Lars von Trier has become one of the most controversial figures in filmmaking through his films and very often through his statements. He has been praised for his work by filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, and has been nominated for an Oscar (2001, Dancer in the Dark), a Golden Globe (2001, Dancer in the Dark) and numerous other awards, and has been a persistent presence at the annual Cannes festivals since 1984.
Along with equally renowned filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration, Submarino, The Hunt), von Trier has been sometimes associated with some of the principles of the Dogma 95 movement. His films never show too much of the environment or action but just enough to narrate the story of their characters, revealing the deepest and utmost private depths of one’s soul. Although his films’ narratives sometimes don’t seem to be rooted in the contemporary reality, by the time the film comes to an end, as a viewer, you realize that in fact the film has affected you in a way. You are outraged, touched, surprised, or completely unable to describe what you are feeling, because you didn’t really get the movie, or the characters, or what happened in the movie to the characters. Nevertheless, von Trier’s films have always proved to affect their audience.
Some of his most well known films include The Idiots of 1998, Dancer in the Dark of 2000, Dogville of 2003, Antichrist of 2009 and Melancholia of 2011. All of these films have surprised, confused, and often offended audiences at the same time, making them think about the contents of the film they have just seen and not just passively sit in the dark theatres while the screen readily unfolds the story it has to tell.
Here is a quick look at some of the films he is known for:
Breaking the Waves, 1996
Starring Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgard. This film tells the story about the relationship between Bess McNeil and Jan Nyman. Despite their different backgrounds they choose to be together and they stay together even when Jan is away working on oilrig and Bess is left to wait for him. After an accident, however, Jan is paralysed and since he can no longer be Bess’s lover, he encourages her to pursue physical relationships with other men and then tell him about her experiences, claiming this is what keeps him alive. This film won the Gran Prix at the Cannes Festival in 1996 and Emily Watson was nominated for a number of awards for her performance as Bess.
The Idiots, 1998
In this film a group of young people decide to move into a house in Copenhagen and let their ‘inner idiots’ out, forgetting the social conventions of everyday life. The film’s narrative is not about physical or mental disability but about a group of characters choosing to act like idiots. However, upon its release the film provoked an explosion of debates around the notion of disability and the way its was portrayed, discussing whether it should have been related to the film at all.
Dancer in the Dark, 2000
Starring Icelandic singer Björk, this film from 2000 centers around the experience and fantasies of Selma Jezkova, who has emigrated to the USA with her son. While she is working round the clock and hoping her son won’t have the same disease as her, Selma is living in her own dreamworld, based on Hollywood musicals. However, when she finds herself without her savings and blamed for being a Communist supporter on her way to a death penalty, the one thing that gives her peace is that her son has had an operation and will be able to see. The responses to Dancer in the Dark were ambiguous with some critics claiming it was neither a good film nor good artwork others like Roger Ebert praised it for its innovative stylistic approach.
Unlike his other films, von Trier seems to have staged this one on the likes of stage. The physical surface of the stage has been divided with chalk lines to symbolize the different spaces the characters inhabit, constituting the minimalist setting of the film and the story consists of nine chapters, all narrated by John Hurt. The film follows the story of Grace (Nicole Kidman), who finds herself in the town of Dogville while on the run from some gangsters. Tom (Paul Bettany) finds her and convinces her to stay in the town. After the first two weeks, when Grace slowly starts to integrate among the townsfolk, things make a turn to the worse. In the end it is revealed that Grace was not running from the gangsters but is the daughter of the gang leader, who comes to collect his daughter.
This film mirrors the structure laid out by its predecessor Dogville, insofar that it is narrated by Willem Defoe, who also stars in it, and that it is divided into several chapters. Featuring Defoe as ‘He’ and Charlotte Gainsbourg as ‘She’, the film presents the impact on a couple after the loss of their son, Nick. After the boy’s death, the wife becomes increasingly frantic and with the husband trying to help her as a therapist, the two find themselves alone in a cabin in the woods. However, this is where a number of controversial events take place, each of them increasingly more sinister, violent and grotesque.
Although it opens with a slow-motion sequence of Kirsten Dunst dressed in a white puffy wedding gown, the film quickly cuts to the actual wedding and leads the audience into the plot. We are introduced to the parents of both the groom and bride. It is revealed that the bride, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) suffers from peculiar melancholic states, which she lapses into and no one, even her new husband, can distract her from them. The only person who can influence her during these moments is her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). At the same time, a new planet is threatening to collide with planet Earth and the relationship between the two sisters becomes increasingly strained. Although the film presents itself as a bit of an enigma and provides food for thought on behalf of the audience, some of the comments the director made during the film’s screening at Cannes may have overshadowed its initial reception.
Despite his statements and the ambiguous and controversial topics his films take up, Lars von Trier’s films always prove themselves to be widely discussed and worth seeing even if for just the sheer bewilderment at the idea of the plot. We have yet to see his next film entitled Nymphomanic which is to be released in 2013 and will be starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Christian Slater, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman and many more.