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The Films Of Lars von Trier: A Retrospective

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist November 12, 2011 at 11:22AM

What with all his provocations and (usually) self-manufactured controversies, it's sometimes easy to forget that Lars von Trier is a truly gifted filmmaker, who yes, is a prankster and trickster as well, but also a man who imbues his characters with a rich sensitivity, even if the conditions they face can be cruel and harsh. Not all his films are masterpieces, but he's been turning heads at home and abroad for getting on 30 years now with films like "Europa," "Dancer in the Dark," "Breaking the Waves" and "Dogville" making some of the biggest waves internationally. Never easy watches, but always rewarding, he's slowly been assembling one of the most interesting back catalogues in recent memory -- ranging from period dramas to musicals to comedies -- even if accusations of misogyny and misanthropy aren't easily dismissable.
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Breaking The Waves

Breaking the Waves” (1996)
Though not as torturous as “Dancer in the Dark” nor as graphically violent as “Antichrist," "Breaking the Waves," the director's first English-language film that also won him the Grand Prix at Cannes, began von Trier’s unofficial "Golden Heart" trilogy, a series of films led by wholly innocent protagonists taken through the wringer. Emily Watson (Oscar-nominated in her very first performance) makes an unforgettable film debut as lead Bess McNeil, a role originally intended for Helena Bonham Carter, who apparently pulled out due to the extensive nudity required. Bess, though full grown physically, is childlike in every other way, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, sheltered by her close-knit religious community.  She marries the worldy outsider Jan (the ever watchable Stellan Skarsgård), and is both awakened and liberated by their first two-minute tryst in a bathroom, and the honeymoon that follows. However what begins as a fleshy love story becomes a tragedy. Initially tinged with black comedy -- in true von Trier style -- it spirals further into sadomasochistic perversion. Watson is the core of the film as the increasingly disturbed Bess who sacrifices her own life through unconventional physical degradation to prove her unwavering faith and devotion to her husband and to God; the Christ parallels and nods to Carl Dreyer’s “La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc" are unmistakable. The film’s chapter breaks are soundtracked by ’70’s classics from Elton John and David Bowie, which serve as some respite from the film’s devastating emotional intensity. [A+]

"The Kingdom II" (1997)
After the first season, which certainly works as a standalone four-hour film, there were still plenty of unresolved mysteries and much more comedy to mine in “The Kingdom.” Part two (episodes 5 – 8) picks up where things left off in the finale and is the “Evil Dead 2” of this series, upping the comedy, absurdity and outré gore and body horror to a degree that’s both organic and justified. Somehow it’s all a logical continuation and development of what came before. It’s just a shame von Trier and co. were never given the chance to make their “Army of Darkness.” A third and final season was planned, with a script already written, but after the passing away in 1998 of lead actor Ernst-Hugo Järegård as well as the subsequent deaths of four more cast members vital to the show, it appears we’ll never get a proper conclusion to this awesome series. Even though season two leaves even more questions left unanswered and ends on a bigger cliffhanger than the first, we still heartily recommend the entire mini-series, if for nothing else than Järegård’s brilliant performance as Stig Helmer. A hilariously crass and cartoonish xenophobe, Helmer is a classic hospital/doctor show villain, but with the arch assholery dialed up to 11 and played for endless laughs. [A]

The Idiots” (1998)
One of von Trier's most provocative and divisive pictures – you'll either love it or loathe it –"Idioterne" is also one of the director's least seen films because of its NC-17 style depictions of soft-core porn-like sex which ensured the picture never received a proper U.S. release (and it remained unavailable on DVD for quite some time until recently; though bootlegs and imports abounded). Von Trier’s first film under the Dogme '95 Manifesto, many can't get pass the contemptuous-sounding premise: a radical group of anti-bourgeois bohemians decide to drop out of society and pretend to be disabled and mentally-handicapped to get in touch with their “inner idiot.” At first, the pretense of “spazzing” (acting like retards) is a socio-political statement under the guise of rejecting society and regressing to a romantic notion of uninhibited bliss. But soon the motivations vilely curdle with much inappropriate hilarity. The men abuse the notion to get laid among the various women in the group – they ask for a gang bang and they get it – and soon, to keep the charade going, they begin to abuse the concern and charity of those who live nearby who are worried about this group of "retards." It only gets worse when the group leader demands they take their spazzing to another level: it must invade their personal lives. A newcomer to the group, Karen, is the only one to take up the challenge and the results around her family are brutally funny and excruciatingly uncomfortable. Not for the easily offended, "Idioterne" is “wrong” on all levels, but it is also von Trier near the top of his confrontational  game. [A-]

"Dancer in the Dark" (2000)
Closing out his 'Golden Heart Trilogy,' which also included "Breaking the Waves" and "The Idiots," with a full-on musical wasn't exactly what people had come to expect from the maverick filmmaker. But looking back, "Dancer in the Dark" which stars and features songs by Icelandic chanteuse Björk, is absolutely of a piece with the other two. The singer, who deservedly won Best Actress at Cannes, plays Selma, a Czech immigrant working in a factory in Washington State, attempting to pay for an operation to save her son from the hereditary blindness from which she's beginning to suffer. Another one of von Trier's Job-like female protagonists, she's put through the wringer to the point where it just seems plain cruel -- but like "Breaking the Waves," the director examines the notions of sacrifice and the depths we're prepared to travel for those we love. And placing the film within the confines of a musical, a genre that traditionally deals with joy and happiness (the decision to borrow three tracks from "The Sound of Music" can't have been an accident), was something of a masterstroke, particularly as he's careful to frame most of the song-and-dance sequences as fantasy. It's as divisive as you might expect (even Björk has gone on record as calling von Trier a sexist and vowed to never act again after her fractious experience with the helmer), but this is one of the films von Trier is likely to be best remembered for, long after the controversies have faded away. [A-]

This article is related to: Features, Lars von Trier, Melancholia


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