Friday, January 27, 2012

The Auteurs #7: Lars von Trier

Controversial, provocative, genius, misogynist, greatest filmmaker in the world, the most hated filmmaker in the world, prankster, and enfant terrible. These are the many things said about Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier whose career has been defined by stirring things up and always provoking ideals in what audience expects. He’s has gained both followers and detractors for all of the films he’s made in his career yet he has never been predictable nor compromising with the film’s he’s made for nearly 30 years into his career. Having just released Melancholia in 2011 with a few other projects in the works, von Trier has proven himself to be one of cinema great filmmakers.

Born Lars Trier on April 30, 1956 in Kongens Lyngby, Denmark, the bad-boy filmmaker grew up in a very eccentric family that had him appear in small Danish TV as a child actor while receiving his first Super 8 camera at age 11. In 1977, von Trier would make his first short film entitled The Orchid Gardener which got him enrolled into the National Film School of Denmark two years later. It was during this time he added “von” into his name as he would make four more shorts from 1979 to 1982 that chronicled his unique yet strange style of filmmaking. After graduating from film school, von Trier would finally start his career into feature films.

For his feature-film debut, von Trier decided to create a film that was part of a trilogy of films revolving around the decay of European society as he starts it off with Forbrydelsens element (The Element of Crime). Written with cinematographer Tom Elling and editor Tom Gislason that was based on a story by von Trier’s friend Niels Vorsel, the film is a noir-style detective story about an English detective who recalls his last case under hypnosis while living in exile in Cairo. There, he talks about a gruesome series of murders on young girls selling lottery tickets in a decayed, water-laden world of Europe.

The film was shot entirely in a sepia-tone look filled with lots of yellow-lights and in a monochrome style to maintain a look that von Trier wanted for this futuristic yet decadent idea of Europe. Helping von Trier with the look of the film was his regular cinematographer at the time in Tom Elling where they used some blue for lighting schemes while it’s still driven by the yellowish look of the film. The film also had a grand yet technical style to it in one memorable scene where a man jumps off a construction tower with his legs dangling like a rope as if he was doing an early version of bungee jumping.

Still, von Trier was able to focus himself on the story as he followed this troubled detective named Fisher (Michael Elphick) to solve a mystery as he uses a controversial method to delve into the mind of the killer. Throughout the entirety of the film, there is a dark, dream-like quality to it in the way von Trier follows Fisher and a prostitute named Kim (Me Me Lai) trek through the watery world as they deal with a police chief and all sorts of strange people. The film also plays with the film noir genre as von Trier puts a bit of strong sexual content such as a scene where Kim is performing oral sex on Fisher though nothing explicit is really shown. It was an indication that this new emerging filmmaker will do anything to provoke with the ideas he brings and how far he will go.

The film premiered in 1984 in its native Denmark while being released at the Cannes Film Festival that same year where von Trier would be a regular fixture of the festival for nearly twenty-five years. The film would win von Trier a technical prize while gaining lots of acclaim through European film festivals as well as gaining numerous awards in Denmark. While the film would ultimately be released in the U.S. three years later through a very limited release. It did mark the arrival of a new bad boy in the world of cinema.

The second part of von Trier’s Europa trilogy was much looser film he co-wrote with Niels Vorsel as the two starred in a film about a screenwriter and director trying to make a film about an epidemic where reality and fiction would eventually collide. While the film is one of von Trier’s more abstract films that often leans towards the world of pretentiousness. It’s also an indication of how ambitious von Trier can be as well as be someone who can create a film that is stripped-down and to the point.

The film marks as a turning point in von Trier’s career for the way he can construct two different narratives that would eventually collide. While the main narrative is about von Trier and Vorsel both trying to come up with an idea for a film about an epidemic plague that treks around Europe as it’s shot in a grainy 16mm film. The other section which is the actual film itself where von Trier plays a doctor trying to save the world from this epidemic that has this rich yet broad look as it’s shot in a gorgeous 35mm film print.

Starring in the film aside from von Trier and Vorsel is German actor Udo Kier as a friend of theirs they meet during the road trip the two have. Kier would be among one of von Trier’s regular actors as he would appear in a lot of the projects had made. Epidemic would be a turning point for von Trier in his approach to tell the story of Europe’s decline but he does it in the most unexpected way. While the film had this back and forth narrative where the reality portion of it isn’t as exciting as its fantasy section. The way it collides towards the end show the prankster in von Trier that would often bring notoriety to his work and public persona.

The film premiered at the 1987 Cannes Film Festival at its Un Certain Regarde section where it received excellent notices though many would often cite this film as one of von Trier’s weakest films. The film’s U.S. release took a lot longer until it got a DVD release in 2004. Though it wasn’t a big commercial success due to its limited release, it did help raise von Trier’s reputation as a young director on the rise.

