The first chapter focuses on Justine (Kirsten Dunst), whose depression ruins her marriage on her wedding night; the second is told through the perspective of her sister Clare (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and is rife with anxiety as the world anticipates the approach of the planet Melancholia, which may well collide with Earth. It’s an incredibly heavy movie, one with gorgeous cinematography and stellar acting, particularly from Dunst. It’ll also hit particularly hard if you’ve ever suffered from depression.

Next week on the Round Up…

In anticipation of the hotly tipped The Grand Budapest Hotel, Vol 5 of the Round Up will focus on its director Wes Anderson, the man who brought you Rushmorethe Royal TenenbaumsThe Fantastic Mr. Fox and so on.

Worth looking out for this week is the review of two already well-received movies: Stranger by the Lake and the Lego Movie. News on the Nymphomaniac review will be posted later; watch this space.

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5 thoughts on “The Round Up, Vol 4: The Lars von Trier Edition

  1. I love Lars Von Trier films – I think my favourite will always be ‘Breaking the Waves’ which was the first film of his I saw. I will always happily see anything he directs.

    1. I would call myself a fan, although I find a lot of his latest, more provocative stuff to be quite annoying – especially in the case of Nymphomaniac, although I seem to be one of the only detractors in this sense!

      1. I did like Nymphomaniac, although not as much as his earlier films. Even though you wasn’t too keen, did you have a preference for part 1 or 2?

      2. It’d have to be the first part; the scope of the second half was much narrower, and that’s where I thought the narrative started to feel a bit stale and contrived. The first half opened really well and felt like von Trier was really gonna run with his ideas, but I thought the second half kinda ruined it. Which did you prefer?

      3. The first half also – I actually felt that Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg played ‘Joe’ very differently. I didn’t really think of them as the same person. I did love the Charlotte Gainsbourg & Stellan Skarsgard scenes. But I love Stellan in pretty much everything!

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