Every Lars von Trier film reviewed

lars von trier kirsten dunst melancholia film set

Films reviewed: The Element of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987), Europa (1991), Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Dogville (2003), Manderlay (2005), The Boss of it All (2006), Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011) and Nymphomaniac (2014).

Lars von Trier is a controversial, Danish filmmaker born in 1956 – so controversial, I suspect he was really born in 1957.

The Element of Crime (1984) – 5.5/10

Director: Lars von Trier
Writers: Lars von Trier, Niels Vørsel
Starring: Michael Elphick, Esmond Knight, Me Me Lai
Language: English
“I’m going to see Europe again for the first time in thirteen years. But Europe is no longer the same…”

In this murder mystery that may or may not make sense, everything looks like a blank page. Rain can be mistaken for blood. Each shot is shaded because the film is remembered, not watched. Silences are curious, yet torturously paced. At first, this is all a stroke of genius, but the inertia’s mascara starts to fade, and I conclude it was all down to limited resources.

Epidemic (1986) – ?/10

Director: Lars von Trier
Writers: Lars von Trier, Niels Vørsel
Starring: Lars von Trier, Niels Vørsel
Language: Danish

This is the only one I haven’t seen yet. Review to follow soon.

Europa (1991) – 9/10

Director: Lars von Trier
Writers: Lars von Trier, Niels Vørsel
Starring: Jean-Marc Barr, Barbara Sukowa, Max von Sydow
Language: English, German
I’ve got this feeling that everyone’s been screwing with me since I’ve come here, and that makes me mad.”

“You will now listen to my voice. My voice will help you and guide you still deeper into Europa. Every time you hear my voice, with every word and every number, you will enter into a still deeper layer, open, relaxed and receptive. I shall now count from one to ten.”

Various chapters of Europa are opened and closed by a narrator’s voice who tries to induce hypanogic hallucinations. This murky voice pervades perceptions and immediately unsettles the viewer, but into a state of resigned catharsis. Set in 1945, Germany is occupied by Americans, but Leopold wants to prove that he is neutral – a task which proves difficult when he is surrounded by Allied forces, then falls in love with a former Nazi terrorist.

Von Trier plays with colours and tricks such as spinning figures and projected images in the background. You could identify these techniques in many ways, whether it’s a Brechtian reminder than you are watching a performance of art, or the black-and-white that pulls the wool over history’s harsh reality: “So our marriage was just a plan to blow up this train?”

Breaking the Waves (1996) – 7/10

Director: Lars von Trier
Writers: Lars von Trier, Peter Asmussen
Starring: Emily Watson, Katrin Cartlidge, Stellan Skarsgârd
Language: English
“Everyone says I love you too much.”

Breaking the Waves is the first of von Trier’s films to be influenced by his own Dogme 95 Manifesto. The difference is more noticeable if you’re familiar with Europa. Nervous handheld cameras follow the mental deterioration of Emily Watson, a frenetic woman who cannot cope with her husband’s absence when he has to spend a few weeks working away on an oil rig. Her tears turn to madness when he returns early, but because of an accident that paralyses his body. Watson maintains a bond with her husband by having sex with strangers, then providing him with detailed accounts – an act she believes instructed to her by God.

The central casting is a masterstroke. Emily Watson plays the tortured victim with enough tragic energy to drive the overlong film along, but remains obliviously aloof enough for her madness to shine. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough content to justify the 158-minute running time, but at least this slow tempo can exacerbate the sadness in her every act, even just the way she puts on lipstick and coils underneath a blanket.

The Idiots (1998) – 4.5/10

Original title: Idioterne
Director/Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: Bodil Jørgensen, Jens Albinus, Anne Louise Hassing
Language: Danish
“I think she’d have joined anything.”

In two ways, The Idiots doesn’t make for comfort viewing. Firstly, after treading water with Breaking the Waves, this is the first and only of his films to mostly follow the Dogme 95 Manifesto – there is list of arbitrary restrictions, such as only being able to use hand-held cameras, no special lighting, and everything must be shot on location. Of course, von Trier is making a statement against special effects and high budgets, but he also deprives the viewer of the cinematic beauty previously displayed in The Element of Crime, Europa and even the landscape shots in Breaking the Waves.

Secondly, the sparse plot revolves around a group of twenty-somethings who protest against society by pretending to be mentally disabled in public – a behaviour they call ‘spazzing’, if the English subtitles are to be believed. The first witnessing of this behaviour suggests they use the activity to cure boredom and a method of leaving restaurants without paying. However, it becomes apparent that there is more to ‘spazzing’ than a strange hobby with free food, but there are arguments over commitment and philosophy: the leader insists that one must fight the bourgeoisie by finding their ‘inner idiot’.

