Writing about Lars Von Trier (The Cornfield #29)

Lars von Trier got himself in trouble last week with comments he made after the Cannes Film Festival screening of his latest, Melancholia. In a parallel story, the world proved that it no longer had the ability to recognize a joke when it heard one. Jesus Christ, people. I’m not sure which was more absurd, the outrage of the literalists or the tortured explanations (“I think what Lars meant was…”) of von Trier’s message-board explicators.

I am an admirer of this director’s films. Some of my past writing on the subject is posted below. Note the variety of descriptive terms for von Trier over the years: scalawag, scamp, genius-crackpot, evil sprite, and, of course, “Danish.” I still haven’t seen The Idiots, and haven’t written about Antichrist—yet. We begin with an “intro to” von Trier written 15 years ago, in which I try to suggest the spirit of his work, and then we just keep going.

Von Trier: An Introduction

I think I wrote this general intro to Lars von Trier in 1996 for Film.com, although I don’t remember why.

The end of the four-and-a-half-hour extravaganza called The Kingdom brings us to the loopy story’s bloodiest and most insane moment. This combination of “The Outer Limits” and “General Hospital” has screamed right off its rails, climaxed in horror, and then halted in a completely white screen. The end credits begin to roll, and standing before us is a bland young man, dimpled and handsome. He has all the presence of a grocery clerk, a waiter, or the innocuous-looking boy who lives down the block and poisons kittens. After taking his hands away from his eyes, this man assures us that the story of The Kingdom will continue, and encourages us not to hide our eyes from the nastiness on the screen (it’s only stage blood, anyway), because “Behind closed eyes is where the real horror begins.” Then he holds up a severed head and introduces himself: “My name is Lars von Trier, and I wish you all a very good evening.”

The Kingdom was originally produced for Danish TV, which just reinforces the sense of von Trier updating the puckish emcee role from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” He’s also made cameo appearances in his own films, though with his own strange emphasis; in The Element of Crime he’s a bald clerk, billed as the “Schmuck of Ages.” But Lars von Trier hasn’t settled into any conventional genre or style, and his similarities to Hitchcock pretty much end there; when the video-store guy handed me a copy of Zentropa and read that the label categorized the movie as a “thriller,” I had to clear my throat and point out that, well, it wasn’t exactly a thriller in the usual sense. There’s nothing usual about von Trier’s movies.

He was born in 1956 and attended the Danish Film School, where he made a handful of award-winning student films. Von Trier’s first feature, The Element of Crime (1984), established the ground rules for his “Trilogy of Europe,” which was continued in Epidemic (1987), the artiest and least satisfying of his films, and Zentropa (aka Europa, 1991). A decidedly postmodern take on the cop movie, Element borrows from all over film history (noticeably Casablanca, Metropolis, M, and The Third Man) but rarely seems slavish, or anything but original. The hero goes tromping through a blasted landscape, ostensibly searching for a child killer but apparently on a more existential quest. From time to time, someone can be heard asking, “Where is the story?”, and von Trier is quite content to wander away from answering that question, content instead to pull off the occasional eye-popping camera movement; there are tracking shots here that manage to evoke both Orson Welles and Sam Raimi at the same crazy moment.

Von Trier also uses monochromatic color and the idea of hypnosis, two running gags in the trilogy. Hypnosis is compared to movie-watching itself; the cop in Element experiences mesmerism at the beginning of the film, and then pleads at the end, “I want to wake up now…”, but the film just fades out. In Epidemic, a film-within-a-film about a coming plague starring von Trier as a director, there is a character named Dr. Mesmer, and the shudder-inducing climax (in which von Trier proves that if he wanted to make a straight horror movie, he could easily freak us out) explodes when a hypnotic session becomes unglued.