Due to the poor commercial reception for Epidemic, von Trier was hired to direct Medea for Danish television. The script was written by one of von Trier’s key influences in legendary Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer which gave reason for von Trier to do the project. Shot in a monochrome style with visual tricks and compositions inspired by Andrei Tarkovsky, the TV film would be a turning point for von Trier in what he would do as a filmmaker.

With a cast that included regular Udo Kier along with future regulars like Henning Jensen, Solbjorg Hojfeldt, and Baard Owe. Playing the titular character was Danish actress Kirsten Olesen who had appeared in a short film for von Trier back in 1982 during his film school years. Shot in a low budget on location in Denmark, von Trier aimed to create a TV-film that contained Dreyer’s theatrical style with the visual look of Tarkovsky. Aiming for a more stylistic approach to the Euripides story, von Trier would create ideas that he would use in the projects to follow.

Among them are superimposed backgrounds that gave the TV film a very surreal look for the scenes involving Medea and Udo Kier’s Jason character as they discuss Jason’s plans for the future that won’t involve Medea who seeks revenge for his betrayal. The TV film would also explore a theme von Trier would later explore in another trilogy that would follow in the late 1990s which involved women and their idea of sacrifice. In that theme, Medea would do something extremely drastic to make her ex-husband suffer as much as she had when she was betrayed.

The TV film was released in 1988 as it won the Jean d’Arcy prize in France while being a hit in small European festival. Though von Trier wasn’t fond of the project as he admitted he tried his hardest to mess it up in post-production. The film would give von Trier something to do as well as ideas into some of the projects he would do in the years to come. Yet, it is among one of von Trier’s earlier triumphs showcasing what kind of range he has as a filmmaker.

The third and final part of von Trier’s Europa trilogy entitled Europa would show von Trier taking his visual tricks to new heights. Written with Niels Vorsel, the film is about an idealistic American who travels to post-war Germany in 1945 to help his uncle run a railroad car as he unknowingly becomes part of a plot to help Nazi-sympathizers while falling for a woman whose family runs the train company he works for. The story itself proves to be a very ambitious project for von Trier as he continues his exploration into Europe’s sense of decline by traveling back to a crucial period in time.

The film had a huge ensemble cast that included Eddie Constantine, Erik Mork, Barbara Sukowa, Jorgen Reenberg, Henning Jensen, and Max von Sydow as the film’s narrator. The cast also included Udo Kier as well as a couple of future von Trier regulars in Swedish cult actor Ernst-Hugo Jaregard and French-American actor Jean-Marc Barr as the lead role of Leopold Kessler. With von Trier also making an appearance as a Jewish man who is supposed to implicate Jorgen Reenberg’s Max Hartmann character. The film was the first collaboration von Trier would have with producer Peter Aalbaek Jensen in which the two would form a production company called Zentropa after the film’s train company as the film would be given that name for its U.S. release to avoid confusion with Agnieska Holland’s 1990 film Europa Europa.

With exteriors shot in Poland and many of the films interiors shot in a studio in Denmark, von Trier aimed for a much more ambitious idea of presenting the film with lots of super-imposed shots set while mixing black-and-white film with color for emotional scenes in the film. In this approach, von Trier creates a film that is essentially a mix of fantasy with a period film where everything doesn’t seem real but is set at a very crucial time in history. Playing to the theme of the trilogy, it is a film about the decline of European decadence as it is set in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat and the fallout of those involved with the Nazi organization as some of the characters would fall hard while there are those who are trying to hold on the last grasp of Nazi power.

Since the film is the most stylized film von Trier has made, it is also a film that indicates how far he will go in creating a film that is very ambitious in terms of set pieces and trying to bring something new. With the help of Henning Bendtsen, who was one of three cinematographers that was famous for his work with Carl Theodor Dreyer, on the black-and-white photography of the film with then brother-in-law Joachim Holbek providing the film’s suspenseful score. With a lot of scenes filled with huge dramatic cuts plus lots of moving crane shots where it includes a scene of a camera leaving a house on the roof and suddenly be inside a train car. It’s an indication of how far von Trier went from The Element of Crime into something like this.

The film premiered at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival to lots of acclaim over the film’s visual style as it would win three awards for Best Artistic Contribution, the Technical Jury Prize, and the film’s third place Jury Prize that was shared with Marnoun Bagdadi’s film Hors la vie (Out of Life). At the festival’s closing ceremony where von Trier was to accept his awards, the director gave the festival’s jury and its president in filmmaker Roman Polanski the finger while storming out upon learning he wasn’t going to win the Palme D’or (which went to the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink). The disappointment over not winning the Palme D’or only added to some of von Trier’s personal issues as he learned about his biological father two years earlier on his mother’s deathbed.