The plot isn’t entirely in as much poor taste as it sounds. For instance, the film never suggests that ‘spazzing’ has any effect on society, apart from embarrassment when someone realises it’s staged. They also feel no prejudice against people with disabilities, and even feel guilty when meeting people with real handicaps. Nevertheless, it seems fairly certain that von Trier aimed to offend an audience and, more importantly, those who would take offence without watching it first. I make this assumption based on an orgy scene that exists for shock value, with unsimulated sex just to make sure. Ironically, without a kick in the teeth, The Idiots is just a compromise between expectations and boredom.

Dancer in the Dark (2000) – 9 /10

Director/Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: Björk, Catherine Deneuve and Peter Stormare
Language: English
“I have seen it all.”

Björk complained that Lars von Trier tortured her with emotional manipulation during the filming of Dancer in the Dark. In The Five Obstructions, von Trier remarks to Jørgen Leth about the importance of forcing actors to do scenes they hate – an act he calls ‘chopping cabbage in the mincer’. Whether or not the production rumours are true – I still find it hard to be believe any amount of emotional distress could make Björk eat a cardigan – Selma, as played by Björk, faces a similar treatment in von Trier’s screenplay. Selma is the recipient of many common phobias – blindness, losing life savings, family health issues and not fitting in at the factory. She hides who she is and, unwittingly, makes a case for free health care, Communism and putting capital punishment under the guillotine.

There are a few musical interludes that occur during ‘daydreaming’, which are scored by Björk, and are hauntingly beautiful – Dancer in the Dark isn’t a musical in the traditional sense as the fourth wall is never broken. These songs become even eerier through the combined factors of being directed by von Trier, written and sung by Björk, and incorporating tragic aspects from the film’s plot into the lyrics – regarding her discography, think more “All is Full of Love” than “Army of Me”. When she has become broken, her songs are acapella because reality washes over, and the orchestra has disappeared with the dreams.

Dogville (2003) – 8/10

Director/Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany and Patricia Clarkson
Language: English
“You’re from the city itself, aren’t you?”

Nicole Kidman is on the run from mobsters, and it just so happens she finds a place called Dogville in which to hide. When it is established that the police want her, the cheery folk of Dogville agree to let her stay, provided she proves to be a worthy citizen. As Nicole Kidman found in real life with Tom Cruise, her character discovers that people who seem friendly on the outside can slowly reveal creepier layers underneath if you resist conformity.

Even when Dogville is revealed to be an isolated village, soaked with boredom and routine self-hatred, there is one redeeming quality – its landscape of mountains and trees. Ironically, the entirety of Dogville is staged like a play on a single set, with white lines on a black floor to indicate buildings. Consequently, there is meta-humour when Nicole Kidman marvels at the greenery that marks Dogville’s saving grace, pointing at the gooseberries – a white rectangle on the floor with the word “GOOSEBERRY” written inside.

As usual, von Trier uses handheld cameras and, as if the minimalist staging wasn’t enough, there are chapter headings to remind you what medium of art you are experiencing, with my favourite being: “Chapter NINE: In which Dogville receives the long-awaited visit and the film ends.”

Despite the many jump cuts and absence of musical montages, Dogville has a running time of 179 minutes. This might raise a few eyebrows, but, unlike Breaking the Waves and The Idiots, there aren’t any noticeable scenes that could be removed. In fact, the length allows Nicole Kidman to be worn down so slowly that you might make a double-take when you remember that she is chained to a weight and visited by every male in the village during the night – like any play, the logical conclusion is when it all turns into a Woody Allen film for the final twenty minutes, during which the topics of death and philosophy are discussed until it all burns down.

The Five Obstructions (2003) – 8/10

Directors: Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth
Starring: Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth
Jørgen Leth: “One always tries to make a better film…”
Lars von Trier: “That’s what you mustn’t do. You always try to be too good. This is therapy, not a film competition with yourself.”

Lars von Trier claims to be an expert in only a few things, of which filmmaker Jørgen Leth is one. Von Trier goes as far as insisting he knows Leth better than Leth does, and considers The Five Obstructions to be a “help Jørgen Leth” project.

The Five Obstructions is a challenge whereby Jørgen Leth must remake his 1967 short film The Perfect Human five times, but each with a different set of restrictions. It’s fascinating to watch what Leth can produce in each difficult task, particularly when he is forced to recreate his short film in ‘the worst place in the world’ without visually revealing the location. However, the true joy is seeing how seriously two filmmakers take their art – without any irony, it is considered  ‘satanic’ to be limited to twelve shots per frame, and ‘diabolical’ to be given no rules at all.

Lars von Trier: “There is one single condition. It’s got to be a cartoon.”
Jørgen Leth: “I hate cartoons.”
Lars von Trier: “I hate cartoons too”
Jørgen Leth: “I hate cartoons.”
Lars von Trier: “I hate cartoons.”

