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

Top Ten Films of 2009

6 January 2010

Balibo

Instead of writing the usual apology or disclaimer for creating a Best Of list, I’m just going to confess that I love creating these lists as they provide a snapshot of what films I was most immediately impressed by from the year that has just finished. As time passes many of these films will fade from memory while some continue to resonate and establish themselves in film history so it will be nice to be able to refer back to such a list and remind myself of films that may be forgotten.

Top Ten films with a theatrical release in Melbourne, Australian in 2009

  1. Balibo (Robert Connolly, 2009)
  2. Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)
  3. Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
  4. Genova (Michael Winterbottom, 2008)
  5. Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)
  6. Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009)
  7. Up (Pete Docter, 2009)
  8. Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008)
  9. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, 2009)
  10. Every Little Step (Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern, 2008)

Rachel Getting Married

The film that left the biggest impression on me in 2009 was Balibo, which left me initially feeling completely shattered and later left me in awe of how skilfully crafted it is with its combination of human drama, international politics and historical detail. The only two films I saw twice in the cinema in 2009 were Rachel Getting Married and Avatar; films at almost the opposite end of the spectrum to one another in representing what cinema can achieve. The ultra small scale Rachel Getting Married provided a deeply emotional examination of family dynamics and my love of cinema that captures a sense of place and something deeply human is further reflected by my inclusion of Genova, Samson and Delilah, Two Lovers and Every Little Step. The extravagant spectacle Avatar created one of the most immersive cinema experiences to date and my love of cinema as a visual art form is further reflected by my inclusion of Antichrist, Up and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Honourable mentions

Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008)
The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in, Tomas Alfredson, 2008)
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009)
Bright Star (Jane Campion, 2009)
Gomorrah (Gomorra, Matteo Garrone, 2008)
Summer Hours (L’Heure d’été, Olivier Assayas, 2008)
Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009)
The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, 2009)

Top Ten unreleased films (in Melbourne)

Love Exposure

While Melbourne is a tremendous city for film, especially with cinemas such as Cinema Nova that are very much committed to independent releases, a number of exceptional films still miss out on getting general theatrical releases. Fortunately for the Melbourne based film lover there is the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) and what seems like an endless stream of film festivals picking up the slack. For this reason I’ve separately listed films screened in Melbourne in 2009 but not given a general theatrical release (and to date not scheduled for a 2010 release).

  1. Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi, Sion Sono, 2008)
  2. 35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums, Claire Denis, 2008)

  3. Paper Soldiers (Bumazhnyy soldat, Aleksei German MI., 2008)
  4. Thirst (Bakjwi, Park Chan-wook, 2009)
  5. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom, Kim Ji-woon, 2008)
  6. Public Enemy Number One (Part 1) (L’instinct de mort, Jean-François Richet, 2008)
  7. Mother (Madeo, Bong Joon-ho, 2009)
  8. Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009)
  9. JCVD (Mabrouk El Mechri, 2008)
  10. T Is for Teacher (Rohan Spong, 2009)

Dogs in Space

Melbourne also benefits from a wide range of retrospective screenings and in a year that was already spectacular for Australian cinema it was an added bonus to have screenings and then long overdue DVD releases of Richard Lowenstein’s 1986 masterpiece Dogs in Space and Ted Kotcheff’s ‘lost’ 1971 classic Wake in Fright. Watching a newly restored print of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era una volta il West, 1968) at The Astor Theatre was another highlight on the cinematic year as was visiting ACMI’s Dennis Hopper and the New Hollywood exhibition. The Melbourne Cinémathèque once again provided a terrific program in 2009 and it was great to finally catch-up on some previously unseen films by Ingmar Bergman and Samuel Fuller as well as discovering for the first time the under-appreciated cinema of Frank Borzage.

Also appears here on Senses of Cinema, Issue No. 53, 2010.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – Antichrist (2009)

8 December 2009

She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and He (Willem Dafoe)

The Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville) is a true cinematic experimentalist and agent provocateur with Antichirst being the most comprehensive encapsulation of all his ideas and stylistic approaches to date. Antichrist opens with a stunning black-and-white, slow motion prologue where the film’s leads, known simply as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), make love in the shower while their unattended child crawls out of his crib, climbs out an open window and falls to his death. Antichrist then unfolds over four chapters where He and She travel to an isolated forest cabin named Eden in order to reconcile their loss. She is consumed with grief, guilt, anxiety and self-loathing, using sex as a masochistic distraction from her pain. He is a therapist so takes it upon himself to heal her by making her confront the source of her deepest fear – the Eden cabin they have gone to where she had previously worked on a thesis about misogynist murder.

Von Trier uses a mixture of visual approaches in Antichrist to maximum effect. To portray the destructive dynamic between He and She von Trier utilises a very raw, handheld-camera filming style. To capture many of the hypnotic outdoor scenes, often filled with images of death in the natural world, von Trier radically uses sound, cinematography and editing to create some of the most beautiful yet nightmarish imagery ever created on screen. The eerie beauty of such scenes contrasts dramatically to the extremely violent brutality that occurs later in the film and very few people will be able to sit through key moments in Antichrist without physically recoiling in horror and disbelief at what they’ve just witnessed.