Riget I & II

Forming Zentropa Entertainment in 1992 with producer Peter Albaek Jensen, von Trier decided to make some changes to his filmmaking style in the wake of his own family turmoil. In hopes to help raise money for Zentropa, von Trier decided to do a TV project with friend Morten Arnfred and collaborators Niels Vorsel and Tomas Gislason about a haunted Danish hospital where strange events occur. Entitled Riget (The Kingdom), von Trier decided to create a TV-based hospital drama and infuse with horror and dark comedy.

The TV project starred Ernst-Hugo Jaregard whom von Trier worked with on Europa as he was cast as a Swedish doctor whom is disliked by his peers as he often screams “Danish scum” towards the end of each episode. With regular Udo Kier making a cameo for the first part of the series, the cast is filled with a cast of Danes and Scandinavian actors including a couple of Down-syndrome actors to play dishwashers who comments on the situations that goes in the hospital.

The first series released in 1994 featured multiple narratives about a young neurosurgeon who runs a black market operation while an elderly patient is a spiritualist who asks her orderly son to find a ghost. Meanwhile, a professor decides to input a cancerous liver tumor into his body while a young student has nightmares as he tries to win over a sleeping lab doctor. A whole lot of chaos ensues as a hospital chief tries to win over the health minister with a positive attitude message for the hospital. All of this is commented by two dishwashers who would also reveal what might be coming as von Trier presented the TV mini-series in a sepia-like grainy hand-held cinematography in 16mm film that marked a major change from the more technical-driven work of his previous films.

The success of the 1994 mini-series led to a sequel three years later that has Udo Kier playing a bigger part as he was last scene coming out of a woman’s fetus in the end of the first series. Riget II upped the ante in terms of its humor and more dark themes that would involve the occult. With a looser style in its presentation and storytelling, von Trier and Arnfred went for odd styles of framing as well as utilizing night-vision film stock to play up an evil presence that occurs in the second series.

Since von Trier and Niels Vorsel aimed to mess around with the script structure of its predecessor for Riget II. They went for something where things don’t exactly pick up where it is left off as the mini-series had a more disjointed feel in terms of scene transitions and what happens in these multiple-narratives. Notably as Jaregard would scream his famous last lines but this time towards a toilet for the second part. With more crazy events that includes suspenseful ambulance races, Satanic rituals, a nosy medical director, and all sorts of surprises. Riget II became the great follow-up to its predecessor as audiences watched with great anticipation for its 1997 release.

After its release, von Trier was already planning for its third series due to its suspenseful cliffhanger at the end of the second series. Unfortunately, Ernst-Hugo Jaregard’s death in 1998 as well as the subsequent deaths of Kirsten Rolffes as Mrs. Drusse and Morten Rotne Leffers as the male Down syndrome dishwasher complicated things. Along with funding issues, von Trier was forced to shelve the third series. While a remake of the series was made by Stephen King called Kingdom Hospital in 2004 that only lasted a season. There were rumors that von Trier sent the script of the third series to the shows producers though it remains unclear that if von Trier’s script were used. Still, the Riget mini-series expanded von Trier’s range as a storyteller leaving way for what was to come in the late 1990s.

Following the personal turmoil over his mother’s death, the discovery of his biological father, and his conversion to Catholicism. Lars von Trier would change gears for a new trilogy that explored women and the sacrifices they make. On March 22, 1995, von Trier attended at ceremony to celebrate the first century of cinema as well as discussing its future. There, von Trier made the announcement of the Dogme 95 movement that he co-founded with Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg as a reaction towards the state of big-budgeted commercial cinema.

The movement entailed certain rules of a Dogme 95 in which all cameras had to be shot on available light and had to be in hand-held cameras. All sound and music had to be presented on location and not re-created. Film has to be shot in color with no use of filters or optical work. No genre films or sets to be built as the film has to be shot in present location. Props had to be found at that location. The film had to be formatted at the Academy 35mm aspect ratio of 1:33:1 theatrical ratio and the director must not be credited. These guidelines would be of use for what von Trier would do with his new film entitled Breaking the Waves.

Written with Peter Asmussen, the film told the story of a young Scottish woman who falls for a Norwegian oil rigger as their brief wedded bliss is shattered when he is paralyzed by an accident. Guilty for being the cause of the accident after praying to God for him to return, the woman would embark on a journey to find a way to make her husband better by having sex with other men under his instructions. Eventually, it leads to problems as she gets in trouble with the religious leaders of her hometown where she would make the ultimate sacrifice to save her husband’s life.

The film marked a turning point in von Trier’s career as he strayed away from the more technical-driven work of his earlier films for the looseness he had in some of the hand-held work he did in The Kingdom. With the help of renowned Dutch cinematographer Robby Muller, von Trier went for a look that was grainy, monochrome look that looked like a home movie. At the same time, von Trier went for unconventional editing styles with the help of editor Anders Refn. Since the film was set in the 1970s and was at the time, the longest film von Trier had made at 158-minutes. He had chapters break that is filled with music of the early 70s with animated paintings that was created by Pers Kirkesby to give the film a storybook feel.

