Across the last 26 years, Danish writer-director Lars von Trier has become something of a curator of controversy. His unique, albeit difficult visions have led him to be labelled with terms as diverse as 'genius' and 'misogynist', but one thing is always certain: no matter where in the world you go, people will either venomously loathe him, or bathe in the sun which shines from his arse. Prodding the thematic meat of his work - which takes in unfunny comedies, three-hour Brechtian stage plays, genital mutilation and faking mental disability - it becomes clear that his is a dish not for everybody, but with The Boss Of It All (2006), Dogville (2003) / Manderlay (2005), Antichrist (2009) and The Idiots (1998), he's served it up good and raw. With tongue forever in cheek, von Trier has crafted a diverse and divisive oeuvre. Any analysis of it is fascinating, but so many critics seem afraid of deconstructing his worlds and facing the risk of just becoming the butt of a great joke. Well, here's my two cents on the prankster, provocateur and past master that is Lars von Trier. There will be blood...
Primarily I want to contend this nonsense of misogyny. It is inarguable that von Trier exploits his (typically female) characters, and the central theme of his Golden Heart Trilogy (Breaking The Waves, 1996; The Idiots and Dancer In The Dark, 2000) is the naivety of women. This series places heavy burdens upon the shoulders of female protagonists whose goodwill forces them down a dark path from which they might not return, but the filmmaker does not look down on his characters. It is not he, reaching through the camera, who is inflicting pain upon them. All of von Trier's films are morally centered, and clearly he has understood that focusing on women will lend more power to his message. In the director's own words...
"My films are about ideals which clash with the world. Every time it's a man in the lead,
they have forgotten about the ideals. And every time it's a woman in the lead, they take
the ideals all the way."
Let's consider The Idiots. The film revolves around a group of ordinary people who pretend to be mentally handicapped, striving to expose society's prejudice celebrate their "inner idiots." The very idea may be enough to repulse some, but to take The Idiots at face value is ridiculous, and bound to leave a sour aftertaste. Of course there are elements of the film which bait controversy (notably the birthday orgy), but von Trier is a natural prankster. The Idiots was made under the conditions of the Dogme 95 Manifesto: new avant-garde filmmaking rules (referred to as the Vow Of Chastity), co-written by Thomas Vinterberg (Festen, 1998). They outline a more "pure" cinema, and are as follows...
- Filming must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).
- The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot).
- The camera must be hand-held. Any movement or immobility attainable in the hand is permitted. (The film must not take place where the camera is standing; shooting must take place where the film takes place).
- The film must be in colour. Special lighting is not acceptable. (If there is too little light for exposure the scene must be cut or a single lamp be attached to the camera).
- Optical work and filters are forbidden.
- The film must not contain superficial action (murders, weapons, etc. must not occur)
- Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now).
- Genre movies are not acceptable.
- The film format must be Academy 35mm.
- The director must not be credited.
Understanding that The Idiots was made under Dogme 95 immediately rules out the possibility of taking it seriously. The manifesto was an elaborate experimental joke, but von Trier was wise enough to recognise that The Idiots also had to stand with a thematic and moralistic backbone. I genuinely believe that morality runs through the veins of his cinema, and the message at The Idiots' core is that the world can be a better place if we all just reject prejudice and enjoy life's simpler pleasures. The character's faking mental disability is just an exaggeration; a way of provoking that message from us, rather than spoon-feeding it. Justification isn't really a word you can bring to The Idiots, but there is a pure, human centre and a connection of understanding made between the characters and audience. Ultimately it's a film about escaping from the everyday world by just embracing the simple.
As part of the Golden Heart Trilogy, The Idiots' narrative focus falls with Karen (Bodil Jørgensen), a deeply troubled and introverted young woman. From the second we meet her there is an unbalance. Despite her initial opposition to their activities, she seems ready and willing to accept the invitation into these people's lives. And why not? They are kind and open hearted towards her. It would be all too easy to once again take the film at face value, and assume that these Idiots are taking advantage of Karen's naivety, cruelly subjecting her to their social experiment. But they never force her to become a part of the 'spazzing', and eventually their home becomes a haven for her. She's not tormented, but comforted. The finale sees her completing a 'task' to confirm her loyalty to the Idiot cause. Finally von Trier allows us a window into this poor woman's past, for a scene in which she returns home. The shocking revelation that Karen has lost her son comes to our attention just seconds before she 'spazzes' in front of her family. It's a moment of disturbing intimacy, quietly heartbreaking and fundamental to the film's thesis. If anyone needed an escape from the real world it's Karen, and if von Trier really is pulling the strings of her fate then he's freeing, not punishing her. And despite it being a deeply uncomfortable viewing experience one does get the impression that, for the first time in a long time, Karen is going to be okay.
