Provoc-Auteur: Lars von Trier

19 April 2014

Lars von Trier

He has won the top prizes at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and has been kicked out of the Cannes Film Festival. He once described himself as ‘a simple masturbator of the silver screen’ and he later developed an avant-garde filmmaking manifesto with a set of rules that were referred to as a Vow of Chastity. He is the Danish writer and director Lars von Trier and his latest film is the glorious and unwieldy epic Nymph()maniac.

Lars Trier grew up in Copenhagen making short films on a Super 8 camera. His parents were communists, nudists and did not believe in setting boundaries for their children. By the time Trier enrolled in the National Film School of Denmark he had developed a love of cinema and a desire to break its conventions and rules. While at film school he adopted the aristocratic ‘von’ into his name, just as Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg had once done.

After achieving considerable success with the films he made at film school, von Trier achieved international recognition with Europa, which was released in 1991 as the third part of his Europe trilogy after The Element of Crime (1984) and Epidemic (1987). All three films are visually striking and dreamlike works that distort generic conventions and display von Trier’s experimental approach to storytelling and film style.

After the success of Europa, von Trier co-founded his own production company Zentropa Entertainment and made two seasons of The Kingdom (1994 and 1997). Shot in atmospheric sepia hues; the hospital-set series blended soap opera with supernatural horror as if Twin Peaks were crossed with General Hospital.

In 1995 von Trier founded the Dogme 95 Manifesto with Thomas Vinterberg (A Celebration, 1998). Dogme 95 stripped down cinema to its raw components to remove the intrusion of technology and special effects. Some of the rules included only shooting on location, only using handheld cameras and only using sound recorded on location.

Von Trier adopted Dogme 95 techniques and its overall grainy and handheld look for all the films in his Golden Heart Trilogy, but only the middle film, The Idiots (1998), was completely compliant. Following a group of social agitators who challenge the status quo by acting like they are developmentally challenged, The Idiots is one of von Trier’s most difficult and controversial works.

The first film in the Golden Heart Trilogy was Breaking the Waves (1996). Starring Emily Watson as a woman whose religious faith makes her believe that being sexually used by other men will help restore her injured husband, it is the beginning of von Trier’s exploration of suffering women. In the third Golden Heart Trilogy film, the musical Dancer in the Dark (2000), Björk plays a factory worker who makes extreme personal sacrifices to ensure her son gets an operation to halt the onset of a hereditary blindness condition. Both film are emotionally devastating and essential viewing.

Von Trier next intended to make the USA – Land of Opportunities Trilogy, but to date only two films have eventuated: Dogville (2003) starring Nicole Kidman and Manderlay (2005) with Bryce Dallas Howard replacing Kidman as the reoccurring character between the films. Shot on large stages with the majority of the setting being represented by painted lines and labels, both films are inspired by the theatrical productions by Bertolt Brecht where the artifice of the drama is made explicit. Also in the spirit of Brecht, both films are highly critical of aspects of dominant culture. Dogville explores issues of class in America while Manderlay examines race. And of course, the female protagonist goes through terrible ordeals.

In 2003 von Trier also made the fascinating documentary/experimental film The Five Obstructions where he challenged filmmaker Jørgen Leth to repeatedly remake his 1967 short film The Perfect Human. Von Trier has since announced he would do something similar with Martin Scorsese. However, the film that most surprised audiences was 2006’s The Boss of It All, an office-based comedy that demonstrated that von Trier is not serious all the time.

Von Trier’s most recent films form the Depression Trilogy. Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe, 2009’s Antichrist is von Trier’s most visceral film with unforgettable imagery depicting the cruelty of the natural world where the psychological violence suffered by grieving parents spills over into physical violence. The depression that overwhelms Kirsten Dunst’s character in Melancholia (2011) similarly manifests in the real world in the guise of a rouge planet on a collision course with Earth.

