Lars von Trier

1988
MEDEA 90
[ According to Greek mythology, Medea was the wife of Jason (of “and the Argonauts” fame). After fetching the Golden Fleece, Jason abandoned Medea and their two sons to marry the young daughter of King Kreon, and Medea’s love turned to hatred… With such a premise, you know you’re in for one bleak film, and when it’s directed by von Trier from an unfilmed screenplay by the late great Carl-Theodor Dreyer, you’re almost scared to enter such heavy territory. Indeed, right from the opening minutes, as Medea lies on the beach and lets the tide wash over her until it almost drowns her, I felt like bursting into tears. And as this most disturbing tale of betrayal and revenge unfolds, it just gets more and more devastating. This is a low-budget, kinda shoddy-looking Danish TV production, but von Trier manages to create haunting imagery out of video and he gets extraordinary performances as always from his actors, namely Udo Kier as Jason, Henning Jensen as Kreon and especially Kirsten Olesen as Medea. ]

The EUROPA trilogy

1984
THE ELEMENT OF CRIME 68
[ It’s odd how the Dogme master’s early work is so stylish and polished. And this is a genre film! No long suffering women here, just a troubled European cop straight out of film noir investigating a series of murders in a world falling apart and apparently flooded, all in sepia tones and bluish hues, with dead horses, scattered lotto tickets and disaffected sex scenes… It’s all pretty fucked, like a David Lynch minus the black humor and with no room to breathe. A harrowing exercise in style. ]

1987
EPIDEMIC 67
[ After their computer eats their screenplay, a filmmaker named Lars and his writing partner decide to start over and do “something more dynamic”: Epidemic. A voice-over dryly explains that in the five days it will take them to write this new script, an actual epidemic will break out. This film isn’t actually much dynamic, but it offers interesting/terrifying insights about the various plagues that hit Europe over the years, “king rats”, boils, people being buried alive, etc. It’s also a fascinating deconstruction of the writing process, as we see the screenwriters brainstorming through long takes, often in front of unmanned cameras. These stretches have a non-fiction feel, though you can’t trust von Trier not to be manipulating the audience even then. Scenes like the one with Udo Kier playing his own creepy self, the wine tasting and the thing about the Atlantic City girls are kinda pointless, but the film-within-the-film segments are beautifully photographed (in B&W, like the whole picture) and make great use of Wagner. All in all, “Epidemic” is an uneven but mostly effective cerebral horror story. ]

1991
EUROPA 87
[ You’re an American in 1945 Germany. You get a job as a train conductor. You experience first-hand the post-war dismay of the country. You fall in love with a woman played by stunning classic beauty Barbara Sukowa. You love her so much that you find yourself entangled with a terrorist group. You’re Jean-Marc Barr, acting in one of Lars von Trier’s brilliantly crafted early films, as wonderfully artificial as von Trier’s later work is movingly naturalistic. Expertly shot in B&W with occasional bursts of color, with hypnotic narration and a Bernard Herrmanesque score, “Europa” is a powerful ride. ]

The GOLDEN HEART trilogy

1996
BREAKING THE WAVES 91
[ “When you talk to God, it’s called praying. When he answers back, it’s called schizophrenia.” Or is it? It’s never quite clear whether Bess is insane or whether she does have a straight line with the Holy Father. What we know for sure is that the Scottish woman’s love for her oil rig worker of a husband is dangerously intense. As is the film as a whole, a harrowing psycho-sexual fable shot in Dogme minimalism, but with colorful chapter breaks of ‘70s rock and quasi-surreal imagery. And then there’s Emily Watson, giving one of the most powerful performances I’ve ever seen. As Von Trier puts it in the production notes, “Emily has a face that expresses an enormous range of emotion; a face you can never tire of watching.” Indeed, she has the brightest eyes and the loveliest smile, and it’s all the more devastating when the going gets tough for her character. “Breaking the Waves” is a heavy watching experience, but it’s a rewarding one. ]

1998
THE IDIOTS 53
[ An unhappy woman (with a heart of gold?) joins a group of oddballs who get off on acting like retards in public. Shot with handheld cameras in natural locations, this is pure Dogme 95. Amusing at times, unsettling at others, it’s never clear what von Trier is going for but it’s an interesting experiment. ]

2000
DANCER IN THE DARK 92
[ review ]

The USA: LAND OF OPPORTUNITY trilogy

2003
DOGVILLE 95
[ review ] / [ review 2.0 ]

2005
MANDERLAY 92
[ review ]

201?
WASINGTON

***

2006
DIREKTØREN FOR DET HELE 57
[ Alright, this is kind of a wank-off. Like “The Idiots”, this is an intentionally amateurish, Dogme-style trifle, with inconsistent sound mix and light levels, inept framing, apparently random jump cuts… Coming from an unknown, you’d quickly dismiss it as an unremarkable little flick with a good performance by Jens Albinus and a few amusing bits (the sex scene, Jean-Marc Barr butchering the Danish language, etc.). But of course, von Trier’s reputation warrants more of our attention, a fact he neatly milks. He pops up (off screen) 3-4 times to poke fun at how this is just a silly comedy, “not worth a moment’s reflection”, and he points out bad camerawork, forced plot turns, how needlessly stretched the ending is… You gotta give it to Lars, clever bastard, he makes it almost impossible to hold his perceived failings against him!