Manderlay (2006) – 3.5/10

Director/Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Willem Dafoe and Danny Glover
Language: English
“You’re not interested in us. Not as human beings.”
“Chapter ONE: In which we happen upon Manderlay and meet the people there.”

In Lars von Trier’s sequel to Dogville, a veritable smorgasbord of ideas surrounding American politics is thrown into a parable played out like a self-righteous play, nagging the audience with overlong speeches with a rhetoric voiced by whoever replaced Nicole Kidman and James Caan.

After burning Dogville to the ground, Grace passes by Manderlay and avows to liberate the town from slavery, but finds this task more complicated when they resist change – all that’s missing is a reference to weapons of mass destruction.

Manderlay is an exhausting watch because it doesn’t care about being the viewer’s experience. The minimalist staging worked in Dogville to highlight the story and themes, such as the secrets kept from neighbours. However, in Manderlay, it magnifies the unbearable execution of, not just a donkey but, the plot. Like von Trier’s earlier film The Idiots, its main achievement is being a catalyst for conversation once it ends.

Tellingly, the most intriguing moment is a repeated trick from Dogville by finishing with photos of America’s haunted past, such as the Ku Klux Klan and slaves being tortured, all to the sound of David Bowie singing ‘Young Americans’ – something to talk about, if you have any energy left.

The Boss of It All (2006) – 6/10

Original title: Direktøren for det hele
Directors/Writers: Lars von Trier
Starring: Jens Albinus and Peter Gantzler
Language: Danish
“Like a chimney sweeper in a town full of chimney sweepers.”

Lars von Trier appears in the reflection of the window, holding a camera, informing you The Boss of It All is a comedy of no significance. In fact, he interrupts a few times outside the building the entire film is set, even telling the viewer when the intermission is. As promised, the plot is lighter than his usual screenplays, with a boss hiring an actor to play ‘the boss of it all’, a target of abuse to blame for strict decisions in the company. Von Trier does attempt to be funny, but it isn’t funny-ha-ha. Nor is it funny-strange, but funny-von-Trier, a term I just invented and best illustrated by The Boss of It All.

How much humour you find in this film depends on how amused you are by the idea of the boss of it all blaming on the boss of the boss it all. I suppose a more accurate description would be a collected of non-tragic misunderstandings that are unlikely to make you laugh, but equally unlikely to bore you. So, I suppose that when von Trier calls this a ‘comedy’, he isn’t joking.

Antichrist (2009) – 3.5/10

Director/Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: William Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg
Language: English
“Chaos reigns.”

Maybe Lars von Trier is getting tired, but Antichrist has a five-minute prologue that replaces the build-up he would usually prepare with diligence to introduce his characters before their breakdowns. This tempo and structure is less successful in conveying Charlotte Gainsbourg’s suffering – within twenty minutes, she’s banging her head against a toilet bowl. Although one could argue that von Trier is deliberately being over-the-top, this person known as ‘one’ is probably forgetting what von Trier has spent his entire career doing. Antichrist feels one-touch and repetitive, which is exacerbated by how excited I became during the film’s one curveball – a fox that turns to Willem Dafoe and slowly utters, “Chaos reigns,” and then it rains.

Melancholia (2011) – 9/10

Director/Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg
Language: English
“Don’t nap. It’s your wedding. You’re not even halfway through yet.”

Is Kirsten Dunst shooting electricity from her fingers the greatest twenty seconds in the history of cinema? Possibly, but probably not. After all, Melancholia begins with its climax – the end of the world.

After that opening, modernity is put into perspective. When a castle holds a wedding, you wonder why they bother talking about PR salaries, let alone the ceremony, especially when a planet called Melancholia is approaching. The idea perpetrated by Lars von Trier is that a depressive is at peace with the end of the world, welcoming the flames of an incoming planet. It’s depression versus anxiety, and they’re both riding horses.

In the last few hours before Earth’s destruction, even a peaceful shot of running water is ruined by the camera slightly shaking. Dunst’s blank face is a mystery, yet everything you need to know; it’s her best performance since The Virgin Suicides (or Crazy/Beautiful if we’re revealing secrets). The sci-fi concept enables von Trier to pinpoint melancholia as an emotion, and it’s everywhere – when abstract art makes sense, when a planet draws a naked body, and when breakfast tastes like ashes. It’s also a reminder that the end of the world will be slow, painful and a bit like the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3.

Nymphomaniac (2014) – 9/10

Director/Writer: Lars von Trier
Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, Shia LaBeouf, Jamie Bell
“I sucked him off as a sort of apology.”

nymphomaniac classroom stacy martin lars von trierJust as every Lars von Trier film is followed by a fraught discussion, Nymph()maniac reviews must be preceded by a disclaimer: I didn’t catch the uncut version, and only saw the measly four-hour version while sat front row in a Brixton cinema. And yes, I was annoyed at having to buy a separate ticket for each volume.

