It’s hard to imagine a career as provocative and unrestrained as Lars von Trier’s taking a turn for even greater extremes. But with 2009’s Antichrist, that’s exactly what the Danish purveyor of human suffering accomplished, making a film that inspired massive walkouts, presumed on the surface to take seriously the notion of gender-inherent evil, and added a talking fox of doom to our cinematic language. The ambivalent reception (to put it as mildly as possible) of Antichrist at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival is best encapsulated by the two recognitions the film received: the Best Actress award for Charlotte Gainsbourg, and an “anti-award” recognizing the film as “the most misogynist movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world.”
While shocking and offending audiences with portrayals of suffering women is hardly new territory for von Trier, Antichrist marked a turning point. Having abandoned for the foreseeable future his “USA: Land of Opportunities” trilogy, von Trier instead turned to a series of films less connected by continued themes, and instead threaded by the director’s open approach to filmmaking itself as a therapeutic process to combat his depression. After continuing with Melancholia, this unofficial trilogy of sorts sees its third entry with the much-discussed two-part Nymphomaniac, currently rolling out over March and April in theaters and on VOD.
So here is a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a director currently banned from the Cannes Film Festival.
Make The Types of Films People Tell You Not to Make
“…my DP on [Melancholia], Manuel Claro, at one point voiced a surprising prejudice. He urged me not to fall into the trap that so many aging directors fall into – that the women get younger and younger and nuder and nuder. That’s all I needed to hear. I most definitely intend for the women in my films to get younger and younger and nuder and nuder.”
Von Trier has rightfully earned the reputation of a provocateur and a reactionary, whether through his ambivalent portrayal of controversial subject matter (exemplified most potently by The Idiots) and his brash yet calculated public performance of self as a minefield of button-pushing declarations (like his notorious 2011 Cannes press conference). Sincerely or not, von Trier also casts his decision to make certain films as contrarian reactions to prior evaluations of his work. Sometimes his reasons are flippant, as with his above justification for making Nymphomaniac. On other occasions, though, his approach to film as a sort of protest seems more substantive.
The director decided to pursue his as-yet-incomplete USA trilogy as a reaction to criticism that he had no right to negatively portray America, a country he has never been to, in Dancer in the Dark. With Dogville and Manderlay, von Trier did exactly that, proposing the films as “a series of sermons on America’s sins and hypocrisy” and an answer to so the cultural imperialism of American filmmaking – an industry that has produced many films about places their filmmakers haven’t traveled to.
Regardless of the substance of his reasoning, and whether or not von Trier is simply an arthouse equivalent to so much impulsive rattling against the perceived tyranny of “PC police,” there’s something to appreciate at the core of this desire to make films specifically because they’re supposedly forbidden territory.
Rethink the Cinematic Language of Explicit Sexuality
“Women too like to see other people having sex. What they don’t like is the endless close-ups of hammering body parts without a story. Lars von Trier is the first to have realized this and produced valuable quality porn films for women.” [from a September 2007 issue of Stern]
The Idiots was released at the onset of a brief wave of European filmmakers who experimented with the possibilities of presenting unsimulated sex in narrative films. Von Trier, Catherine Breillat, and Michael Winterbottom were hardly the first to do so, but their employment of hardcore sex in arthouse fare provides a useful opportunity for rethinking pornography’s place in the cinematic landscape, challenging assumptions about how pornography can or should be used, and deconstructing pornography’s limited (often anti-feminist) perspective on sexuality.
While no one, including von Trier himself, would call von Trier a feminist, he did utilize his production company, Zentropa, to support films featuring unsimulated sex for female audiences, films that continually blurred supposed lines between porn and narrative filmmaking (including Constance, Pink Prison, and All About Anna). That von Trier himself chose not to direct these films is key to their success.
Start a Movement
In the ‘90s, von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg wrote the Dogme ’95 manifesto, a declaration of rules that aspired towards a newly revitalized form of filmmaking that its displaced cinema’s fabrications (set design, lavish camerawork, the overbearing stylistic presence of a director’s personality) in favor of a more direct realization of the relationship between persons and cameras. Shortly after Vinterberg’s The Celebration and von Trier’s The Idiots, the rules of Dogme filmmaking began to ease, and a great deal of movies received certification despite the fact that they openly broke many of its dictates.
After its first round of notable and even brilliant films, Dogme arguably realized itself to be an arthouse marketing ploy, a publicity stunt nostalgic for a bygone era of cinemanifestos that overshadowed whatever films came from it. But the arthouse scene, as challenging as the works that emerge from it may be, is still a market, and there are few filmmakers that have tailored their own image as precisely as von Trier.
Destroy the Commercial
For those expecting another Antichrist, what was most surprising about Melancholia was its patient pacing, its introspection, and, most of all for von Trier, its focus on a family characterized by bourgeois comforts. In his appropriation of what can seem at first a relatively commercial aesthetic, von Trier gradually, rather than instantaneously, allows the superficial beauty of such images to erode away and reveal the emptiness at their core.
There’s a Lot You Can Do Without Ever Leaving Home
Von Trier is terrified of flying, which means that the majority of his work is filmed in his native Denmark, where Zentropa is located. Yet the filmmaker has used his Copenhagen not as a revisited signature that suggests a core locale of inspiration (like Scorsese’s New York) or even some idea of a national cinema (like the Rome of the neo-realists). Rather, von Trier’s homeland has served many purposes – from a stand-in for America in Dogville to a familiar non-place in Melancholia. But, of course, on Trier’s filmography is also a useful tour guide for his nation of origin.
Work with Charlotte Gainsbourg
Barbara Sukowa. Emily Watson. Björk. Nicole Kidman. Bryce Dallas Howard. Kirsten Dunst. These are the actresses who have produced commanding lead performances for von Trier, but have only collaborated with the demanding director once. In Dogville, Kidman realized one of her most celebrated performances, but, unsurprisingly, didn’t return for the film’s second chapter. For whatever reason, Charlotte Gainsbourg has cycled back to the director time and again, working as his muse throughout the so-called “Depression trilogy.” In this interview, Gainsbourg admits that she doesn’t always know when to take von Trier seriously, or what all the pieces of his films ultimately add up to, but she clearly relishes in the challenge and risk of working on the type of material von Trier produces.
This feature is typically structured through quotes from the filmmaker, but quotes from von Trier should always be taken with a grain of salt. His relationship to his movies and his reasons for making them aren’t always clear, as the filmmaker’s public performance of a provocative director is often difficult to separate from the films themselves. But in doing so, von Trier often revels in the constructiveness and the façade of filmmaking, and particularly the pretenses with which the arthouse market often sees itself to be free from the systems of self-branding and celebrity that define other forms of commercial filmmaking.
As a filmmaker, von Trier has no doubt produced a continually interesting and challenging library of work. But as a provocateur, he always puts the relationship between the director and their work into question. A someone who blurs the line between envelope-pushing visionary and career contrarian, and as a notorious director who prefers self-imposed limitations to a consistent or aspirational approach to style, I can’t imagine a film like The Five Obstructions coming from any other filmmaker.