Robert here, continuing my series of the directors that shaped the past 10 years. I know I promised another Pixar guy last week and we’ll get to him soon. But since everyone just finished celebrating the ultimate American holiday, I thought I’d appropriately take a look at one of the country’s greatest cinematic cheerleaders. A man who has never been to America but makes so many films about it, it's obvious he really loves the place. Lars von Trier
Number of Films: Six (or Five and a half, considering a co-director credit)
Modern Masterpieces: Probably none. I feel like I’ve been overly generous with this term since I denied it to Scorsese back in entry #1. Still the film that comes closest is Dogville
Total Disasters: No total disasters but several partial ones.
Better than you remember: None. Actually all of Von Trier’s films this decade have been pretty accurately received.
Awards: Had four films shown at Cannes and won the Palme d’Or for Dancer in the Dark. And did you know Lars is an Oscar (and Golden Globe) nominee? That would be for co-writing Dancer in the Dark’s Best Original Song entry “I Have Seen it All”
Box Office: Dogville’s gross topped a million. Thank Nicole Kidman for her status.
Critical Consensus: Highest rated is The Five Obstructions. Highest rated non-documentary would be The Boss of it All (more on why this is weird later).
Favorite Actor: Udo Kier of course… you knew that.
Let’s talk about:
Mischief. Sure that seems like a bit of an understatement considering the fury and misery that Von Trier’s latest film is inspiring. But “mischief” I think is the perfect term. Von Trier considers himself a provocateur, an artist whose inspiration comes not from real life, love, poetry or truth but his desire to get under people’s skin. I don’t think Von Trier considers himself much more than a rascal. Take The Five Obstructions. One of his most telling films, simply because we get to see him on camera talking, explaining his thought process and motives. Each time director Jorgen Leth successfully meets Von Trier’s challenges, Lars reformulates his plan while openly admitting his goal of making Leth experience a real psychological disturbance, all the while laughing and smiling. Lars von Trier doesn’t really take himself too seriously but he makes films that are serious, brutal and intentionally offensive. As art, sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Dancer in the Dark, his first film of the decade (not counting The Idiots which was finished and released in Europe in 99 but America in 00) is a good example of Lars’s inconsistency. In fact his entire “Sacred Heart Trilogy” demonstrates how Lars is a great technician, able to work well with actors (here Björk is fantastic) and evoke genuine emotional involvement from his audience. But the path he takes to provoke the audience isn’t always as successful. Lars’s “sacred heart” females must be so insistently innocent (almost unrealistically unwilling to defend themselves against adversity) to prove his point about society’s evils that this point gets lost in the mix. When his protagonists display less manufactured naïveté, such as Nicole Kidman’s Grace in Dogville, his movies fare much better. Kidman’s performance and a plot that turns up the shock and awe naturally combine to make Dogville Lars’s most successful film of this decade. Oh sure, critical reaction was mixed, but for Lars von Trier, critical acclaim will never equal great success, since critical acclaim requires making a lot of people happy.
Welcome to Dogville
This is why The Boss of it All, Lars’s most critically acclaimed film may, in fact, be his greatest failure. After the disastrous Manderlay, in which Lars hits us with so many racial offenses (including lazy and ignorant slaves, preachy white guilt, an interracial sex scene featuring a submissive white woman and aggressive black man, and yes, even blackface) and is so blatant in its attempt to offend that it can’t possibly succeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if Lars was absolutely spent. So with The Boss of it All he tried a different, non-thematic provocation. Automavision allowed a computer to decide what pans tilts and movements the camera would make. So was Lars suggesting that the director or the cinematographer was no longer necessary, that a computer could do just as good a job? No one seemed to care. The resulting film was a successful comedy and the process offended no one. Great reviews. Lars could not have been happy.
For the past half-year, Lars has been getting his revenge, torturing critics and audiences with Antichrist. It’s another well constructed, well acted film with content so determined to provoke it’s success can only be partial. But provoke it has, and stir discussion it has. Lars may not have a great piece of art on his hands but he’s certainly cemented his status as one of cinema’s greatest provocateurs. And that is noteworthy. In an age of torture-porn teen flicks, realty TV trash, instant internet hardcore, and non-stop phony political outrage it’s not easy to genuinely provoke people anymore. Von Trier isn’t always successful and his lack of consistency may preclude him from being among the greatest directors of the decade. But he’s successful enough to be one of the most important and interesting directors of the decade. He’s in tune with the zeitgeist… just enough to know how to poke it in the eye, with a wink and a smile.