With a cast that included von Trier regulars Udo Kier and Jean-Marc Barr, added to that group of regular actors was Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard while British actors such as Adrian Rawlins, Sandra Voe, and Katrin Cartlidge were also cast in the film. Yet, it’s biggest discovery is an unknown in British theater actress Emily Watson in the lead role of Bess who got the part after actresses like Helena Bonham Carter, Melanie Griffith, and Barbara Sukowa turned down the part. While the part of Bess has Watson had her go nude, do things that women felt were degrading and add to the question about whether von Trier was a misogynist. It was however a part that was considered very daring for someone who had never been in a film.

The film premiered at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival where it won von Trier the festival’s second place Grand Jury prize as well as slew of accolades in Europe and the U.S. Notably an Oscar nomination for Best Actress while the film gave von Trier some of his best reviews at that point in his career. For many, the film is often considered the best film of his career as well as the film that truly put him among one of the world’s best filmmakers.

The second part of von Trier’s Golden Hearts trilogy that was preceded by Breaking the Waves would have him go full-on into the Dogme 95 movement he co-founded. In 1997, Thomas Vinterberg released the first Dogme film Festen (The Celebration) at the Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim. For von Trier, that film’s acclaim meant he had to really do something different as he decided to tell the story of a group of anti-bourgeois people rebelling by acting out in public as a women named Karen watches in awe and joins the group.

The film is an exploration into a lonely woman’s observation into this group of people who do all sorts of crazy things as if they’re mentally-retarded. Throughout the entirety of the film, cars are crashed, erratic behavior is rampant in public places, chaos ensues in forms of juvenile destruction, and it all culminates with a full-on orgy. It’s all part of a world von Trier wants to create although it’s told by a set of rules that he made for the Dogme 95 movement.

Without taking credit as the director, von Trier was able to get credit for writing as well as being the film’s cinematographer and camera operator and shoot it in an early version of digital photography. While von Trier did confess to breaching some rules set by the Dogme 95 movement, he was able to get the film passed as a Dogme 95 film by co-founder Thomas Vinterberg and others who had to check if he broke any further rules.

Of the films von Trier has made, this one is truly the most chaotic film he’s made in terms of its looseness as well as just letting things go all out. It’s a film where von Trier decided to use whatever he was able to use and see what he can come out with. Yet, it seems that whatever limits him can get him to find a way to be more provocative and more out there. Since the film is also part of the Golden Hearts trilogy where Bodil Jorgensen’s Karen is playing the observer and eventually plays part into the game of acting out very late in the film. What would she would eventually sacrifice is her sanity yet it is revealed into why she takes part in something as crazy with the people she’s doing it with.

The film premiered at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival to a very divided reaction where its press screening gained notoriety due to British film critic Mark Kermode’s reaction as he tried to shout “It is shit” in French where he was thrown out of the screening. The film’s controversy was due to the sexually-explicit content presented in the film during the gang-bang/orgy scene where actual penetration occurred during the scene. While von Trier was able to censor some of the penetrative action, the film only brought notoriety to the filmmaker as he garnered a few festival and European-based award prizes. Yet, the biggest prize he got was the fact that he was willing to provoke an audience to act insane which furthered his status as the ultimate provocateur.

The third and final part of von Trier’s Golden Hearts trilogy would have the director delve into unlikely places by having the film be a musical set in a country von Trier has never visited before in the U.S. While the project was to be shot in Sweden due to von Trier’s phobia of flying, he was able to create a film where America was part of a fantasy world that he created. Notably as the film is about a Czech-born immigrant who is trying to save money for her son’s surgery to save his eyesight as she is trying to hide her blindness from the people that knew her. With hopes to do a stage performance of The Sound of Music, she dreams of being in a fantasy world while dealing with the grim realities around her as she eventually is tried for murder which leads to her making a big sacrifice for her son.

Playing the lead role of Selma is Icelandic singer Bjork as she would also contribute music for the film with collaborators Sjon and Mark Bell along with von Trier helping to write lyrics for the original songs in the film. Also cast in the film aside were legendary French actress Catherine Deneuve, Peter Stormare, David Morse, Cara Seymour, Siobhan Fallon-Hogan, Zeljko Ivanek, and Joel Grey along with appearances from von Trier regulars Jean-Marc Barr, Stellan Skarsgard, Jens Albinus, and Udo Kier.

With Robby Muller returning as cinematography to help with the film’s digital-video look that is enhanced for the musical scenes. The production for the film was quite tense due to creative tension between von Trier and Bjork as the latter found the experience to be emotionally draining. For the musical scenes, von Trier and Muller had a 100 digital cameras shoot scenes to capture different angles of the musical performances presented in the film. Notably the courtroom scene that featured Joel Grey in the role of a famed Czech actor Selma claimed was her father.

