Blog Archives

The Films of Lars von Trier

The Films I’m Anticipating: Lars von Trier’s THE NYMPHOMANIAC (2013)

Melancholia (2011) [9/10]

3 Movies I’m Looking Forward To in 2012

Five Movies That Make Me Want To Become A Filmmaker

A Controversial Filmmaker’s Career and Motives Re-Examined

Lars von Trier’s ANTICHRIST: Why I Think It’s Not Pretentious Garbage

Review: The Idiots

Double Review: Dogville and Manderlay

Today I’m gonna be reviewing two movies in Lars von Trier’s as-yet-unfinished “USA Trilogy.” They’re both worth seeing for the unique style in which they are made, but more about that in the reviews.

Dogville (2003)

Dogville is possibly Lars von Trier’s most widely disputed movie to date. Everyone seems to have an opinion on it, and more often than not, that opinion is divided. Half think it’s brilliant, and the other half despise it. Some have called it anti-American, others sexist, and others have condemned its explicit, “unnecessary” violence.

Well, first thing’s first, since a review is based on opinion, here’s mine: It’s fucking amazing. I loved every moment of Dogville, and while the 3-hour runtime might seem a bit excessive, it still manages to be worth it for the amazing, gruesome, Tarantino-esque finale. And if you don’t like the runtime, then try get your hands on the Australian copy, which is roughly 50 minutes shorter.

Lars von Trier has a habit of making the female protagonists in his movies martyrs for their cause. While Dogville and Manderlay share the same protagonist, Grace, it is debatable whether you want to use that term. Nicole Kidman plays her brilliantly, diving into the role and adding just the right amount of gental naivety and sinister background to her character.

She plays the aforementioned Grace, a woman who stumbles into the titular town and asks its citizens to hide her from the mob, who for some unknown reason, are after her. The citizens are at first dubious, but they decide to hide her in exchange that she helps them with their daily chores and jobs. This soon spirals widely out of control as the “chores” become harder and the “jobs” turn into slave work, leading to mistreatment, spitefulness, rape and murder.

If you’ve seen Dogville, you might find it strange that I’ve yet to mention the most notable detail about the way the film was made, and the thing that turns most people off. In fact, it is an amazing artistic choice and works perfectly. What is it? Well, von Trier decided to film the entire movie on a stage, where all the buildings are nonexistent, their presence marked by chalk lines on the ground. It’s as if we’re watching a play, and the film never leaves that small set (except for the scene in the limo near the end). It’s really quite amazing that it was filmed in this manner, but it’s strangely suitable and makes for an even more invigorating and shocking movie experience, particularly in a rape scene where it has a simultaneously comic, ironic and tragic effect.

Dogville contains some surprising cameos from many actors, including Philip Baker Hall, Ben Gazzara and James Caan, all in great roles (particularly the latter). They serve the movie brilliantly, isolating it with their presence and making it seem more strange and mysterious.

But the striking chord about Dogville, the thing that really sticks, is the ending. Lars von Trier rushes to this apocalyptic end and thrashes into it with such a force that it is like a cruel, sickening but brutally satisfying denouement. You will be shocked at its excess, but unable to turn your head away from the screen, and when the ironic and disturbing credits start playing, you’ll have your mouth dropped, trying to comprehend how von Trier has gotten away with it.

My Rating:

 5/5

Is It Worth Adding To Your Netflix Queue?:

Manderlay (2005)

The follow-up to Dogville replaces Nicole Kidman with Bryce Dallas Howard. The choice might at first seem foolish or mistaken, but Howard steps up to the role, jumps in and delivers.

The film resurrects the theme of slavery brought up in Dogville, but this time goes further with it. Our protagonist, Grace, abandons her father (James Caan is replaced by Willem Dafoe here) to help a small town, the eponymous Manderlay, in its struggle. The town is run by a rich white family, who are still using black people as slaves, unaware this is now forbidden. When the family’s head dies, Grace feels it is her job to take over and convince the black citizens that they should be free. However, they do not all share her views.

Howard really steals the show here, playing Grace with conviction and determination in a manner which Kidman failed to provide. Her attitude is fresh and bold, and it seems as if she is unstoppable.

Like Dogville, Manderlay is filmed on a stage, but this time von Trier is less ambitious, with a few extra doors and props available to make the action work a little better. Like the predecessor, it is narrated suitably well by John Hurt, observing the action casually and almost regretfully.

As far as sequels go, this is terrific, and some have said it outplays the original. It does have a great twist, and a decent ending, but all in all it doesn’t retain the gusto and daring provocation of Dogville. Nevertheless, it is a powerful cinematic work.

Character is key here, as it was in Dogville, and von Trier adapts his characters in the same manner as usual, but with more noticeable flair; in fact, you could say that Manderlay contains his best example of character transformation, such as in the whipping scene at the end, a truly frightening set piece. But then again, he was always good with his characters, and while the lovable, foolish, fearsome but in the end relatively harmless Grace manages to intrigue and repel, it’s characters like Bess MacNeill from Breaking the Waves and Selma from Dancer in the Dark that we yearn for. Characters with freedom and innocence. There is no innocence or freedom here, even after the slaves are freed. Only a sense of foreboding, and the inevitability of trouble in the future.