Then there is the opening of Zentropa, which gazes down onto moving train tracks as a voice (the sleep-inducing tones of Max Von Sydow, no less) puts the audience under a hypnotic spell. Now, this is actually scary. You sit there wondering if hypnosis could actually be induced by a movie, and then notice that perhaps your eyes are really getting heavy. The rest of the film is a dream of back projections, model work, special effects…a miniature train set of a movie. The hero, an American in 1945 Germany, gets a job as a sleeping-car conductor (an absurdity that the movie leaves cheerfully unelaborated). His uncle, who also works on the train, describes his weird feeling of waking up in the sleeping car and not knowing whether the train is going forward or backward; that’s a handy metaphor for the movie, which delights in disorientation, just as it leaves its hero gasping for air.

Zentropa brought von Trier international acclaim, as well as the Special Jury Prize and the Technical Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. (According to Roger Ebert, when he lost the Palme d’Or to Barton Fink, von Trier flipped the jury the bird.) At that point, the director looked easy to peg: a chilly intellectual, an impertinent trickster, a man who makes movies from his brain, not his guts. But something changed with von Trier around the time of The Kingdom (1994), which has an open, improvisatory texture. Aside from its busy, headlong style, mostly shot with a handheld camera, The Kingdom also has a compulsively watchable story, with at least a dozen main characters involved in all manner of melodrama; in its own way, it’s as chewily entertaining as Gone With the Wind or The Godfather.

Given von Trier’s evolution, Breaking the Waves (1996) makes perfect sense; he has said, “The philosophy for my other films has been ‘Evil Exists.’ The philosophy for this one is ‘Goodness Exists.’” The story is once again a dizzying mix of inspirations, from the spiritual intensity of von Trier’s god (and fellow Danish film-maker) Carl Dreyer to the sublime tackiness of the 1970s pop songbook. But the tale of a Scots woman who clings to her faith despite a harrowing series of disasters is von Trier’s most emotionally direct picture yet. He has said that the movie’s dry, leached-out look (like The Kingdom, it was shot on film, transferred to video, and then back to film) is necessary to counterpoint the three-handkerchief scenario. The result is a movie that truly puts an audience through an experience, a strange kind of enchantment.

If von Trier is no longer an entirely gloomy Dane, he still is marked by contradictions. His next film will be a return to the creepy hallways of The Kingdom, with another set of episodes shot during the summer of 1996. He has announced a film called Khan to be filmed in Mongolia in ’97. Most intriguingly, he is working on an ongoing project called Dimension (featuring a frequent collaborator, the deliciously decadent former Warhol star Udo Kier), which he is shooting in three-minute increments every year; it will be completed in 2004. For a man who lavishes his attention on disease, early death, and the coming apocalypse, he’s nothing if not confident.

Breaking the Waves (1996)

Exceprted from a Film Comment(Nov./Dec. 1996) New York Film Festival wrap-up surveying a bunch of titles from that year. And what a year at NYFF: two titles later became #1 and #2 in my best-of-year accounting for ’96: How I Got Into an Argument…My Sex Life and Breaking the Waves.

The two most transporting items in the New York Festival catalog were a world, and a generation, apart. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was one of them, a film that needs no introduction. The other was Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, a nod to the awesome intensity of Carl Theodor Dreyer, filtered through a few 1970s hits. This movie may need no introduction either, especially to Film Comment readers who have already boned up on previous film festival reports from earlier this year. It charts the tribulations of a young woman in a repressive Scottish coastal town, and engages a rather old-fashioned fable of faith in the skin of an experimental movie (von Trier shot it in 35mm., printed it on video, then transferred it back to 35—lending a browned-out dullness to the visuals). It’s a big film, gutsy, likely to repel as many people as it captures. But it gives you a journey rare in the current cinema, a sense that you’ve traveled as far as you can possibly go, and that you’ll have something to think and talk about on the way back. Vertigo does that, too.