While the film emphasized the same hand-held camera tactics von Trier employed in his previous films, it also indicated more of what von Trier can do as a filmmaker. While many thought the idea of him helming a musical seems far off, the film is another indication of how wide von Trier’s range as a filmmaker is. Even with the limits he had set himself on in order to maintain something that was experimental but also enjoyable.

The film premiered at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival to a divided reaction from critics and audiences. Yet, it would win two big awards at the festival where Bjork won the Best Actress prize while von Trier finally won the coveted Palme D’or. Receiving numerous accolades including best film from the European film awards, it also received an Oscar nomination for the song I’ve Seen It All that von Trier co-wrote with Bjork and Sjon. While he was unable to attend the Oscars, Bjork made a notorious appearance wearing a swan dress to the ceremony and performing a shortened version of the song in that same dress.

After a break between projects where von Trier took on various projects including the TV project D-Dag with his fellow Danish Dogme 95 filmmakers Thomas Vinterberg, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, and Kristian Levring that featured Stellan Skarsgard and Skarsgard’s son Alexander. Lars von Trier decided to tackle a new trilogy that was to be more experimental than his previous work in reaction to the American critics who felt he shouldn’t have made Dancer in the Dark due to his lack of knowledge of American culture. America would become the basis for his next trilogy entitled USA-Land of Opportunities which explored the journey of a woman named Grace in different parts of the country during the early part of the 20th Century. In its first part entitled Dogville, Grace tries to escape a mob trying to find her by hiding in a small town where she is given refuge by doing small labor.

The film featured a huge ensemble cast that included many of von Trier’s regulars like Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Kier, Jean-Marc Barr, Siobhan Fallon-Hogan, and Zeljko Ivanek. Others includes Paul Bettany, James Caan, Philip Baker Hall, Jeremy Davies, Chloe Sevigny, Lauren Bacall, Harriet Andersson, Ben Gazzara, and Patricia Clarkson in the role of Vera as she took over for the ailing Katrin Cartlidge who died in the fall of 2002 as von Trier dedicated the film to her. For the lead role of Grace, Nicole Kidman was cast in the part while British actor John Hurt did the narration provided in the film.

Shot in a soundstage in Trollhattan, Sweden where minimal sets were built while chalk outlines were made on the floor. The film was a mixture of theatrical acting in the style of Bertolt Brecht and von Trier’s love of experimental film as he shot it in a digital hand-held style. Helping von Trier with his vision is British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle whom von Trier was a fan of. The two devised different camera techniques for the film while doing scenes where the actors are still acting off camera to maintain the theatricality of the film.

Since the film is about America, von Trier wanted to explore the world of American idealism as the character of Grace does numerous labor work to hide from the mob who are after her. During her stay in Dogville, things escalate where she is forced to deal with the locals who become more abusive to her as she becomes alienated and provoked. This would lead to an in which the character of Tom tries to help her only to realize that he is no better than the other locals. It would led to a horrifying conclusion when the mob arrives to retrieve Grace where she is revealed to be the daughter of its mob boss. Yet, von Trier would choose to end the film (along with the ending for Manderlay) with disturbing images of America in ruins for its closing credits scene as it’s accompanied by David Bowie’s Young Americans.

The film premiered at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival to a large degree of anticipation as many wondered what von Trier was to do next. The result divided critics over its presentation and commentary on American idealism. Notably with American critics who felt that von Trier was anti-American in what he was saying. Still, the film managed to cause the kind of provocation von Trier had always wanted in his career although plans for its follow-up was in trouble when Nicole Kidman decided not to do it due to scheduling conflicts.

During his break in 2001 and 2002, von Trier collaborated with one of his favorite filmmakers in Jorgen Leth whose 1967 short The Perfect Human is considered one of the great short films ever made. Being a fan of that short, von Trier ask Leth to re-create the short different times but with a set of rules that would become the basis for their collaboration entitled The Five Obstructions. With von Trier being the obstructor and Leth being the man forced to do the rules on what von Trier wanted. It would be considered to be one of the most interesting documentaries made.

Shooting the short four different times in four different locations, Leth was given a set of guidelines that would have him do his short in different ideas and such. If he passes, von Trier would have to find a way to make things harder. If Leth failed, von Trier would give him the option to create something entirely new or do it all over again. Rules such as shooting the film in 12 frames per second, having it set in an awful location but not reveal it, and making it into a cartoon gave Leth lots of difficulty. For its fifth and final short, von Trier directs the short but it is credited to Leth who has to narrate von Trier’s words from his own perspective.