So what is the movie about? Actually, it’s got a promising premise. Albinus plays a pretentious, idiotic actor who’s hired by a businessman to pose as the fictitious president of his company, whom he made up so he could remain chummy with his employees and blame unpopular decision on his higher-up. This elusive “boss of it all” now needs to materialize at the request of a grumpy Icelander they’re about to sign a major deal with, hence the need for someone to play the part. Not that surprisingly, even in this light comedy, von Trier sneaks in some commentary about capitalism, acting and people’s desperate need for attention/ approval. So this isn’t a complete waste of time, and maybe if the comic timing wasn’t undermined by having to read subtitles I’d even recommend it. As is, this is mostly for completists. ]

“I hate women and I love them. Come on, we all do.”
– Lars von Trier at the 2009 TIFF

2009
ANTICHRIST 88
[ You should know where you stand more or less just from the prologue. Marrying slow-motion b&w images and opera music with hard fucking and tragedy, this can easily be taken as pretentious and preposterous, and the movie will only go further in that direction throughout. But if, like me, you’re a Lars von Trier fan and you often get the sense that he’s purposely messing with audiences, you should be able to appreciate this always provocative, sometimes profoundly silly, yet nonetheless affecting tale of grief, fear, pain, despair and evil. Aggressively stylish (this is in many ways a throwback to von Trier’s “Europa” trilogy) and featuring fierce performances from Willem Dafoe and especially Charlotte Gainsbourg, “Antichrist” puts up a Grand Guignol façade that almost dares you to reject it. But if you’re able to see past it or, even better, to embrace these excesses, this is quite an extraordinary experience, like an unholy cross between Zulawski’s “Possession”, Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” and Raimi’s “The Evil Dead”. To be honest, it doesn’t all work, but it’s such a bold film that even when it goes off the rails, which it often does, it remains fascinating. Chaos reigns. ]

2011
MELANCHOLIA 90
[ It opens with a striking overture, a series of gorgeous slow-motion tableaux set to Wagner which, in retrospect, pretty much tell the whole tale. The tale of a bride and her sister. The tales of two planets on a collision course. The tale of the what may be the end of the bride’s world, as well as the end of the whole world. Divided into two parts (“Justine” and “Claire”), the film initially focuses on bride Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst in her best performance ever, which deservedly won her the Best Actress award in Cannes last May. It’s astonishing how she can be gorgeous and glowing for a while early on, then get ugly and dark, as if something had just snapped inside of her… Afterwards, she sometimes smiles and shines a little again, but you can tell that she’s faking it, that her heart just isn’t into it, even though her dress is amazing, the groom is amazing (Alexander Skarsgård), the venue is amazing… What’s her problem? Could be depression (“I’m trudging through this grey, woolly yarn”), but it could also be caused by the impending doom facing Earth if it’s hit by “fly-by” planet Melancholia… Which will become the main concern of Claire, Justine’s sister, who becomes increasingly filled with cosmic dread, terrified that she is that she, her husband (Kiefer Sutherland) and especially her young son (Cameron Spurr) could be obliterated in a matter of days. Part drama, part science-fiction, “Melancholia” is shot by Lars von Trier with his signature post-Dogme unstable camera style, which mirrors how Justine and eventually Claire feel, and the cinematography is also often stunning, with a painterly use of light and colour bringing to life more tableaux throughout the film. Von Trier’s vision is cynical and nihilistic (“The Earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it. Nobody will miss it.”), but also laced with black humor and some genuine emotion, and it’s the kind of picture that only grows in your mind as time passes. Even though the ending is jaw-droppingly awesome, I came out of the theatre feeling slightly disappointed… Then again, as I write this the next day, I’m still haunted by it and looking forward to seeing it again already – always a good sign, obviously. Dunst and Gainsbourg dominate it of course, but the entire ensemble cast is excellent as well, including Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt as the girls’ divorced parents (yes, the accents all over the place in that family, going from English to American to French, but it doesn’t really matter), plus Stellan Skarsgård, Brady Corbet and my personal favorite, Udo Kier as the wedding planner! Lots of greatness all around but, again, maybe not the immediate impact of, say, instant classics like “Dogville” or “Dancer in the Dark.” Even then, it easily ranks as one of the year’s best films. ]

2014
NYMPH()MANIAC: VOL. I 89
[ “I’m just a bad human being,” says Joe (alternately Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin, both tremendous) early into this first part of Lars von Trier’s epic, supposedly pornographic film (I watched the “censored”version). We listen to Joe as she tells Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) the long, “moral” story of her life as a sinner, starting with discovering her “cunt” at age 2, then later losing her virginity at age 15 in the least romantic, most mechanical way (thanks, Shia LaBeouf!), and so on. The events she recounts are often captivating, as tales of sex tend to be, but there’s something to be said about the way von Trier presents them, throwing in various visual inserts, on-screen captions and whatnot, not to mention a lot of really interesting dialogue laced with philosophy, psychology and of course, black humor (that Uma Thurman scene!), plus a bunch of references to anything from fly-fishing to botany, literature, music and mathematics. It all culminates with a stunning split-screen sequence and a cliffhanger of sorts, leaving us eager to watch the next part! ]

NYMPH()MANIAC: VOL. II 65
[ As was revealed at the end of “VOL. I”, Joe is suddenly numb down there, incapable of having an orgasm. But instead of stopping her sexual adventures, this pushes her futher, into the arms of “dangerous men” and into more perverted practices, such as a Negro sandwich and bondage/S&M (thanks, Jamie Bell!). The tone is less fun and wild, more dark and troubling… But as is always the case with von Trier, there’s still room for a bit of black humor. Plus, Joe’s storytelling and Seligman’s “digressions” remain interesting. Now, this is definitely not as great as the first half and the ending is questionable, but taken together, both parts do add up to a somewhat satisfying whole. All the same, I would be curious to see the 5 1/2 hour uncensored director’s cut to compare. ]