Among the heroes here are luminous Emily Watson, as the waif of faith, and Katrin Cartlidge, as her skeptical friend (who is made up to look like Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons). Also cinematographer Robby Müller. The man who shot the rich, evocative images of The American Friend, etc., gives himself over to von Trier’s hand-held, harsh-lit scheme—how many great lensmen would be that adventurous? When I think about Breaking the Waves, I keep coming back to the other end of the visual spectrum, the strange “chapter headings” that von Trier sprinkles throughout, which consist of static longshots of landscape—oceanside, glen, a rainbow over a bridge—rendered in saturated, hyper-real color, which changes its hue as the shot holds. Each is accompanied by a different snippet of ‘70s pop, lifted from Elton John and Rod Stewart and Mott the Hoople. How to explain the weirdly moving effect these pieces of film provide? Are they old-fashioned, ironic, distancing, romantic, campy? They are what they are—a bunch of different colors together, each in a still life that, if you look closely enough, is never still.

The Kingdom II (1997)

Excerpted from another Film Comment (Nov./Dec. 1997) New York Film Festival wrap-up. The “group of religious movies” I refer to includes Robert Duvall’s The Apostle and Bruno Dumont’s Life of Jesus, which I had written about in the previous paragraphs.

Perhaps it seems perverse to include Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom II in this group of religious movies. But after all, the shenanigans inside Copenhagen’s wildest hospital, detailed so memorably in the first four and a half hours of The Kingdom, are chock full of theological, supernatural, and holy and unholy phenomena. In the course of the latest 280 minutes of weirdness, there’s even a direct summoning of Satan, via an ingenious game of free-association (a trick that could profitably be stolen for John Carpenter’s next devil picture, so shivery is its effect).

Truth be told, The Kingdom II isn’t quite as much fun as its predecessor. Rockets still go off with regularity, but the awesomely twisted story lines of the first installment are narrowed to a less intriguing set of events; and it builds to another, less exhilarating cliffhanger, as there’s a Kingdom III in our future. But the film does offer Haitian zombie potions, Udo Kier as a monster baby, and the return of Ernst-Hugo Järegård, the Swedish actor whose portrayal of the endlessly debased, Dane-hating doctor Stig Helmer has made him one of the really cherishable performers of the decade. Fans of the first film will be glad to know that Dr. Helmer does get his beloved Volvo back, very late in the action. But only for a moment. There is a god.

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

From the Herald, Oct. 6, 2000

Bjork, Deneuve: Dancer

You’d have to be a little crazy to make a movie like Dancer in the Dark.

I say this not with disapproval but with amazement. Nothing else is quite like this movie, and it’s a transporting experience.

But maybe you have to be a little crazy to like Dancer in the Dark, too. Since it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the picture has divided critics, who tend to find it either a modern masterpiece or a pretentious disaster. It’s the latest from Lars von Trier, the Danish director whose Breaking the Waves was a similar exercise in experimental style and large-scaled emotional storytelling.

As a story, Dancer in the Dark is straightforward, like something out of silent-movie melodrama. In a small town in Washington, in 1964, a young mother from Czechoslovakia works in a factory.

She is Selma, played by the Icelandic pop singer Bjork. With her eyesight quickly failing, Selma works to raise money for an operation for her son, so his own vision might be corrected before it is too late.

Drama develops with her neighbors (David Morse and Cara Seymour), who are in debt. Selma keeps her savings hidden in a candy box in her trailer home, but we suspect the cash will not be entirely safe.

The 138 minutes of the film travel all the way to Death Row at Walla Walla prison. Though largely shot in Scandinavia, a few exteriors were filmed in Walla Walla and Arlington.

Two things make von Trier’s approach to this material exceptional. First, it is a musical: Selma’s hard life is regularly interrupted by fantasy musical numbers (written by Bjork). Although they take place in mundane settings, such as a factory or a courtroom, these are old-school movie extravaganzas.

The other element is video. Von Trier shot the entire film on video, mostly hand-held by the director himself. The constant movement may well evoke disorientation (and possibly nausea) for viewers, although it does bring a trembling emotional intimacy to scenes. Some of the songs were shot with 100 stationary cameras, the resulting footage cut together later by von Trier.