To effectively disprove the claims of misogyny we must also consider the remaining films in the Golden Heart Trilogy. Breaking The Waves tells the story of Bess McNeill (Emily Watson), a deeply religious young woman from a small, rural community in the north of Scotland. She marries an outsider named Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), and while he is away at work (on an oil rig) Bess becomes restless, praying for his return home. At the same time Jan suffers a terrible injury which renders him paralyzed, and from his hospital bed asks Bess to take a lover and relay the details of her experience back to him. This way they can still be together, he says. Initially Bess struggles with the idea, but eventually she convinces herself that these actions might aid her husband. Perhaps through the sacrifice of her body, Jan's will be healed, and thus her selfish act of praying for his return can rectified. Bess is killed while prostituting herself, but perhaps hers was an act of martyrdom? Sure enough, Jan begins his recovery after her passing...
Overall Breaking The Waves is a hard film to assess. Bess is a brilliantly drawn and complex character, played with conviction by an Oscar-nominated Watson. von Trier certainly doesn't hate her, but neither does he free her. His story pushes Bess to her death, and in this case her trial is at the will of a man, albeit a man she loved, and was loved by. Jan mourns for her, and buries her body at sea. And let us not forget the end of the film - bells ringing from above to signal her place in heaven. Bess may have been a troubled soul, and it remains open to interpretation whether or not she was manipulated by a bed-ridden, drug-addled Jan, who probably didn't want to carry on living. But her wrongdoings were for the sake of good. Jan walks and, by way of a miracle, hears her place among angels, and I just can't interpret that as being hateful. As misguided as Bess was, von Trier allows her to be at peace. There are even religious interpretations of the film which argue Bess as Christ, and Jan as the resurrection.
Dancer In The Dark is another story of a woman's compassion and sense of loyalty leading to her downfall. Selma (Björk) is a Czech immigrant living in America; a kind-hearted and hard working soul who is gradually losing her sight. She lives with her son, across the street from Bill (David Morse), who is suffering financially. Selma gets through each day by her love of musicals, believing that a song can cure even the darkest of plights. But the darkness becomes overwhelming when Bill attempts to rob and manipulate her. In a struggle Bill is shot and Selma goes to jail for the crime, where she awaits her death sentence.
This is the easiest of the trilogy to interpret. Selma was saving money from work in order to pay for an operation that would stop her son from becoming blind, and Bill's accidental death was the result of Selma trying to protect what was rightfully hers. She sticks to her guns and says that the money must only be used for an operation and not to make an appeal for her release. She would rather die and have her son live a happy life than live and see him go blind. It can be tough watching Selma put to the test, but like all of von Trier's most interesting work Dancer In The Dark is a morality play. He doesn't hate her. We, the audience, don't hate her - we admire her. We are saddened by the fate of Selma. Truly she has a golden heart.
Charges of misogyny have also been leveled at Dogville and Manderlay, the first two films in von Trier's 'USA - Land Of Opportunities' Trilogy (not yet completed, as Washington lies in development limbo). At this point I will allow viewers to go away and form their own opinions on these works, and whether or not misogyny is present. Of course I don't think there is - these are once again moral tales set in small-town America, focusing on religion, prejudice and slavery. They are grueling viewing experiences, and contain themes which run deeper than gender (the film's arguable anti-American stance, for example). The most interesting thing about these films is the way von Trier chooses to shoot them: on a black, Brechtian soundstage with only bits of set to define the location - front doors, a table, some chairs, and animals and plants chalked out on the ground. The audience has to work harder with this approach to find the truth between spaces. But again, on another level, von Trier is just playing with us.
Moving away from misogyny we have to look at his role as a prankster. And where better to start than with the aforementioned Dogme 95 Manifesto, conceived by von Trier and Vinterberg as nothing more than an elaborate joke, albeit one which a number of filmmakers have fallen victim to, as Mifune's Last Song (Kragh-Jacobsen, 1999), Julien Donkey-Boy (Korine, 1999) and The King Is Alive (Levring, 2000), have underlined. The rules were invented to provoke discussion, and encourage audiences to look at cinema from new and challenging perspectives. Vinterberg and von Trier have both made films that purposefully break these rules - Vinterberg with the awfully pretentious It's All About Love (2003) and von Trier with Dogville, Manderlay and Antichrist. Taken together these films break every rule in the manifesto - elaborate stage design, grinding non-diegetic music, long static shots, black and white photography, murder, mutilation, genre convention and director credits have defined von Trier's work over the last ten years. Dogme did its job at provoking, forcing audiences to think outside the box about what cinema could be, what it could show and how it could show it. The fact that critics wrote scathing reviews of The Idiots is probably exactly what von Trier wanted. People didn't necessarily have to like the film. They just had to talk about it.
The key example of von Trier's playfulness comes with his 2003 feature The Five Obstructions. In this compelling documentary he guides his mentor Jørgen Leth through a series of filmmaking 'obstructions', forcing him to remake his 1967 short The Perfect Human five times. It's a joyfully torturous experiment but also a powerful insight into the filmmaking process and the genesis and nurturing of ideas. The obstructions are as follows:
- 12 Frames. Answers. Cuba. No Set.
- A Miserable Place. Don't Show It. Jørgen Leth Is 'The Man'. The Meal.