The documentary premiered at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival to great acclaim as it was released in theaters a year later. The film garnered much needed acclaim von Trier needed following the mixed reaction to Dogville. While the film proved to be another hallmark in von Trier’s career, many wondered if von Trier will do something like this again. Notably in 2010 when rumors emerged about possible collaboration with Martin Scorsese in which von Trier will command Scorsese to remake a scene from Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver.

The second part of von Trier’s USA-Land of Opportunities trilogy has the director explore the world of slavery and the imposing of American idealism into a foreign country. Largely in response to the war in Iraq that the U.S. was involved in as he made it as the basis for Manderlay. In this second part, Grace is accompanied by the mob and her father to the American South where they discover a town called Manderlay where slavery is still happening in the 1930s.

Wanting to take the same visual style and staging approach to Dogville to new heights, von Trier also decided to make some changes in the casting as both Nicole Kidman and James Caan were unable to replay their parts due to scheduling conflicts. While Jeremy Davies, Chloe Sevigny, and Lauren Bacall along with von Trier regulars Udo Kier, Jean-Marc Barr, and Zeljko Ivanek returned for the sequel in different characters along with John Hurt as its narrator. Added to the cast were Danny Glover and Ivorian actor Isaach de Bankole along with Willem Dafoe taking over the role of Grace’s father for James Caan. For the role of Grace, newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard got the part as she was coming off a high-profiled performance for M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.

The film’s production was troubled during an incident which involved an old donkey being slaughtered for the production which led to the departure of John C. Reilly who was later replaced by Zeljko Ivanek. Though the scene never made it to the final cut, it only played part of von Trier’s role as a provocateur as he aimed to create a film that would explore the fallacy of American idealism into another world. In Manderlay, Grace takes over a plantation of the same name hoping to improve things and make slaves aware of the freedom out there only to have her ideas crumble through tragedy, bad weather, and mismanagement.

Throughout the film, von Trier wanted to see how far Grace is willing to go to improve things for this plantation as her father warns her about bringing her ideals into a place like Manderlay. Throughout the film, Grace is seen being triumphant and face tribulations while trying to understand a mysterious book about slaves and such that was called Mam’s Law. By the end of the film as Grace is forced to accept defeat, the big shock comes in the form of who wrote the book which is revealed to be Danny Glover’s Wilhem character. What Wilhem reveals would lead to an unfortunate truth about the state of America after the Civil War where slaves faced an uncertain future. For Grace, she becomes frustrated at the outcome and is suddenly lost somewhere in America

The film premiered at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival to mixed reviews from audiences and critics while it’s theatrical release worldwide didn’t fare well at all. The lukewarm commercial response to the film as well as its critical reaction suddenly found von Trier facing failure in his career. The timing of its release at Cannes couldn’t have come out at a very bad time for the Danish film industry as major releases from some of its filmmakers like Lone Scherfig, Bille August, and Thomas Vinterberg all flopped in the box office.

Months later after Cannes, von Trier released a film that he wrote called Dear Wendy about a group of kids in a small America town brandishing guns that was directed by Thomas Vinterberg. Dear Wendy was a major critical and commercial flop as plans for the third film in the USA-Land of Opportunities trilogy that was to entitled Wasington was suddenly shelved due to financial issues.

Following the disappointing reaction to Manderlay and his plans for Wasington being shelved, von Trier decided to take a break from his ambitious projects to work on something much smaller in the form of a comedy. Entitled Direktoren for det hele (The Boss of It All), von Trier decided to explore the world of workplace comedies with his own Danish sensibilities. The film is about a IT company owner who hires an actor to pretend to play boss while he is trying to find someone who will buy his company.

The film starred von Trier regular Jens Albinus as the actor Kristoffer while the mostly Danish cast included Iben Hjejle of the 2000 Stephen Frears film High Fidelity along with appearances from von Trier regulars Anders Hove and Jean-Marc Barr. The film would also play to von Trier’s admiration for experimentation as he uses the Automavision software in which he has a computer to help von Trier choose a shot scene while making camera movements. This experimentation with the computer would play a bigger part to the material von Trier would create in the years to come.

While the film is said to be a Danish comedy, it has a sense of humor that most people outside of Denmark won’t seem to get as it revolves around an actor pretending to be a boss as he deals with all sorts of people. Throughout the film, the fourth wall is broken as von Trier often narrates situations in the film while trying to tell the audience that he is making a comedy. While the film is one of von Trier’s least-regarded works due to its pacing and unconventional approach. It is still a very quintessential von Trier film for the fact that he’s playing prankster while taking the risk to experiment with new technology to tell a story.

The film was released in the fall of 2006 in many film festivals where it received some very good notices from critics despite a low-key release. While the film served as a break from von Trier’s often provocative approach to filmmaking, it only got a very limited release in the U.S. in 2007. Yet, it did attract the attention of Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz who plans to create a remake of his own with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer serving as producers as it’s rumored for a 2014 release. Still, the film gave von Trier the chance to keep himself busy as he went into a very low profile writing the film De unge ar: Erik Nietzsche sagaen del 1 (The Early Years: Erik Nietzsche Pt. 1) for Jacob Thuesen based on von Trier’s early life as a film student in the National Film School of Denmark.