These scenes are evidently happening in Selma’s head during moments of stress. The local community theater is rehearsing a production of The Sound of Music, and late in the film Selma sings “My Favorite Things” to herself. You might say these musical explosions carry the same idea as that song: Selma’s imagination kicks in when life’s hardships are too much.

Perhaps many actresses could have played Selma, but after seeing the movie it’s impossible to picture anyone else but Bjork. An odd, elfin presence, Bjork reportedly had a stormy time during production; without acting technique to fall back on, she exhausted herself with pure unfiltered emotion. After winning the best actress prize at Cannes, she announced that she would never act in a film again.

An operatic tragedy, Dancer in the Dark is quite touching, and frequently funny, especially whenever Selma’s frustrated suitor (Peter Stormare, from Fargo) turns up.

The one thing I can’t quite understand is why the film is so short of conventional pleasure. The jittery camera and washed-out image make it difficult to keep focused on the film, even when what is happening on screen is compelling.

Taken in realistic terms, the movie falls apart completely. If you are the kind of person who wonders who would pick mousy Selma to play Maria in The Sound of Music, or how the regal Catherine Deneuve (as Selma’s co-worker) could have ended up in rural Washington, or why there is a movie theater in this town that shows 1930s musicals, then this is not the movie for you.

But if you think movies can be a kind of collective dream, with rules of their own making, then this film is a must-see. Just pack along the handkerchiefs and motion-sickness pills.

Dogville (2003)

From the Herald, April 16, 2004

Opinions have been violently mixed on Dogville since it debuted almost a year ago at the Cannes Film Festival. Depending on the viewer, it’s either an anti-American diatribe, an experimental film with a universal subject, or a pretentious piece of heavy symbolism.

I suspect if you’re looking for Dogville to be one thing or another, you’ll probably see exactly that. This probably pleases the film’s writer-director, Lars von Trier, the Danish scalawag whose career has been a series of provocations.

Dogville is a three-hour film shot entirely on a soundstage. It takes place in a tiny Colorado mountain town called Dogville (evidently during the Depression), but we see only the bare outline of the town. Literally: tape marks on the floor provide the layout of the houses, with a few pieces of furniture, a couple of cars, and a church belfry to suggest the reality of town. The actors mime the action of opening and closing doors when they pass from one house to another.

At first, our main focus is Tom Edison (no relation, apparently), the sort of young idealist familiar to theater of the early 20th century. Tom, played by Paul Bettany, means to be a writer, but he prefers to give lectures on ethics to his fellow townspeople.

Everything changes with the arrival of Grace (Nicole Kidman). She has escaped gangsters and is hiding out in town. Although they do not have money themselves, the townsfolk give her what little work they can invent, and Tom falls in love with her.

Then, as surely as the leaves turn color, everything goes sour. The police are looking for Grace, and so are the gangsters. The folks of Dogville know they’re running a risk in sheltering her. Plus, Grace’s beauty is stirring up the men.

That Grace becomes a sacrificial martyr may not surprise fans of von Trier’s Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, which also featured long-suffering heroines. The resolution of Grace’s story, however, is surprising, and strange.

Dogville will, no doubt, irritate some people and bore others. For me, I can only say that within a few minutes, I had forgotten about the stark production design, hifalutin’ symbolism, and whatever ideological axes von Trier might be grinding. I was completely absorbed in this alternate universe.

From the movie itself (with one exception), I didn’t read it as an anti-American screed. Except for a Fourth of July picnic, there’s nothing in the movie that couldn’t conceivably be set in a small town in Denmark. (For the record, Lars von Trier has never been to the United States—he’s afraid of flying.)

The one exception is the end credits, which break the spell of the movie by using vintage photographs and a pop song. This is bogus and heavy-handed, and a disastrous choice.

Kidman and Bettany are superb, not least because they make you “see” the entire town around them. The townsfolk are a quirky selection of actors; legends such as Lauren Bacall and Ben Gazzara, plus hip young performers Chloe Sevigny and Jeremy Davies. Stellan Skarsgard and Patricia Clarkson are excellent as an unhappy couple with a large family, and John Hurt lends his marvelous voice to the narration.

