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