Finally, there is Nymph()maniac where a beaten and bloody woman played by Charlotte Gainsbourg describes a series of sexual misadventures that lead to a point where she is punished for her presumed sins. It continues the themes and overt use of symbolism from Antichrist and Melancholia, but it is also bursting with the humour of The Kingdom and The Boss of it All, the high-levels of self-awareness displayed in Dogville and Manderlay, and the pathos of Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. It is bewildering, confrontational, inventive and constantly unpredictable – much like von Trier and his extraordinary career of pushing buttons and boundaries.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 455, 2014

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in March 2014

2 April 2014

A quick thank you to everybody who has been in touch. I’ve been asked if I will resume doing longer form reviews and unfortunately, for the timing being, the answer is no as this year I am mainly concentrating on some long term writing projects.

I’m doing a lot more radio this year; continuing my Thursday morning reviews on the Breakfasters (3RRR 102.7FM) and I am part of a monthly segment on Books and Arts Daily (ABC Radio National) that looks at book to film adaptations. I usually link to my radio spots on Facebook and/or Twitter.

I’m also thrilled to announce that Plato’s Cave, the podcast I have co-hosted for the past three years, is now officially on the 3RRR grid as an ongoing live weekly show, every Monday night from 7pm-8pm. More on the Triple R website, as well as Facebook and Twitter.

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe in Nymph()maniac

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe in Nymph()maniac

I adored Nymph()maniac and even though I have already seen the international cut where the film has been split into two parts and runs for a bit over four hours, I cannot wait to see the full five and a half hour cut. This is Lars von Trier at his most playful and self-reflexive, yet he still manages to deliver something truly profound and unsettling that explores all his favourite preoccupations. The stories that the self-described nymphomaniac Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells about her sexual misadventures are not only sociopolitically provocative, but open up a multi-layered exploration about how lust and love are represented in culture. It’s a battle between mind, body and soul with von Trier in full trickster mode so that the audience never know exactly where they stand.

Robert Redford as Our Man in All Is Lost

Robert Redford as Our Man in All Is Lost

I’ve already written a mini-review of All Is Lost, but I really enjoyed this stripped back survival film about an unnamed man (Robert Redford) stranded at sea doing all that he can to protect his boat, body and mind from a cruel and indifferent environment. Both pragmatic and mythical, this is a film that allows every individual viewer to project their own psychological baggage onto the film so they can decide if it’s a film about the human spirit or a film about existential dread.

Waad Mohammed as Wadjda in Wadjda

Waad Mohammed as Wadjda in Wadjda

Wadjda is a charming and fun coming-of-age film about Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), an 11-year-old Saudi Arabian girl, who enters a Qur’an recital competition so that she can use the prize money to buy a bicycle. In such an aggressively patriarchal society such actions are hugely defiant and the film explores the everyday challenges that women and girls face when living with such extreme gender discrimination.


I finally caught up with The We and the I, which had some very limited screenings in Melbourne last year and was released onto DVD in Australia in late February. It is astonishing that this film has flown so far under the radar, as it is not only a Michel Gondry film, but I believe it is his best film since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Developed over three years of workshops with teenagers who went on to act in the film, it follows the dynamics on a school bus heading through the Bronx in New York City, USA, on the last day of school. Gondry’s distinctive visual style is suitably restrained, and he very skilfully draws the audience into the various mini-dramas that occur throughout the journey.

I have also written a short review about What Richard Did, which is the other notable DVD release I want to mention. It’s a strong drama about personal accountability that very convincingly builds up to a pivotal incident and then explores how that incident affects a community by looking at grief, guilt and culpability among individuals and groups. It’s an Irish film, but strikingly relevant to Australian society.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Anger and Banality in Ghosts… of the Civil Dead

26 March 2014
Mike Bishop as David Yale

Mike Bishop as David Yale

My article on Ghosts… of the Civil Dead for Senses of Cinema as part of their Key Moments in Australian Cinema series:

The anger that seethes throughout John Hillcoat’s debut feature film, Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, can be felt in almost every scene. Anger is explicitly articulated, acts of violence resulting from anger are depicted or described, and in scenes without overt expressions of anger it can be felt underneath the despair, cruelty and hopelessness that have resulted from a corrupt prison system. Every character who appears on screen (as opposed to the voices on the intercom and the people shown in news reports and pornography) is either a prisoner, a prison officer or, in one instance, a policeman. Nearly all of them have reasons to be angry as they are all at the mercy of an unidentified external bureaucracy who want the anger in the prison to manifest as violence to justify harsher prison conditions and the funding of new facilities to deliver the required brutality.

