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