My Rating:

4/5

Is It Worth Adding To Your Netflix Queue?:

So those’re my reviews. Got anything to say about Dogville or Manderlay, or Lars von Trier in general? Say it in the comments below.

Review: Breaking the Waves

Reviews are going to become more frequent here at Southern Vision. I have a huge load of them stored on my computer which I’ve written over the course of the past two years that I’m very gradually editing and posting onto the site so I can get on with it and stop worrying with them. From now on, there should be about four or five reviews (usually of completely random films) each week, and the rest of the stuff will be the usual material – lists, thoughts, information, you know… stuff. I’m going to make the reviews of films in no particular order, so you don’t get stuck with a whole bunch of stuff from a certain director. There are many movies out there which so few of my colleagues and friends have seen but which I simply love, including this week’s review of the 1995 Lars von Trier film Breaking the Waves.

I recently asked a group of colleagues, friends and acquaintences, what is the first film that pops into your mind when you hear the name Lars von Trier? Of the sixteen I surveyed, four said Dancer in the Dark, three said Dogville, three said Antichrist, two said The Idiots, two said Kingdom, and the other two said Melancholia. Stunningly, none said Breaking the Waves, which is not only the film that pops into my head when I hear his name, but in my honest opinion, von Trier’s best film altogether. I only saw it three weeks ago, and if you’d asked me what my favourite was before then, it would’ve been a conflicted tie between Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and The Idiots. But those films all seem distant and forgettable when compared with this wonderful, uplifting, darkly beautiful film.

Emily Watson gives a performance here that had me damn well close to the edge of my seat, literally, and one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. I recently mentioned that I would’ve picked her over Frances McDormand for the Oscar in 1996, a statement which turned a few heads, and I even issued a poll to see who the real winner should’ve been, although the results so far are tied (vote now to advance the score, before I close the poll!).

Her earthshattering performance as the naive, fragile young Bess MacNeill is both beautiful and painful to watch. She marries an oilman, Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), only to be heartbroken when he is crippled and paralysed in a terrible incident on a ship. He survives, and convinces her in a dubious action, to continue their passionate sexual relations through other men, and report her adventures back to him and thus keep the active sexual spark of their relationship alive in some manner. The consequences are simultaneously comic, horrific and disastrous.

All this is beautifully shot in a style that von Trier would return to with Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and Manderlay particularly. He documents the events in a casual, yet emotionally evocative handheld fashion. But the film’s excellence and what makes it exceptionally powerful (and this is notable in all of his films) is that the film’s fate generally lies within the characters. Von Trier’s films are not artworks or paintings, but character studies.

Bess MacNeill is sexually unexperienced. She is a virgin when she marries Jan, and loses her virginity in a bathroom as the two have rough sex fully clothed, still in their wedding clothes. MacNeill is naive, and Jan sees just how easily he can take advantage of this. But at the beginning of their marriage, their relations are strictly sexual and emotional, and there seems to be no trouble for either one of them.

We know Bess is fragile, but it is not until Jan is taken away in a helicopter to do his job that we see how affected she is. She screams and cries relentlessly even as he reassures her he will be back soon. Seeing your spouse taken away in a helicopter simply to go and do their job temporarily for a few weeks would normally be only a small obstacle for their significant other. But for Bess, it is torture. She counts the days, the minutes, probably even the seconds until he returns.

When the aforementioned accident occurs, you can imagine her reaction. It is terrible, but she doesn’t care about the details, she only has one question: “Is he going to die?” Nothing else matters.

We can see from this point that the situation is likely to get worse, and we understand that we must prepare ourselves for the serious hardships ahead, but looking into the innocent Watson’s sweet face, it kills us as these awful events pacingly occur. And it just gets worse and worse.

In one of the most degrading scenes (although von Trier plays it with a subtle hint of dark comedy), Bess slips onto a bus and sits at the back next to an elderly gentlement. Without saying a word, she slips her hand into his pants and masturbates him. No one else notices, and neither of them say anything. Bess later recalls this and other similar events to Jan, who listens avidly but is increasingly convinced that what he’s doing is wrong.

That’s about as much I think I should give away about the plot. It’s a typical Von Trier movie, with the dreariness and sadness and woe, the conflicted reviews and strange attitudes given by critics, and there will be praise and there will be hatred, but what separates Breaking the Waves from all other Von Trier films is the brightness in the ending. A person fairly exprienced with his movies would know that his endings are usually depressing, and annoyingly sadistic, but here… here we’re free. There is happiness in it–certainly not a lot–but still, happiness. It seemed to be a departure for Trier, however, considering the lack of happiness in the endings of his subsequent films, but we’ll always have this to remember him by when he goes.

My Rating:

4.5/5 Von Trier’s

Is It Worth Adding To Your Netflix Queue?: