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
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Top Twenty Films of the 2000s

25 March 2010

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I’ve been wanting to put together a best films of the 2000s list for a while now but felt it was appropriate to allow some distance before doing so (plus I’ve been a bit slack). I also wanted to catch up on many of the important films that I had missed over the past decade but I quickly came to my senses and realised that was an almost impossible task as the list of films that I must see is forever getting longer rather than shorter. After creating a short list of 100 possible films I was able to get down to a list of my personal favourite twenty films from the past decade.

My methodology was to simply list all the films that I’d given 5 or 4½ stars to and go from there. I tried not to pay too much attention to how I preferentially ordered films in my yearly best-of lists as my feelings about films do change upon reflection and repeat viewings. In the end the films that I included are the films that have long continued to linger in my mind, compelled me to watch them again or simply get me excited just by thinking about them.

Mulholland Dr.

Apart from one or two left-field selections I am aware that my list is hardly revolutionary but in the end I went with personal choices rather than attempt to make an all encompassing list of the most significant, important or influential films, which has been done very impressively elsewhere. So here are my top twenty films from the 2000s:

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
2. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
3. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
4. Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)
5. The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005)
6. Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000)
7. Balibo (Robert Connolly, 2009)
8. Hero (Ying xiong, Zhang Yimou 2002)
9. Lost In Translation (Sophia Coppola, 2003)
10. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
11. No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2007)

12. Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg, Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002)
13. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
14. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)
15. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007)
16, Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007)
17. Conversations with Other Women (Hans Canosa, 2005)
18. Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004)
19. Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)
20. Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir, Ari Folman, 2008)


Kill Bill: Vol. 1

Even though in 2004 I originally listed Irréversible above Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Irréversible was released late in Australia) subsequent repeat viewings of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind established it for me as a masterpiece of modern cinema. It’s a film that I can engage with on a deeply emotional and critical level as well as being able to appreciate just how well crafted a film it is.  To an extent the same can be said of all films on this list.

Mulholland Dr, Kill Bill: Vol.1, No Country for Old Men and Eastern Promises aren’t the best films by their respective directors but nevertheless reflect the incredible ongoing contribution that those directors have made to modern cinema. Unexpectedly Paul Thomas Anderson is the only director to appear twice with Punch-Drunk Love that, along with Lost in Translation, Donnie Darko and Mysterious Skin, represents the remnants of the 1990s American indi at its best while There Will Be Blood reflects a bold throw back to the grand narratives of classical Hollywood cinema.

Irréversible

Australian cinema peaked twice in the 2000s with The Proposition representing the middle spike and Balibo representing the incredible spike right at the end of the decade. Dancer in the Dark is von Trier’s masterpiece, Hero was the pinnacle of the ‘art house martial arts’ films and Control is the best musical biopic ever made (although I will admit to my heavy bias due to my love of Joy Division). Finally, some of the most distinctive cinema from the 2000s are the films that successfully did something original and daring with film form and style and they are represented on this list with Irréversible, Russian Ark, Conversations with Other Women, Hunger and Waltz with Bashir.

Here are the remaining 80 films from my shortlist, ordered alphabetically:

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile, Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)
28 Days Later… (Danny Boyle, 2002)
Amelie (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003)
Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)
Artificial Intelligence: AI (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007)
Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004)
The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007)
Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)
Bridge to Terabithia (Gabor Csupo, 2007)
Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2005)
Café Lumière (Kôhî jikô, Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2003)
Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005)

Capturing The Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki 2003)
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
Closer (Mike Nichols, 2004)
Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)
Code Unknown (Code inconnu, Michael Haneke, 2000)
The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher, Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2007)
The Cremaster Cycle (Matthew Barney 1995-2002)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, (Wo hu cang long, Ang Lee, 2000)
Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007)
The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
Downfall (Der Untergang, Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)
Elephant (Gus Van Sant 2003)
Every Little Step (Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern, 2008)
Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
Flags of our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, 2006)
Forgiveness (Ian Gabriel, 2004)
Genova (Michael Winterbottom, 2008)
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts (Scott Hicks, 2007)
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Alex Gibney, 2008)
High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000)
The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002)
I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, 2009)
In My Father’s Den (Brad McGann 2004)
INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, 2006)
Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006)
The Jammed (Dee McLachlan, 2007)
Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003)
Jindabyne (Ray Lawrence, 2006)
The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald, 2006)
Last Life in the Universe (Ruang rak noi nid mahasan, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang 2003)
Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006)
The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)
Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi, Shion Sono, 2008)
Lust, Caution (Se, jie, Ang Lee, 2007)

Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005)
Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
Men’s Group (Michael Joy, 2008)

Monster (Patty Jenkins 2003)
Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003)
Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway, 2007)
Not Quite Hollywood (Mark Hartley, 2008)

OldBoy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
Once (John Carney, 2006)
Ong-bak (Prachya Pinkaew, 2003)
Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
The Piano Teacher (La pianiste, Michael Haneke, 2001)
Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)
The Rules of Attraction (Roger Avary, 2002)
Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009)
Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004)
Silmido (Kang Woo-suk 2003)
The Spanish Apartment (L’auberge espagnole, Cédric Klapisch, 2002)
Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002)
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring (Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom, Kim Ki-duk 2003)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007)
Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (Boksuneun naui geot, Park Chan-wook, 2002)
The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002)
Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)
Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008)
Up (Pete Docter, 2009)
WALL·E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

[EDIT 8/1/11 and 2/10/11: Since creating this top twenty and shortlist I have seen several films that in retrospect I would have included. Rather than re-editing the lists and running the risk of endless tweaking, I’ll simply list those new films here:

Enter The Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009)
I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, 2009)
The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos, Juan José Campanella, 2009)
Son of Babylon (Mohamed Al Daradji, 2009)
Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2008)

Enter the Void would have probably made the top twenty.]

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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