Dogville reminded me of the otherwise very different The Passion of the Christ, in its religious underpinnings and its director’s lack of concern about pleasing everybody. I don’t think either film entirely succeeds in its objectives, but they sure are intriguing experiments.

The Five Obstructions (2003)

From the Herald, July 16, 2004

It would be easy to consign The Five Obstructions to the film-festival-only circuit, and indeed this Danish movie premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year.

Probably the film’s main audience is movie mavens, for sure. But non-movie buffs with a keen interest in psychology should find it compelling, too.

At the center of The Five Obstructions is the genius-crackpot director Lars von Trier, the godfather of Denmark’s ongoing cinematic resurgence. Still under 50, von Trier has compiled a provocative body of work (including Breaking the Waves and the recent Dogville), and he’s also the mischief-maker behind the stripped-down Dogma movement in filmmaking.

The Five Obstructions began with von Trier’s high regard for a 1967 short film, The Perfect Human, made by Jorgen Leth. Leth is also a former teacher of von Trier.

So von Trier challenges his old mentor to re-make The Perfect Human, but with severe restrictions that would be chosen (sometimes completely whimsically) by von Trier. Oh, and Leth has to remake it five times, with a different set of restrictions each time.

This challenge is at the center of The Five Obstructions. We see the conversations between the two directors, we watch Leth’s shooting process, and we see the completed shorts.

The first challenge sets the tone. Von Trier informs Leth that the first remake must contain no shot longer than 12 frames. That’s about a half a second, an almost impossible task. Oh, and the film must be made in Cuba. Why? Because Leth casually mentioned he’d never been there.

The sequences of Leth on location for his various challenges (he goes to India, too, and makes an animated film) are interesting. But the real meat is the cagey relationship between student and former teacher, their roles now dramatically reversed.

The grinning, slit-eyed von Trier plays the part of evil sprite, pushing his elder to extremes (his avowed purpose is to shake Leth’s air of detachment from the world). Leth, blithe and charming, parries von Trier’s thrusts, but he does look panicked at times about what he’s gotten himself into.

Von Trier can come across as a puppetmaster, and a sadistic edge creeps into his manner. Yet by the time we reach the end, especially with a statement that von Trier asks Leth to read aloud, we may suspect that the puppetmaster’s strings are attached to his own back. This is a deconstruction not just of Leth’s original movie but also of von Trier’s own psyche.

The remakes are all right, but they are not the reason to see this movie. This is a psychological prizefighting match, in which one of the boxers is also the referee.

Manderlay (2005)

From the Herald, Feb. 24, 2006

There he goes again. In an era when foreign films are supposedly becoming duller and more attuned to commercialism, Lars von Trier continues to go his own merry way, tossing brickbats and stink bombs wherever he pleases.

His latest provocation is Manderlay, a sequel to his 2003 film Dogville. Both films are part of a projected trilogy (which may or may not be completed) which the Danish filmmaker calls “USA—Land of Opportunities.”

By the way, von Trier has never been to the United States. Well, no big deal, since his material could easily be about colonialist Europe or perhaps a fairy-tale land inside his own head.

Dogville was a three-hour movie about ignorance and intolerance in small-town Colorado, filmed on a bare stage with virtually no sets. It was like “Our Town” gone bad, with Nicole Kidman as a much-abused heroine who finally turns the tables.

Howard, Manderlay

Kidman has departed, but her character, Grace, remains at the center of Manderlay. Bryce Dallas Howard, the exciting star of The Village, replaces Kidman, bringing youth and a straight-ahead determination to the role. The style holds from Dogville: bare stage, a few props, black background. This one’s a mere 133 minutes long, however.

Traveling with her gangster father (Willem Dafoe), Grace takes over an Alabama plantation called Manderlay. It’s 1933, but Manderlay’s dying owner (Lauren Bacall) has been running the place as though slavery had never been abolished.