During his sabbatical from the film scene following the release of Direktoren for det hele where he contributed the short Occupations for the 2007 anthology film Chacun son Cinema. Lars von Trier went into a period of deep depression that kept him from working as he tried to create a new project as his plans for Wasington was officially shelved. Inspired by the films of Andrei Tarkovsky from a visual standpoint as well as the experimentation he took with the computer on Direktoren for det hele. The new project von Trier would make would be part of a new trilogy that was directly inspired by his own fascination with depression.

Entitled Antichrist, the first part of von Trier’s trilogy explored the death of a child as a couple tries to cope with loss in the middle of a woods where the man tries to deal with his wife’s grief as he is also a psychiatrist. During their stay at a cabin in the woods, the man discovers his wife’s thesis about witchcraft and gynocide as well as startling revelations about his own child. This would lead to the arrival of three animals waiting for someone to die in the midst of chaos between husband and wife.

With Willem Dafoe playing the man in the film, the casting for the role of the woman was tough as French actress Eva Green was in talks of doing the film only to be stopped by her agents. Another French actress got the part in Charlotte Gainsbourg as she would play the grieving mother who falls into a manic behavior driven by grief and madness. The film would mark a very stylistic turning point for von Trier as he reached back towards the controlled technical camera work of his earlier films infused with the more looser, hand-held style that he had done in the late 1990s.

With Anthony Dod Mantle returning as cinematographer, he and von Trier shot a lot of the film’s forest scenes in Germany as they aimed for a look that is similar to the films of Tarkovsky. Particularly 1975’s The Mirror for its visual look as von Trier also wanted to recreate the raindrops that was often a trademark of Tarkovsky. For the research on gynocide, von Trier received help from researcher Heidi Laura on uncovering the history of witchcraft as she helped von Trier and producer Meta Louise Foldager create a text that Gainsbourg’s character would create.

The film also featured sexually explicit material for the film’s beautiful yet slow-motion black-and-white sequence as von Trier hired porn actors to perform anal sex parts of the film. It was accompanied by the music of Georg Friedrich Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga that was performed by local classical group as it appeared for the film’s opening and closing credits sequence. The film also had von Trier use visual effects as it’s most notorious moment when Dafoe’s character encounters a fox that says “Chaos reigns”.

The film made its premiere at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival to a widely divisive array of reactions. Some loved and some hated it as the press conference for the film was just as wild where a journalist asked von Trier why did he make the film. At the conference, von Trier proclaimed himself to be the best filmmaker in the world. The film won Charlotte Gainsbourg the Best Actress prize while the film managed to divide many as it eventually became one of the most talked about films of the year. For von Trier, after a period of lackluster features and a bout with depression. Antichrist confirmed that not only is he back but returns as a far more dangerous filmmaker.

The second part of von Trier’s Depression Trilogy has the director taking on a genre in the form of sci-fi. Yet, the only sci-fi thing about the film is an opening sequence in which a large planet is about to collide with Earth. Melancholia is about two sisters’ differing reactions to this planet called Melancholia that is about to collide. One is a young bride who has just gotten married as she suddenly falls into deep depression while the other is a more rational woman who tries to help her sister while becoming anxious over the arrival of this strange planet.

While the film had the same stylistic visual ideas of Antichrist, von Trier decided to go for a much broader approach to the film’s script as well as exploring the world of depression. With a cast that featured von Trier regulars like Stellan Skarsgard and Udo Kier along with Charlotte Gainsbourg in the role of the older sister Claire. The film also included Jesper Christensen, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Charlottte Rampling, Alexander Skarsgard, and Kirsten Dunst in the role of Justine. The cast helped von Trier explore the anxieties and effects of depression as well as figuring out how people would react to the idea of a planet set to collide with Earth.

One of the film’s big surprises is the way the film begins where it’s clear that von Trier is starting to experiment more with story structure. The film opens with this grand visual-effects sequence filled with lots of slow-motion camera work as a planet is set to collide with Earth and essentially kill everything in its path. Then it shifts into the wedding sequence where its first half focuses on Justine celebrating her wedding and then fall into a state of depression as Claire’s husband is in awe over this planet that is being shown in the sky. The film’s second half is focused on Justine’s older sister Claire as she tries to take care of Justine and deal with the arrival of this planet.