Head over to Senses of Cinema to read the full article


DVD review – What Richard Did (2012)

23 March 2014

Jack Reynor as Richard Karlsen

Jack Reynor as Richard Karlsen

If 18-year-old Richard Karlsen were Australian, he’d be frequently referred to as a good bloke and used as a role model for masculinity. Charismatic, attractive, intelligent and an accomplished rugby player, he looks after his mates, stands up to bullies and takes care of vulnerable women. He also comes from a privileged background in South Dublin and is used to things going his way. One night when his judgement is clouded by alcohol and jealously he does something that will shatter several lives and potentially put an end to the bright future ahead of him.

This Irish drama by director Leonard Abrahamson explores an incident that could have come directly from an Australian newspaper from the last twelve months. The scenario is convincingly set up and the aftermath is suitably gruelling. It’s a morality tale about personal responsibility and culpability, and also an examination of guilt and how far communities will go to protect their own. Up-and-coming actor Jack Reynor delivers an astonishing performance as Richard, evoking both sympathy and contempt from the audience.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 453, 2014

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – Out of the Furnace (2013)

22 March 2014
Christian Bale as Russell Baze

Christian Bale as Russell Baze

There is something mythical about the American blue-collar town where Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace is set. The hardworking and racially harmonious population are decent folk trying to get by, despite work drying up at the steel mill. Brothers Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck) are good men, but afflicted by inner demons. One does time for manslaughter after a drink-driving accident, while the other is an Iraq War veteran with gambling debts that lead him into serious trouble.

What begins as an engaging drama about proud yet flawed working-class men becomes a silly revenge thriller involving drug dealing and bare-knuckle boxing. For a film so overtly set in the shadow of the Global Financial Crisis, it is disappointing that it abandons any opportunity for social critique. Instead the villains of the film are identified as cartoonish hillbillies, lead by a sociopathic Woody Harrelson. Out of the Furnace ultimately squanders its potential, resulting in a second-rate Winters Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) when it could’ve been a contemporary The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978).

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 453, 2014

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – All Is Lost (2013)

9 March 2014
Robert Redford as Our Man

Robert Redford as Our Man

Grappling with personal demons while trying to stay alive in a hostile environment can make gripping cinema as Gravity demonstrated. If you relocate the action in Gravity to a small boat stranded on the Indian Ocean, cast Robert Redford as the unnamed character facing the brutal elements and strip away all backstory, then the results may resemble All Is Lost.

There is almost no dialogue as the stoic weariness that Redford conveys and his character’s solitary predicament are enough to tell us that he is a man feeling crushed by the world. As he attempts to keep his boat and body in working order while methodically facing every new crisis, we hold our breath – not just because the film so successfully engages us in the process, but also because it hints that at any moment he might give in to defeat. The result is a thrilling and poetic survival film that ultimately allows the audience to project their own feelings of hope or despair onto the fate of Redford’s character.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 452, 2014

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Films I loved in February 2014

3 March 2014
Blue Is the Warmest Colour_Adèle Exarchopoulos_Léa Seydoux_2

Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adèle and Léa Seydoux as Emma in Blue Is the Warmest Colour.

The cinematic highlight for me this month was the mesmerising, intense and emotionally charged Blue Is the Warmest Colour. Mostly shot in close-up and medium close-up, director Abdellatif Kechiche places the audience firmly into the sensory world of a young woman whose entire life becomes consumed by the rush of love and lust of first love. While I am aware not everybody has found the sex scenes in the film to be realistic, the film still succeeds in portraying an emotional reality that for me transcends any perceived errors in factual detail. Blue Is the  Warmest Colour earns its long running time and left me elated, exhausted and devastated in the best possible way.

