Friday, November 27, 2009

Directors of the Decade: Lars von Trier

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.


Ben said...

So you don't consider "Dancer in the dark" to be a modern masterpiece? I have to disagree, it's one of my favorite film of all time.

Juno101 said...

Yeah, I agree. I think "Dancer in the Dark" is brilliant.

Henry said...

I honestly didn't understand Dogville whatsoever. And I watched it twice to see if I missed anything when I fell asleep during the first viewing.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how one can argue he's only made 4 and a half films this decade. By my count, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, The Boss of It All, Manderlay and Antichrist make a solid five.

Howler said...

Ummm... I actually think that the term "modern masterpiece" was invented specifically to describe films like "Dancer in the Dark". To be more specific, I'd call it modern masterpiece of greek tragedy.
Von Trier isn't by any means a great screenwriter, and I can understand what you mean by "his point getting lost in the mix", but there's so much more to the film that it's impossible to confine it to director's point about society's evils. Why would he make it a musical in the first place?

Robert said...

Anonymous, thanks for the correction re: number of films. I've changed it.

Adam said...

I think "Dancer in the Dark," "Breaking the Waves," and "Dogville" all qualify as masterpieces, and others like "The Idiots" and "Riget" are outstanding in their own right. His films may be shocking but I think people focus on that aspect far too much. He tightens the emotions and scenes so well that he gets that extreme reaction from an audience. Its not lazy shock value by any means, and he has the dark humor to back it up.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

Robert - about that 'no modern masterpieces' call - was that a metaphorical attempt at capturing the prankish spirit of your subject? Or just a strange joke?

Dancer in the Dark and Dogville are both very obviously masterpieces. As a philosophical treatise, Dancer might be limited (Dogville most certainly isn't), but as a musical, a hypnotic deconstruction of said musical as well as a visceral emotional experience, it is completely overwhelming.

Antichrist on the other hand is stunted on all levels - philosophical, emotional, visceral etc.

Otherwise, The Boss of It All is very possibly the finest screwball script of the decade (Ben-Hecht-Preston-Sturges-level brilliant) and the actors are all note-perfect.

Five Obstructions bored me sh*tless, and somehow I've just never managed to bring myself to watch Manderlay.

Seeking Amy said...

Guess I must be made of stone if Dancer in the Dark did not move me emotionally at all. I did think it was interesting. I loved Dogville though. When I finally saw Antichrist, I felt nothing. It seriously could have been background music to me. As a whole though, I've never found Von Trier's films shocking. Although it may be because of excessive hyperbolic adjectives.

Andrew David said...

I personally would label Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and Antichrist all as masterpieces. Each of them hits you like a ton of bricks, all in their own unique way.

Anonymous said...

DANCER IN THE DARK and DOGVILLE are masterpieces.

Agent69 said...

No modern masterpieces? He made AT LEAST two: Dogville and Dancer in the Dark.
But hey, I understand that he's way to brilliant for some people.


Sandra Bullock is emerging as Best Actress Oscar Nominee!!!!!!!! the movie is now #1 at the box office and the critics are saying that her performance is her best. ever.!!!!!!!!


Glenn said...

Dogville and Dancer in the Dark are indeed masterpieces (and modern, yes). Dogville I just rewatched and it is as astonishing now as it was in 2004. Kidman truly is above and beyond. Dancer in the Dark is one of the most emotionally challenging films I've ever seen.

Antichrist is a great movie, not a masterpiece like the above two, but such a powerful piece of CINEMA.

The Boss of It All is a fine office comedy. If Von Trier allows his stuff to be remade I don't see why that one couldn't be. Although the insertion of Von Trier himself into the proceedings was odd.

The Five Obstructions was an interesting piece of experimental cinema (very literally experimental). I don't remember much from it though.

Manderlay is... well, I don't think Von Trier can make a truly "terrible" film, but that sure does come close.

Michael said...

No masterpieces?!?!?!?

Guy Lodge said...

Great piece. But yeah, you be CRAZY saying he has no masterpieces this decade ;)

I count three, personally. And I stubbornly include "Antichrist" in that count -- a movie doesn't have to be perfect to be a masterpiece, after all. I think it's one of the most probing, witty essays on horror cinema in existence.

Robert said...

Wow, I didn't expect my "no masterpieces" designation to inspire such a passionate reaction. But I'm glad it did. It's good to know that different movies still affect us differently.

That being said, I do think we agree that Dancer in the Dark and Dogville are both great films, it's just a matter of small degrees by which we disagree.


Robert -- and here I was hoping that you were pulling a von Trier'ish prank to deny him that title.

I do agree that the word is overused but I also believe that DANCER qualifies. And he'd be in the running for "Director (singular) of the Decade" for me. Or at least in the running for the runner up crown.


oh and Manderlay is awful.

Robert said...

And here I thought Von Trier would be one of my more disagreeable picks for this series. Turns out he's rather beloved. I was wrong on that one.

But if vox populi says that Dancer and Dogville are masterpieces I'm certainly not going to complain.

Arkaan said...

Well, I'll vouch for Robert's "no masterpieces this decade" label.

Anonymous said...

still need to see antichrist, i'm such a wuss

My site is doing a piece on the 100 greatest films of the decade. One contributors list is up and the others should follow soon.

But we need more views from other folks, there's a poll, and it would be greaqt if some off you could vote or perhaps just leave a comment to have your say

OtherRobert said...

I'm kind of in the same boat as Robert, here. I loved Dancer in the Dark when I first saw it, but find it too troubling to revisit it. The film is powerful, and the score, cinematography, and cast are wonderful, but for me, I really can't call it a masterpiece since I can't make myself watch it again. I just start crying before the confrontation and start to feel sick knowing what will happen next. It's too much for me.

Dogville is closer for me, but I find a few of the choices troubling. There are a few townspeople that seem out of place, just thrown in for some different types, and I thought Bettany didn't quite hit his role right in a few of the crucial moments. Kidman is breathtaking and I love the chalk-line staging. And Clarkson should have waltzed away with the Supporting Actress Oscar for the decorative figure scene alone. However, that ending, though effective, seems lazy to me, like von Trier wrote himself in a corner and needed to do anything to get out.

steve said...

well, he certainly has distilled cynicism into an art form

he always manages to make my heart tingle with misanthropy

Janice said...

Add me to the "What, no masterpieces?" chorus here. Dogville was a film that I walked out of hating - and yet it continues to unfold in my mind in the five years since I've seen it. Not to many movies can make that claim. (And god yes, where was Clarkson's Oscar for the Hummel-smashing scene?)

panther! said...

I consider Lars von Trier to be the best filmmaker of his generation, he is completely untainted by modern film and seems to only reach back into the classic structure of bergman and tarkovsky.

I didn't care much for Antichrist, but Dogville, Dancer, Manderlay, were all really beautiful and strange films.