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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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Stellan Dogville

"Dogville" (2003)
Considering he doesn't have much in the way of a theatrical background, it's a pleasant surprise that von Trier was behind one of the more effective hybrids of film and stage in recent years. Drawing on Bertolt Brecht and Friedrich Durenmatt's "The Visit," "Dogville" takes place on a mostly empty sound stage, with only markings on the floor to indicate the town’s borders and a few objects within the “homes” to indicate some kind of personality for each family. But somehow, it ends up being a piece of pure cinema, the artificial qualities only emphasizing the metaphorical aspects of von Trier's tale. The action begins when a fugitive, Grace (Nicole Kidman), arrives in the town, fleeing gangsters. A young philosopher, Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany), convinces the town to take her in and protect her, and the inhabitants (who include Lauren Bacall, Chloe Sevigny, Stellan Skarsgård and Patricia Clarkson) initially take her under their wing before brutally turning against her. The film acts as a scatching indictment against hypocritical American social and religious morale, a theme that is underscored by the brilliant use of David Bowie's "Young Americans" over an end credit sequence that includes images of poverty around the country taken by fellow Dane Jacob Holdt. It's a tough slog of a watch, clocking in at just under three hours, but it's a deeply rewarding one, perhaps the quintessential von Trier film, with the quintessential von Trier heroine in Kidman, giving arguably the greatest performance of her career to date. So much so that it's hard to watch follow-up "Manderlay" and not miss her. [A]

"The Five Obstructions" (2003)
As evidenced by Dogme 95, von Trier is obsessed with rules, and within them his creativity has always flourished. “The Five Obstructions” is an unconventional documentary about filmmaking, with von Trier challenging his friend and sort-of-mentor, director Jørgen Leth, to remake his experimental 13-minute black and white short “The Perfect Human” (1967) five times, each time with a different obstruction specified by von Trier. Though initially concerned about the limitations von Trier sets, Leth makes a better and better film each time and seems to get more pleasure out of the project as it continues. Von Trier’s clear desire to trip up his hero, his perfect human, Leth, and have him make a film that is much less perfect, is clear. Though his mischief making seems to have a more serious, and perhaps misguided, purpose, his desire for Leth to destroy and reinvent his best work, and partially himself, in order to reveal his true self is almost touching. The final challenge turns the competition on its head somewhat and begs the question as to who has beaten who, and at what game? It's hard to imagine this film being realized by anyone other than the puckish von Trier, and his target the calm and controlled Leth. Their differing ideals on film and filmmaking make the it a fascinating and fun watch for anyone with any interest in the creative process. It's a treat and an insight for any von Trier fan to see him talk about film even if it's not his own. [B+]

"Manderlay" (2005)
Von Trier’s direct follow-up to “Dogville” is, in many ways, half of its predecessor. Not only is the runtime nearly an hour shorter, but it seems to tackle a much smaller vision of von Trier’s America. After the events of “Dogville,” Grace and her father arrive in the South, seeing a farm where blacks are kept as slaves despite slavery long being abolished. Flexing her muscle, she gets the plantation owners to become the slaves, placing the blacks in charge. Of course, this simple-minded flip generates volatile results and is perhaps von Trier’s most predictable creative gamble yet. Von Trier’s direction is still both furious and darkly funny, and his Brechtian tactic of using an actual stage for a setting helps illuminate the notion of slavery thriving versus slave abolition and the weak line separating the two. Damnedly, “Manderlay” suffers from its lead performance. Nicole Kidman couldn’t/wouldn’t return to the role, leaving the reins to Bryce Dallas Howard. While Howard presents a warmer, much more openly duplicitous personality compared to Kidman’s icy angel of death, she’s not nearly as forceful or intense, and when she takes control of the situation, it’s not nearly as compelling as watching Kidman’s rage dominate the close of “Dogville.” It’s no wonder von Trier abandoned the third part of this potential trilogy, “Washington," as “Manderlay” finds a great filmmaker grasping for straws. [B]

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


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