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

MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Part 2

23 July 2011
Three

Three

My very first day of seeing films at the festival began with Three, a light German drama touching on issues of death and disease that ended up being a slightly farcical infidelity story. It was also unfortunate that the print hadn’t arrived as planned so the film was screened off a preview DVD. To the credit of the MIFF staff, this unforeseeable issue was explained to the audience beforehand and refunds were offered so I’ve no complaint with that. In fact, the low resolution, distributor logo in the corner of the screen and occasional bits of text flashing on the screen actually suited the film’s themes of detachment and communication failure. However, after enduring a series of moments when the disc jumped back and forth by several minutes I had to walk out  as that was one unintentional alienation device too many. 

Things picked up considerably when I then saw The King of Comedy, arguably the most underrated Scorsese/De Niro director/actor collaboration. I’d only previously seen this once on VHS so this was a treat. The film brilliantly explores issues of obsession and the nature of celebrity, making it the missing link between Taxi Driver and The Larry Saunders Show. I’d forgotten how funny it is. And what happened to Sandra Bernhard? She’s amazing in this.

Jess + Moss

Jess + Moss

The highlight of my day after The King of Comedy was Jess + Moss where light, colour, a variety of film stocks and a variety of cinematographic techniques are used to create a vivid impression of an adolescent friendship. Funny, sweet and even at times slightly sinister, it explores companionship, memory, loss and the awkwardness of emerging sexual curiosity. Perhaps it is slightly too obtuse to really deliver a full emotional punch, but I nevertheless found this to be a mesmerising and beautiful film. I suspect director Clay Jeter is going to do extraordinary things in the future.

I doubt I’ll see a bigger dud at the festival than The Silence of Joan. This poorly made film is more about various men who feel sorry for Joan of Arc than Joan herself. Not a bad idea I suppose, but she really is silenced in this film and robbed of all character. The cinematography and editing resemble the sort of thing you’d expect from a mediocre TV movie and some of the performances from the supporting cast would not have been out of place in a particularly bad piece of community theatre.

Melancholia

Melancholia

I wanted to like Melancholia more than I did, but it is still an immensely rewarding film. After a truly remarkable prologue, where the main story is basically told in a series of stunning abstract images, the first part of the film delivers an extremely impressive depiction of somebody who suffers from depression. Kirsten Dunst is remarkable as Justine who is supposed to be having the time of her life on her wedding night, but struggles to remain happy. There’s also a lot of humour in the disfunctional family scenario. The second half, where the depression theme is explored in the metaphor of a planet named Melancholia on a collision course with the Earth, does drag.  Nevertheless, the ending is powerful and Dunst gets to deliver a brilliant line of dialogue: ‘The Earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.’ Thanks for that Lars von Trier you miserable sod.

Finally, I was really looking forward to the latest film that has come out from the trend in grindhouse revival cinema, Hobo with a Shotgun. It is certainly ultra-violent and ridiculous enough to tick all the boxes, but this homeless-exploitation film is a far cry from Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and Robert Rodriguez’s Machete. The relentless and pointless sadism of the film left me cold and bored, which not even the presence of Rutger Hauer could cure.

MIFFhaps
I really had to bite my tongue while waiting for Three to start when I overheard a woman loudly complaining about ‘why do they need to play this doof doof music in the cinema before the film!’ The music that was being played was the soundtrack to Run Lola Run and since Three was the latest film by Tom Tykwer it made perfect sense to play it. Besides, it’s a bit of a stretch to describe that soundtrack as ‘doof doof’. Also, during an early funny scene in The King of Comedy, a guy came into the cinema late and tripped over just as the audience started laughing at something on screen. The timing was perfect.

Show us your MIFF
I made a new MIFF friend today when a mutual friend introduced me to Lauren Matthews, a political analyst, activist and card-maker  who is covering MIFF at the new stealingbeauty2011 blog. Lauren’s mother used to manage the Classic so cinema is in her blood. She’s seeing over 60 films at MIFF this year and has been attending the festival in some capacity every since she was 4-years-old. Appropriately her favourite film is Cinema Paradiso. She recommends the consumption of meal replacement bars as the key to surviving MIFF and is most looking forward to seeing Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place. Her biggest MIFFhap was discovering last year that Teenage Paparazzo filmmaker Adrian Grenier was nothing like his Entourage character Vincent Chase.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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MIFF 2011 Blog-a-thon: Feature and short film picks

8 July 2011

Melbourne International Film FestivalIt’s almost Melbourne International Film Festival time, so I’m starting up the MIFF diary yet again. This year I’ll be seeing and reporting on a lot more films than in previous years as I’m taking part in the 60th anniversary MIFF blog-a-thon. The deal is that I need to see and report back on 60 films during the seventeen days of the festival. That’s on average 3½ films per day. It’s a bit daunting to be honest and I’m apprehensive about how much I’ll be able to appreciate all those films let alone write anything intelligible about them! However, I’ve willingly signed on so will give it my best shot.