Luckily, Nymph()maniac is a dizzying omelette of ideas that, like Fibonacci numbers, keep building upon each other. Veering between painfully funny and just painful, here is a classic von Trier film (feel free to read my retrospective on von Trier’s suffering female characters) with frequent digressions that essentially serve as von Trier arguing with von Trier about von Trier. Oh, Lars…

The meta-commentary comes from much of the film being told in flashback. Joe (Gainsbourg) is a bruised woman lying face down in the street. She’s taken in by a stranger, Seligman (Skarsgård), and they gently debate whether there’s such a thing as a “bad human being”. Joe is a sex addict ashamed of her past; Seligman is a 50-year-old virgin. Her stories are distorted by admissions of guilt, whereas he interjects – usually for an absurd punch line – to either naturalise her escapades or paint her toils as female empowerment.

In other words, Seligman is a voice piece for von Trier defending Nymph()maniac. He asserts that anti-Zionists aren’t anti-Semites (directly referencing that Cannes incident), and informs Joe her anecdotes are radical because she’s a woman (von Trier congratulating his own screenwriting). What the Danish filmmaker calls “digressionism” is more akin to a director’s commentary – he’s found a way to get past his self-inflicted ban on media appearances. (But Lars, I will interview you if you’re ever passing through London…)

Joe’s narration is divided into eight chronological chapters, with the first few devoted to Joe’s sexual awakening. Played by Stacy Martin, the young protagonist is involved with laugh-out-loud set pieces and more of Shia LaBeouf’s tongue that I was hoping for. Martin’s Joe struts in the red shorts from Breaking the Waves, blows strangers on a train, and secretly masturbates in public. What stops her from becoming a one-dimensional male fantasy are the digressions. Gainsbourg’s Joe is clear her regrets aren’t about the sex itself, and Seligman notes her promiscuity isn’t dissimilar from fly-fishing, cantus firmus, and whatever is lying around on the bookshelf.

Sex is mathematics and vice versa. Von Trier approaches female suffering like a scientist adding misery with a pipette, trying to find the right dosage that will appal audiences and draw in critics. As Seligman keeps pointing out, Joe’s sex life is unwittingly controlled by mathematics. Even her unfortunate affair with Jerôme (LaBeouf) is dominated by numbers – his coincidental appearances suggest love is the only force that breaks down logic. Three thrusts in the front, five thrusts round the back, and an unidentifiable accent to boot.

The two standout scenes also play on numbers. Chapter 5: The Little Organ School had my crying with laughter, as did Uma Thurman’s cameo in a comically melodramatic example of what happens when romantic equations stop calculating correctly.

The meaning of these comedic episodes takes a while to sink in, despite Seligman’s persistent philosophising and a sombre chapter devoted to Joe’s father (Christian Slater). Joe learns that human personalities are shaped like jagged trees; the traumas and lessons leave indents. When she grows up (by which I mean Stacy Martin evolves into Charlotte Gainsbourg), new ideas splurge all over the screen. Whereas something like The Idiots would be a single idea devoted to a film (albeit with impressive commitment), contentious grenades are thrown everywhere. For instance, not only does Joe congratulate a paedophile for resisting his urges, she rewards him with a blowjob. Even if you’re sickened, you can’t call Nymph()maniac boring. (Unless if you’re one of the people at my screening who did just that and didn’t stick around very long.)

Even at four hours long, I could have sat through more. When I first saw the trailer, the blaring Rammstein reminded me of the opening of Lilja 4-ever. Except Moodysson is a notoriously sincere Christian, whereas Lars is the prankster who will die with a Wikipedia page to admire. I said earlier, Nymph()maniac is von Trier discussing and defending von Trier, with direct nods to Melancholia, Antichrist and Breaking the Waves thrown in. (I was waiting for Joe to eat her cardigan.) No one else could have made it – or even dared something so outrageous. Five thrusts of hilarity, three thrusts of depression, and a polyphony of ideas; it turns out Fibonacci numbers also apply to cinema.

Follow me on Twitter: @halfacanyon

About Nick Chen

26-year-old journalist who's written for places like Total Film, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, Complex, SFX Magazine, Dazed and Confused, Grolsch Film Works, London Calling, Vice, and a bunch of other places. Why pencils have razors. Based on a book. Screenwriter. Buzz word. London. Twitter: @halfacanyon. Lesser known Olsen brother. Multiple instances of words misused contemporaneously.
This entry was posted in Complete filmography, Film review and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Every Lars von Trier film reviewed

  1. Andy Welch says:

    Thanks for the reviews there. Nice work.

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