With the possible exception of Terrence Malick, Lars von Trier enjoys perhaps the most privileged career in independent cinema. For nigh-on three decades he has made profoundly experimental, critically divisive films which often fail to turn a profit.
Yet Hollywood A-listers clamour to work with him – Shia LaBeouf claims to have won a role in the forthcoming Nymphomaniac by sending the director a home-made sex tape. Meanwhile his every move is documented with fascination by the press – even his non-appearance at this year’s Cannes Film Festival has proven newsworthy.
That’s not to suggest that the privilege is undeserved. His body of work is remarkable in its diversity, from the expressionistic affectations of murder mystery The Element of Crime (1984) to the romantic grandeur of apocalyptic drama Melancholia (2011), via the rigorous minimalism of mockumentary The Idiots (1998). He is without question one of the key pioneers of digital filmmaking, while his spectacularly creepy hospital-set miniseries The Kingdom (1994) proved that Danish TV could compete on a global scale years before the mainstream success of The Killing.
All too often, however, his willingness to live up to his reputation as an eccentric provocateur proves an unnecessary and at times misleading distraction from the films themselves. Most recently, the release of Melancholia was overshadowed by his misguided decision to jokingly declare himself a Nazi sympathiser at the film’s Cannes press conference.
With von Trier safely out of the public eye for the time being, having taken a vow of silence after this latest gaffe, this month’s BFI Southbank season offers a welcome opportunity to enjoy the director’s output on its own terms, undistracted by hype and hysteria. Now seems an appropriate moment, therefore, to reflect on some of the labels most commonly attributed to a filmmaker who has spent his entire career attempting to resist categorisation.
Like Alfred Hitchcock before him, von Trier has worked tirelessly to establish himself as a one-man brand, frequently placing himself at the centre of his work. His public persona arguably began to take shape with Epidemic (1987), in which he cast himself as a cocky novice filmmaker, too busy writing a screenplay about a fictional plague to notice the outbreak of a hideous disease in the real world. Though the film remains little-seen, his character’s contrarian mantra “a film should be like a pebble in your shoe” has become synonymous with the director, and is often quoted by von Trier’s detractors as evidence of his perverse contempt for audiences.
While his appetite for innovation ensures that each new project arrives with at least one major talking point, his fondness for dramatic gestures and outrageous public statements has drawn comparison with the publicity stunts of American showman and scam artist P.T. Barnum. Though his Dogme 95 manifesto, co-written with fellow Dane Thomas Vinterberg (Festen, 1998), stipulated that directors should not be credited for their work, von Trier could scarcely have drawn more attention to himself when introducing his vision of a back-to-basics new filmmaking style. Invited to speak about the future of cinema at a Paris conference marking 100 years of film, von Trier showered a bemused audience with pamphlets announcing the movement.
Von Trier’s arthouse superstar status has at times proven a gift to marketing and distribution teams. The trailer for Dogville (2003) makes a virtue of his reputation for tormenting actors. In a tantalising glimpse of life on the film’s set, Ben Gazzara expresses his anguish at being stuck working with an “insane director”, while Paul Bettany proclaims “I feel like driving a railway spike through my head”. The furore surrounding Antichrist’s (2009) scenes of sexual violence enabled distributor Artificial Eye to sneak the film into UK multiplexes disguised as schlock horror. Dishonest as this approach may have been, it resulted in the director’s highest opening weekend in Britain to date.
Von Trier is renowned for his unpredictable antics on set. Before shooting began on Dogville, he filled Paul Bettany’s hotel room with porn magazines before bringing his co-star Nicole Kidman in to meet the actor for the first time. More damningly, John C. Reilly gave up his role in Manderlay (2005) after von Trier allegedly taunted the animal-loving actor with details of his genuine plans to kill a donkey on set.
This fondness for pranking and provocation manifests itself throughout the director’s work. A strong case could be made for The Idiots, about a group of friends who challenge social conventions by feigning mental illness in public, as a precursor to MTV’s Jackass and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat. As both co-director and subject of meta-documentary The Five Obstructions (2003), von Trier challenges fellow director Jørgen Leth to a rigorous and increasingly devious filmmaking challenge, appearing visibly gleeful as he devises new ways to make working life hellish for his friend.
In recent years von Trier has suffered the fate of the boy who cried wolf. Years of such button-pushing have left many viewers innately suspicious of everything he says and does, and critical responses to his work all too frequently degenerate into personal attacks. In his review of Antichrist, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw talks of von Trier’s “uncompromising facetiousness and giggling insincerity”, and admits to being sceptical about his assertion that the film was inspired by his own battle with depression. While it’s entirely plausible that this claim was simply part of the director’s self-mythologising act, this verdict entirely discards the fact that, at least in its early scenes, Antichrist holds up as an authentic, harrowing and compassionate portrait of grief and anxiety.
Since Breaking the Waves (1996), each of von Trier’s fiction features (aside from The Boss of It All, 2006) has centred around a female protagonist who is invariably subjected to some form of intense suffering or degradation. He has explained repeatedly that this is an approach borrowed from his filmmaking hero Carl Theodor Dreyer, and that his female characters are all versions of himself.
Nevertheless, his continued fascination with vulnerable women has over the years led to increasingly bold accusations of misogyny. In response to Antichrist, the Telegraph’s David Gritten called von Trier’s attitude to women “bizarre, bordering on creepy”, claiming he “seems to get a kick out of putting his screen women in jeopardy or in violent situations”.
This highly speculative viewpoint conveniently ignores the fact that von Trier frequently treats his male characters with contempt, and as such is an equal opportunity offender. Moreover, personal gender politics seem rather beside the point when the accused is the creator of some of the most fascinating female protagonists in modern cinema. Emily Watson’s Bess McNeill perhaps remains the definitive von Trier heroine, but since then he’s elicited spectacular, nuanced performances from the likes of Nicole Kidman (Dogville), Kirsten Dunst (Melancholia) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (Antichrist and Melancholia).
In 2009, von Trier told Vice magazine: “I’m a serial neurotic, a hypochondriac, and I’m frightened of everything I can’t control”. The depiction of illness and disability in his work certainly gives credence to this self-diagnosis. His characters frequently find their very worst fears confirmed or exceeded, suffering physically as a consequence of their own damaged psychological states. It seems far more likely that it is a fascination with the self-destructive capacity of the human mind, rather than some form of underlying misogyny, that serves as the driving force behind von Trier’s cruel storylines.
The director blurs the boundaries between devout spirituality and mental illness to devastating effect in Breaking the Waves. When childlike innocent Bess (Emily Watson) asks God for the immediate return of her oil rig worker husband Jan (Stellen Skarsgård), she finds her prayer answered in cruel fashion when he is promptly paralysed in an industrial accident. Her conviction that she is to blame for this propels her towards her own physical degradation.
From the outset, the odds are heavily stacked against Dancer in the Dark’s (2000) Selma (Björk), a poor Czech factory worker living in the US and rapidly going blind as a result of a hereditary condition. But it is arguably her determination to protect her son from the truth about his own potential fate, borne out of a seemingly irrational fear that stress might cause his sight to deteriorate, that plants the seed for her tragic downfall.
The director’s neurotic impulses reach their inevitable conclusion in Melancholia, which uses the impending end of the world as a blunt metaphor for the crippling depression suffered by Justine (Kirsten Dunst). Some took against the film for its bleak premise, but, by von Trier’s admittedly unusual standards, its conclusion offers a certain degree of hope for Dunst’s character. For Justine, having come to terms with the hopelessness of humanity some time ago, proves stoic and strong in the face of disaster, while her supposedly well-adjusted sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) falls to pieces.