Appalled by the exploitation of the plantation’s black workers, Grace decides to move in and make sure that they will inherit Manderlay and profit from its cotton crop. She doesn’t ask the workers what they want.

What follows is a series of bizarre sequences detailing the planting and harvest season at the plantation. Grace wants to make amends for past sins, so she tells the white employees to wear blackface makeup when they serve dinner to the blacks—a gesture that freaks out everybody, white and black folks alike.

Grace also sets the now-rudderless workers on a program of improving themselves and the plantation by cutting down trees and building things. Which is a nice idea, except the trees protected the crops from dust storms. Well, she had good intentions.

Manderlay is something of a dark comedy about the catastrophe of good intentions. Von Trier may not be an expert on slavery or civil rights, but he knows all about idealism that shoots itself in the foot.

Von Trier always calls down a healthy amount of criticism, but he’s an equal opportunity offender. Manderlay takes aim at liberal do-gooding, but it also appears to be a metaphor for the U.S. government’s nation-building escapade in Iraq.

The cast includes Isaach de Bankole and Danny Glover, but the film is less an ensemble piece than Dogville (although some of that film’s cast, including Chloe Sevigny and Jeremy Davies, return here in tiny parts). This one revolves around fair-skinned, small-boned Bryce Dallas Howard, who is uncanny. At first she doesn’t seem to be acting, and this uninflected quality works really well for the naïve character. This actress, the daughter of Ron Howard, has a gravity that seems absurd for her age.

Dogville and Manderlay are truly odd experiences, disembodied and sometimes contradictory. But Lars von Trier makes movies like nobody else. Oh, how I wish he would make a movie about his native country’s Mohammad cartoon controversy. But that’s probably too much to ask.

The Boss of it All (2006)

From the Herald, August 17, 2007

The Danish scamp Lars von Trier, director of Dogville and inventor of the Dogma style of filmmaking, seems to live for mischief. Latest case in point: his loopy new movie The Boss of it All.

The premise of this very funny film is clean and simple: The boss of a small, innovative company, Ravn (Peter Gantzler), has maintained a fiction for ten years: he’s told the other employees that there is in fact an uber-boss who makes all the unpopular decisions. This man is never seen.

Now Ravn wants to sell the company to a greedy Icelandic businessman (played by the grumpy-looking filmmaker Fridrik Thor Fridriksson), but he needs the “boss of it all” to show up and sign the documents of sale, because the buyer won’t deal with anyone else.

The solution? Hire an actor to play the role for the meeting.

Two things go wrong with Ravn’s plan. First, the deal takes a few days to negotiate, which means having the actor around longer.

Second, the actor, Kristoffer (Jens Albinus), is self-important, unpredictable, and given to moods of profound soul-searching. Well, maybe profound isn’t the right word.

The comic possibilities are many. For one thing, when Kristoffer meets the staff, they naturally blame him for all the bad things that have happened at the company. There’s a lot Ravn didn’t tell him.

Along with the very pungent comedy, von Trier is working a bizarre technical exercise with this movie: it was created in “Automavision,” one of the director’s periodic brainstorms. Cameras placed (sometimes awkwardly) around the room record the scene, and a computer decides which angle to cut to.

It feels as playful as some of von Trier’s previous goofs, although he might be saying something about the way the director, the “boss of it all” in moviedom, could be replaced on the set by a machine.

What really matters is the funny story and the terrific cast. Albinus absolutely nails the rampant vanity of the actor, and Iben Hjejle (who made a single Hollywood movie, High Fidelity, before returning to her Danish career) is attractive as one of the company’s most adventurous employees.

Oh, and another actor: that’s Lars von Trier on the camera crane, periodically popping up to remind us we’re watching a movie and that all of this is so much nonsense. Thanks, Lars, just keep making them, please.

One Response

  1. […] A few years ago, I threw a lot of my writing about von Trier into a blog post; it includes an introduction I wrote for an online site (maybe the old, original Film.com) that looked at LVT’s career up to that point. Here’s that longish post. […]

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