- Complete Freedom or Back To Bombay
- Lars von Trier Will Make The Last Obstruction. Jørgen Leth Will Be Credited As Director. Jørgen Leth Will Read A Text Written By Lars von Trier.
The list will only really make sense to those who've seen the film, but to say any more would be to spoil it. The best scenes in the film involve von Trier revealing to his mentor the new challenge he is proposing. He studies Leth, listening intently to every word so that he can snap it up for his own mission. As soon as Leth mentions, in passing, that he has never been to Cuba, von Trier tells him it must be filmed there. Leth asks von Trier about sets, at which point a Cheshire cat-sized grin emerges across the Dane's face, and he says "no sets". The anarchy of this project is the pure product of a vein that runs through von Trier's entire body of work. Despite their harshness, there is a playful side to everything from Breaking The Waves to The Boss Of It All. Speaking of which...
The Boss Of It All finds von Trier toying with the conventions of comedy. The film opens with the lines "although you see my reflection, trust me - this film won't be worth a moments reflection. It's a comedy, and harmless as such. No preaching or swaying of opinion. Just a cozy time. So why not poke fun at artsy-fartsy culture?", and if you hadn't already guessed, it's another prank. By telling the viewer that the film has no message von Trier is doing two things; one, forcing a more intelligent viewer to search for a message and two, allowing the more passive viewer to be at ease and miss the point entirely. But the message to be found by viewer number one is that this "artsy-fartsy" experiment is as shallow as the comedy it attacks. It's just another elaborate joke that will divide audiences, yet cause them to talk. The story follows a vain, out-of-work actor named Kristoffer (Jens Albinus) who is hired by Ravn (Peter Gantzler), the head of an unhappy IT company, to provide moral support to his troops. Ravn invented a man called "The Boss Of It All" to pin all of his own unpopular decisions onto and Kristoffer has been hired to play this part. It's a deliberately slow comedy, shot in static tableaus with diegetic sound, creating a tonal effect directly at odds with the Hollywood output it lampoons. A love interest is introduced in the form of Lise (Iben Hjejle), who forms a difficult relationship with the "boss" when she thinks he is gay. When it's exposed that he's not, she storms into his office with the intent of confrontation. They end up having sex and, mid-coitus, Kristoffer asks, "have you heard of Gambini?" It is, of course, ludicrous and totally brilliant.
The final film to consider in von Trier's role as a prankster is also the film which underlines his filmmaking roots. The film, and the final rejection of Dogme 95, is Antichrist. 'He' (Willem Dafoe) is a psychologist, 'She' (Charlotte Gainsbourg) an academic working on a thesis for gendercide. The scene is set up in this clip of the opening, which for easily offended viewers contains sexually explicit content (real penetration) and the death of a child (obviously faked):
From here the couple grieve, retreating to a cabin in the woods (specifically referencing Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, 1981) where things take a dark and violent turn. Antichrist could easily have been directed by two people. On the one hand it's a deep, meditative study of loss, stapled to which is a brutal and unforgiving horror movie. It deals with themes of nature and the evil of women, and unwinds into a bloody, self-mutilating hell. But it also contains a fox who, after munching away at his own intestines, turns to the camera and tells Willem Dafoe that "chaos reigns". The scene has meaning, but von Trier is simply playing with the boundaries of genre. He's saying "look what I can do", and unless you're expecting a sort of dreadfully serious psychoanalytical horror picture then the joke should be obvious. It's von Trier finally mixing his provocateur sensibilities with honest emotion and the fresh-faced aestheticism of his youth. Sadly Antichrist is another one of those films that would be ruined by saying too much about it. It's both devastating and shocking, visually stunning and extremely intelligent. Unfortunately not as much can be said for von Trier's early days.
The Europe Trilogy takes in Element Of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987) and Europa (1991), the first three features von Trier made when he finished film school. They all deal with identity, reality and to an extent these themes as a disease. Each film also has a manifesto, detailed in the Region 2 4-Disc DVD from Tartan. They are von Trier's least interesting but most stylish films. Element Of Crime is a noir by way of Tarkovsky, visually astonishing (in fact containing some of the greatest images ever committed to film) but lacking in substance. Epidemic is more of a curiosity but ultimately a fumble, a film within a film in which an epidemic spreads as two writers complete a screenplay about an epidemic. It's slow paced and lacking the heart or humor of the director's best work. Europa is a black-and-white thriller infused with political drama, and another supremely stylish affair. It brought critical acclaim and quite obviously opened the door to greater things, but these films would only be recommended to avid von Trier fans.
Hopefully this article will have allowed von Trier's detractors to look at him in a new light. Perhaps it has added even more fuel to your fire. At best it's inspired you to seek out more of his filmography. But no matter what, one thing is certain: no matter where in the world you go, people will either venomously loathe him, or bathe in the sun which shines from his arse. If the rampant hate-mail of von Trier's critics is to be believed, then it's the end of the world as we know it. But y'know what? I feel fine...