Montreal Film Journal

THE DIRECTORS SERIES (14)


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. ]


NEXT: MELANCHOLIA (2011)