Zhao Tao as Xiao Yu in A Touch of Sin

Zhao Tao as Xiao Yu in A Touch of Sin

I originally saw A Touch of Sin last year while extremely tired, so I was extremely pleased to see it again during its small run in Melbourne to fully appreciate what a rich and nuanced film it is. Through the telling of four stories inspired by real events that culminated in  acts of violence, director Jia Zhangke presents a damning portrait of contemporary China where  the radical degree in which corporatism flourishes with communism has created brutal social divisions. This is a film rich in allegory with its references to animals and classic wuxia films, but even without fully understanding all the culturally-specific symbolism there is no denying the angry power of this film.

Young Jirô Horikoshi and Giovanni Battista Caproni in The Wind Rises

After such an extraordinary career of mostly writing and directing animated fantasy films, The Wind Rises may seem at first glance to be an odd film for Hayao Miyazaki to announce as his final work. And yet the fictionalised tale of Japanese aeronautical engineer Jirô Horikoshi, whose groundbreaking work in the 1920s onwards would lead to the creation of the long-range fighter aircraft that the Japanese empire would use against the Allies in World War II, contains several characteristics of Miyazaki’s films. This is a film that juxtaposes creativity and imagination with destruction, it expresses the joy of flight and it contains a subtle yet effective anti-war and anti-fascist messages. And without speculating too much on Miyazaki’s personal life, a film about a man who becomes all consumed by his passion to create something of beauty regardless of the consequences, does feel like the work of a reflective soul.

Lindsay Duncan as Meg Burrows and Jim Broadbent as Nick Burrows in Le Week-End

Lindsay Duncan as Meg Burrows and Jim Broadbent as Nick Burrows in Le Week-End

Le Week-End is the fourth film director Roger Michell and writer Hanif Kureishi have collaborated on and it’s the third time the pair have used cinema to examine older characters, in particular the love lives and sex lives of older characters. While more  light-hearted than The Mother (2003) and Venus (2006), this film about an English couple on a second honeymoon in Paris is still a bittersweet affair. Within the space of one scene, the affection and warmth between the couple can turn to confronting resentment and anger, making the tone of the film predominantly one of anxiety. There are enough whimsical nods to classic French New Wave films to prevent Le Week-End from being too emotionally gruelling, but this is nevertheless a prickly film that is as much about  regret and missed opportunities as it is about enduring love.


I also enjoyed Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, about a man divorcing his wife and the challenges facing his wife’s new lover. A typically strong family drama  by Farhadi, I was initially a little unsettled by the way the film begins with a focus on one character, who by the end of the film feels like an afterthought as the focus switches to another character. Of course this is a deliberate strategy to present the two characters from the perspective of the central female character who is experiencing one man come into her life as another drifts out. I’m just not completely sure of how effective this technique is, although there is no denying the power of the film’s beautiful and ambiguous final shot.

My enthusiasm for Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée) has waned since I saw it as I increasingly find myself discussing the problems I had with it rather than its many strengths. Nevertheless, I do still think it is an excellent film and while I found some of the characters too broadly defined as specific types, I agree with the consensus that Matthew McConaughey does some of his finest work, I love how the film challenges the motivations of the Food and Drug Administration for why they decided what AIDS treatments they would and wouldn’t approve, and I felt that for the most part the film avoids obvious sentiment.

Finally, I want to mention a couple of great films that have been released on DVD in Australia without getting a full theatrical release. The first is the terrific Canadian kids film (although rated MA) I Declare War where the audience see how the kids who are playing an elaborate war game imagine themselves – not carrying sticks and water bombs, but carrying machine guns and grenades. Part parody of war film conventions, part dark satire of learned behaviour and part critique of cinematic violence, I Declare War is a lot of fun.

The other film recently released on DVD that I want to mention is the heartbreaking beautiful The Weight of Elephants about a New Zealand boy coping with abandonment issues and bullying, against the backdrop of a missing children investigation. This is an incredibly strong film and really worth making the effort to track down.

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

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