Von Trier has explored misogyny before and, similarly to David Lynch, he has been accused of being a misogynist as a result. While Antichrist does not contain any single fixed meaning as such, it does depict the misogyny of men who cast women as victims so that they can wield power as authoritative experts. Furthermore, it depicts female self-hatred, which is arguably the most destructive form of misogyny. The self-disgust that She develops towards her own sexuality is represented in Antichrist through its imagery of the natural world as Hell. Functioning as the inverse of the Biblical creation story, Antichrist is the most unique and divisive ‘horror’ film you are ever likely to see.

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 343, 2009

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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MIFF 2009 wrap up

12 August 2009
Antichrist

Antichrist

The 2009 Melbourne International Film Festival finished last Sunday and I was pleased to end the festival on a high note by seeing Mother (Madeo, Bong Joon-ho, 2009), a wonderfully ironic and clever examination of guilt and  culpability in the guise of a whodunit. Before that I caught Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009) a good social-realist film with a terrific central performance from its young lead, newcomer Katie Jarvis.

The day before was a mixed blessing that began with the very enjoyable $9.99 (Tatia Rosenthal, 2008), a sort of animated metaphysical Short Cuts that will inevitably be compared to the superior Mary and Max. Unfortunately the much anticiapted closing night film at MIFF was the very cringe-worthy Bran Nue Dae (Rachel Perkins, 2009). While containing many strong performances, Ernie Dingo especially, and certainly having its heart in the right place, it is just far too twee. What may have once worked on stage — and Bran Nue Dae does feel like community theatre — hasn’t translated onto screen and it was my biggest disappointment of the festival. Fortunately I skipped the Closing Night party to see Antichrist (2009), the startling new film by Lars von Trier. With its dreamlike combination of hauntingly beautiful and uncanny imagery, and power to actually make me physically recoil for most of the final part of the film, Antichrist was one of my festival highlights along with Love Exposure and the opening night film Balibo.

Otherwise, during the festival I also caught the appropriate titled documentary Outrage (Kirby Dick, 2009), which draws much needed attention to the gross hypocrisy of closeted gay and lesbian politicians who actively legislate and campaign against the homosexual community. I also saw Henry Selick’s wonderful 3D stop motion Coraline (2009) , the quirky but forgettable comedy Pardon My French (Un chat un chat, Sophie Fillières, 2009) and An Education (2009), a highly enjoyable and unconventional coming-of-age film by Danish director Lone Scherfig. Overall, I was very pleased with the films I picked this year.

I didn’t go to any of the retrospective screenings but MIFF did screen both Dogs in Space (Richard Lowenstein, 1986), one of my all time favourite Australian films, and Alphaville (1965), one of my favourite films by Jean-Luc Godard.

Of the many films that I didn’t get around to seeing, I am still kicking myself the hardest for missing Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2008). But, I guess you can’t get to see everything!

My 2009 MIFF summary

✭✭✭✭✭
Balibo
(Robert Connolly, 2009)

✭✭✭✭✩
Love Exposure
(Ai no mukidashi, Sion Sono, 2008)
Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)

✭✭✭✭
35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums, Claire Denis, 2008)
Paper Soldiers (Bumazhnyy soldat, Aleksei German Ml., 2008)
Thirst (Bakjwi, Park Chan-wook, 2009)
Mother (Madeo, Bong Joon-ho, 2009)
Bronson (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2009)
Che: Part One (Steven Soderbergh, 2008)
Red Riding: 1980 (James Marsh, 2009)
Red Riding: 1974 (Julian Jarrold, 2009)
The 10 Conditions of Love (Jeff Daniels, 2009)
An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009)
Red Riding: 1983 (Anand Tucker, 2009)

✭✭✭✩
The White Ribbon (Das weiße Band, Michael Haneke, 2009)
Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009)
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009)
Che: Part Two (Steven Soderbergh, 2008)
Outrage (Kirby Dick, 2009)
Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)
Krabat (Marco Kreuzpaintner, 2008)
$9.99 (Tatia Rosenthal, 2008)
The Burrowers (J.T. Petty, 2008)
Like You Know It All (Jal aljido mothamyeonseo, Hong Sang-soo, 2009)

✭✭✭
The Sky Crawlers (Sukai kurora, Mamoru Oshii, 2008)
The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh, 2009)
Pardon My French (Un chat un chat, Sophie Fillières, 2009)

✭✭✩
Shadow Play: The Making of Anton Corbijn (Josh Whiteman, 2009)
Tears for Sale (Carlston za Ognjenku, Uros Stojanovic, 2008)
Chocolate (Prachya Pinkaew, 2008)

✭✭
Bran Nue Dae (Rachel Perkins, 2009)

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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