The good news is that as well as covering the festival here I’ll also be covering it on the Plato’s Cave podcast with my fellow hosts Josh Nelson and Tara Judah. We won’t be doing our usual Monday night/Tuesday morning show during the week beginning 25 July because on Thursday 28 July from 7pm-8pm we’ll be broadcasting a live Max Headroom MIFF special on Triple R. We’ll then upload that show Friday morning, in case you can’t tune on Thursday night, and record a new podcast-only MIFF show the following week at the usual time. We’ll also be discussing our picks of the festival in the next episode (week starting 11 July) so subscribe now if you haven’t done so already.

Speaking of festival picks, I thought I’d share the ten films and three short film packages that have most caught my attention. I’ve tried to pick films that to the best of my knowledge aren’t getting released in the near future, although some do have Australian distributors already. (Cerise Howard has put together a very useful list on her blog along side her intriguing recommendations for what to see.) I’ve actually seen a number of the films already scheduled for a theatrical release this year including Senna and Jane Eyre, which are both excellent films and would certainly be rewarding to see in the festival environment.

Feature films

Autoluminesscent: Rowland S. Howard

Autoluminesscent: Rowland S. Howard

Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard
I can’t think of any filmmaker more qualified to make a documentary about the great Rowland S. Howard than Dogs in Space director Richard Lowenstein. It’s a perfect combination of director and subject matter. Also, my wife introduced me to Howard’s solo work so this is a bit of a personal pick for me!

Beauty and the Beast
I’ve wanted to see Jean Cocteau’s 1946 avant-garde fairytale film for a long time so having the opportunity to see it on the big screen is an incredible opportunity.

Armadillo
It was a shame that I, like most Australians, didn’t get to see the war documentary Restrepo in the cinema so I’m making sure I see this one, which has been a sensation in Denmark and from all accounts is extraordinary documentary filmmaking.

The Unjust
I really enjoy contemporary South Korean cinema and the promised mix of social critique, complex narrative (I’m expecting not to be able to follow it), dark comedy, tragedy and action sounds so much like my sort of thing.

Melancholia
It’s the latest film by Lars von Trier and that’s enough for me. I haven’t always liked his work, but he is so unpredictable that I always make a point of seeing what he’s done next. Plus, his previous film Antichrist was one of my highlights during MIFF 2009.

Cold Fish

Cold Fish

Cold Fish
Sion Sono is another director that I now always seek out. Love Exposure was another film I saw during MIFF in 2009 and I’ll never forget seeing Suicide Club at MIFF many, many years ago. Sono’s Guilty of Romance is also screening this year and I’ll be at that too.

The Turin Horse
I’ve never seen a film by Béla Tarr, not even his widely acclaimed Werckmeister Harmonies. The Turin Horse is supposedly his final film so I guess better late than never to get on board. It’s reportedly a very meditatively and observational film about peasant life – in other words, the kind of film some people find absorbing while others find dull. I usually fall into the former camp when it comes to such films so I’m really keen to see this.

A Stoker
I like to see a handful of disturbing, bleak and soul destroying films each year and this Russian parable about the collapse of the Soviet Union sounds suitably gruesome, brutal and darkly humorous.

I Am Eleven
This is another very personal choice as I’ve been aware of Genevieve Bailey’s work since the days when I used to be involved in the 15/15 Film Festival. Her films have always possessed a sincerely humanist quality and this documentary (her first feature) sounds no different.

Surviving Life
My paranoia with MIFF is that I’ll miss a gem that I can’t see elsewhere and that paranoia was exemplified when I almost didn’t notice this film in the program (thank you again Cerise Howard for pointing it out!) This is the latest by filmmaker/animator Jan Švankmajer who is one of the few contemporary filmmakers that can be accurately described as a surrealist. One of my first ever MIFF experiences was seeing his version of Faust and I’ve loved everything he’s done since.

Short films

Stardust

Stardust

I’m also going to explore the short film packages this year. Until I was asked to be a judge for last year’s MIFF Shorts Awards, I didn’t really give short films the attention they deserved. I’ve since seen the error of my ways, plus I’ve had a sneak peak on what’s on offer this year, as a result of writing for the program, and there’s some great stuff. All the packages contain films that are worth seeing, but I’ve narrowed it down to the following three:

International Shorts – O Canada!
I’m mainly going to this because it includes Scenes from the Suburbs, the Spike Jonze/Arcade Fire collaboration. From this program I have already seen the very simple single-shot film Sophie Lavoie and was extremely impressed.

International Shorts – Misfits
I’ve seen most of the films in this program but am more than happy to see them again, especially Jonathan Caouette’s All Flowers in TimeHowever, the two films I haven’t seen are the ones that do sound the most interesting: the South Korean psychological thriller Ghost and the Swedish zombie film The Unliving, which sounds like it may deliver a fun, refreshing spin on the genre.

Experimental Shorts 2
Slave Ship
and Another Occupation sound fascinating plus I really want to see Endeavour and Stardust again, but this time on the big screen. Stardust is directed by Nicholas Provost who won the Best Experimental Short Film award last year for Long Live The New Flesh. I think Stardust is even more impressive.

OK, that’s it for now. I can’t make opening night due to a prior engagement and I’m seeing films back-to-back over the first few days, but hopefully diary entries will start appearing soon after the first weekend.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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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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