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A Grand Unified Theory of Lars Von Trier

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by Sam Adams
March 27, 2014 10:51 AM
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Lars von Trier's "Melancholia"
Lars von Trier's "Melancholia"

More than any art-house filmmaker alive, and maybe any filmmaker, period, Lars Von Trier is self-consciously involved in building his own brand. He may not have his own whiskey, but between his high-wire filmmaking and his bomb-throwing press conference persona, Trier public image is as much a front as the phony "Von" he added to his name (a move that itself self-consciously emulated the former Josef Sternberg.) 

At The Dissolve, David Ehrlich pulls on that thread by treating "Nymphomaniac" -- which he properly treats as a single film split into two parts for purely commercial reasons -- as a capstone to Trier's body of work, a career summation that deliberately tips its hat to his previous films as well as the controversy surrounding the Cannes press conference for 2011's "Melancholia." Most audaciously, Trier restages almost beat for beat the inciting incident of of 2009's "Antichrist," practically daring critics to accuse him of repeating himself.

A serial self-mythologizer whose gifts for inflating his own legend are on par with Werner Herzog's, von Trier has never wasted an opportunity to build his brand. His career has been defined by cultish doctrines, informal trilogies, priceless soundbites, and obvious periods of hero worship. (Has there ever been a less-needed title card than the one dedicating "Antichrist" to Andrei Tarkovsky?) His techniques insist that he's inextricable from his films, and always has been. He starred in 1987's "Epidemic" (as a version of himself), awarded himself a cameo as a Holocaust survivor in 1991's "Europa," then let his increasing notoriety take over. Audiences no longer have to see von Trier in his films to see von Trier in his films.

As Ehrlich points out, Trier has saved critics a step by routinely pre-packaging his films as part of a trilogy, although with the "U.S.A. -- Land of Opportunities" threefer -- "Dogville," "Manderlay," and the unrealized "Wasington" -- and his TV series "The Kingdom," he got derailed or lost interest along the way. Although "Nymphomaniac" has been called the third part of Trier's "Depression Trilogy," but it's also practically a trilogy in itself, split into two parts for theatrical release but running nearly half again as long in its five and a half hour director's cut. It's both a statement and a statement about statements -- and maybe a statement about that.

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