Throughout the film, von Trier explores the different reaction of these two sisters as the planet Melancholia is set to collide where Claire feels scared for herself and her son. Justine in her depressed state believes that there is nothing that can be done as Claire should just accept what is to happen. Justine’s reaction to what is happening adds a realness to the way depression is portrayed as both von Trier and Kirsten Dunst have been open about their own experiences with depression. Scenes such as Claire trying to get Justine to eat her favorite dinner and Justine breaking down claiming the food tastes like ashes is among one of many ideas that von Trier wanted to show about the world of depression. What makes the film much more surprising than anything von Trier has done is how accessible it is. Not just as a dramatic feature but also a sci-fi film that has a premise that audiences can be intrigued by.

The film made its premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival where controversy occurred once again as von Trier jokingly stated that he is a Nazi at the press conference for the film. The comment by von Trier made things very uncomfortable with the festival’s organizer as they’ve banned von Trier from appearing at the festival. Despite the controversy, the film was a hit at Cannes where Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress prize while the film would win numerous accolades including three European Film Awards including one for Best Film. In the U.S., the film was a surprise art-house hit where it won two awards from National Society of Film Critics for best film and best actress for Dunst.

Additional Projects

Throughout von Trier’s career in the world of films, he has made several short films along with various TV and experimental projects based in Denmark. From 1977 to 1982, von Trier has made five short films during his days as a film student as many of them aren’t available to the public. One of them that can be seen on YouTube is a short called Nocturne which von Trier admitted in interviews that it was inspired by the works of his Andrei Tarkovsky as it’s about a woman who lives alone at home as she struggles to get out of her house as she suffers from light blindness. It is truly a mesmerizing yet haunting short that definitely shows a lot of shots inspired by Tarkovsky.

Another short von Trier made in 2007 was a segment for the anthology film Chacun son Cinema entitled Occupations. It is a very humorous short in which von Trier is watching his own film Manderlay where it reveals what not to do if one was to pester Lars von Trier inside a movie theater. It is among one of von Trier’s funniest short that mixes his idea of provocation and dark humor.

Throughout von Trier’s career, the director has been involved with various projects including directing an experimental TV talk show for Danish TV called Teacher’s Room while teaming up with fellow Danish filmmakers Thomas Vinterberg, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, and Kristian Levring for a project called D-Dag about a bank robbery that occurs during New Year’s Eve that starred many Scandinavian actors including von Trier regular Stellan Skarsgard and his son Alexander.

Another project von Trier wanted to do that was experimental but was abandoned in the late 1990s called Dimension. A project that was to span for more than 30 years as von Trier was to shoot three minutes of footage for every year to see what he can come up with in the end. Unfortunately, von Trier lost interest in the project until he finally released it in 2010 as a short film as the clip below that features Jean-Marc Barr, Udo Kier, and Eddie Constantine is the only clip available on Youtube.

Aside from TV, shorts, and various experimental projects, von Trier has also delved into the world of music videos. The one most noted video is for Laid Back’s Bakerman video. The video is essentially one of the most striking clips ever created in which the Danish post-punk band plays their instruments while skydiving. It is one of the craziest ideas for a music video but somehow, von Trier was able to make it work.

With an upcoming project called Nymphomaniac that would star Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard about a woman’s sexual awakening coming for 2013 to complete the Depression trilogy along with a possible sequel to The Five Obstructions with Martin Scorsese. Lars von Trier has already cultivated an extraordinary yet controversial career as a filmmaker with the films he‘s made. Whether one loves him or hates him, it can’t be denied that he is among one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. Particularly as he is someone that is willing to go into the next step to see how far he can push someone’s buttons over what can be done in film. That is why Lars von Trier is among the best filmmakers ever in the history of cinema.

© thevoid99 2012


Courtney Small said...

Another great edition to your already awesome Auteurs series. All seven have been a treat to read. I have made a point to note all the Von Trier films that I still need to see (e.g. The Element of Crime, Epidemic, Medea, The Boss of it All). Hopefully I can track a few of them down in the next couple of months.

Who are you planning to cover for The Auteurs #8?

thevoid99 said...

Wes Anderson is going to be next month and he'll be quite easy as I've seen all of his films and have 4 of his 6 features on DVD (via Criterion). I'm also going to do a few reviews of the film soundtracks for those films that I haven't previously reviewed. They'll be at my music blog.

On March, the Coen Brothers.

Unknown said...

Well done! I love this series as well. I discovered him late so there are a bunch of LVT films I still need to see, especially those from the beginning of his career.

thevoid99 said...

@Bonjour-Well, if you seen Breaking the Waves which I often think it's the best place to start. I would then say go right to the beginning and then follow every other film afterwards.

Chris said...

Well done putting this article together, and I may quote you, as I'm currently reviewing a selection of his films over at my site for the Lars Von Trier LAMB director's chair event July 16th.
Looks like I'll be busy writing about Von Trier films all week because of the deadline!

thevoid99 said...

@Chris-Thanks. I've been wanting to do a thing on von Trier for years. He's one of my favorites and I'll watch anything he does.

There's a lot of his work to check out including the short Occupations which is a total hoot.