Lars von Trier: Genius. Auteur. Hack?

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After his Depression Trilogy, it seems there really is no taming Lars von Trier. But is the ever-mischievous filmmaker always holding himself back?

For someone who has as much talent and ambition as Lars von Trier, he certainly cannot seem to get out of his own way. As an auteur, it is important for a filmmaker to have a distinct style and/or voice in his/her work. With von Trier, though, it is his creative freedom in which he not only excels in creating powerful and unique stories, but which also brings those stories crashing down with questionable stylistic choices and obscenity.

In Dogville, it seems that von Trier set out to make an anti-Dogme film by breaking many of the specific rules of the movement

It seems that almost everyone has a different opinion of von Trier’s work; some love it, some hate it, and for others, it’s just middling. A key contributor to the Dogme ’95 movement, Lars von Trier has always had a knack for controversial yet unique filmmaking. In some of his more recent work, though, von Trier’s tactics and filmmaking practices have been just downright irritating. In many instances, the director contradicts himself and what he had previously stood for in the Dogme ’95 movement while also disrupting the norm when it comes to explicit content in feature films.

In 2003, von Trier released Dogville. The plot centers around a mysterious woman named Grace (Nicole Kidman), who stumbles into the small town of Dogville while evading unknown assailants. The citizens take her in and allow her to stay as she does menial daily jobs for them. These tasks escalate and eventually she is basically imprisoned by the small community. In Dogville specifically, it seems that von Trier set out to make an anti-Dogme film by breaking many of the specific rules of the movement: the film is not shot on location, sound effects were added in post-production, and there is usage of superficial action such as gunfights and murder.

dogville set

What’s more, the film was shot entirely on a soundstage, with minimal props and Dogville’s buildings represented by chalk outlines. The plot itself as well as the acting is great and very believable, but the aesthetic choices (along with the shaky camera work) are bothersome. Dogville could have been so much more had von Trier just dedicated himself to fully fleshing out the small town for the screen. Instead, he chose to shoot the film as if it was a stage play. An ambitious project, yes, but there is never an instant where you don’t wish that there was something tangible about the setting.

Von Trier shows more maturity on Melancholia than Antichrist and Nymphomaniac, which rely so heavily on sexuality to shock

Von Trier’s three most recent films, Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011), and Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (2013) are part of what he calls his ‘Trilogy of Depression.’ Antichrist focuses on an unnamed couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) whose son tragically dies while they’re both having sex. The film is about the downward spiral of Gainsbourg’s character, resulting in explicit sexual and violent acts. Antichrist is beautifully shot and the subject matter is dark and gritty in feel – not a fun film to watch, but certainly an experience. This is what von Trier is best at – he is able to create an atmosphere that truly affects the viewer. It is, however, the acts of extreme sexual violence that make Antichrist cringeworthy; von Trier’s insistence on using close-ups deprive the film of the beautifully dark atmosphere that he tries to create.

The second in the Depression Trilogy, Melancholia, is about the relationship between two sisters, Justine and Claire (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, respectively). Justine marries and falls hard into a deep depression; Claire then must care for her, all while a rogue planet is expected to crash into the Earth. Melancholia is von Trier at his best – again, his cinematography is absolutely stunning and the acting is superb. The story is dark and depraved, but not in the same way as Antichrist and Nymphomaniac, which rely so heavily on sexuality to shock viewers and divide the audience. Von Trier seems to have a sense of maturity on Melancholia, and it shows through the brooding and seemingly helpless narrative.

Chaos reigns: We take a closer look at von Trier’s Depression Trilogy

melancholia kirsten d

Nymphomaniac hearkens back to von Trier’s work on Antichrist. Joe (Gainsbourg again) is a sex addict who tells stories of her past sexual exploits to a man named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), von Trier using close-ups of sexual acts throughout to provoke reaction from his audience. On top of this, much of the sex in the film is unsimulated through the usage of body doubles for the actors. The one question that comes to mind is, “why?” Filming unsimulated sex is not art. It is pornography. It does not enhance the storyline nor does it serve any purpose other than to cause the collective eyebrow raise of viewers. Von Trier’s knack for the obscene truly hurts this film.

Suffocated by his efforts to be different, Lars von Trier is a hack director who also happens to be a genius writer

Lars von Trier is a great storyteller and has all of the ability in the world to create something really special. Von Trier’s films leave viewers with potentially great stories that are suffocated by his efforts to be different. He rebels against any established norms of filmmaking to further distance himself from any semblance of traditionally accepted filmmaking. Von Trier refuses to accept a “less is more” approach and constantly finds ways to alienate and disgust viewers through his stylistic choices. The most unfortunate thing of all is that he is something special but cannot fully realise his potential as a truly great filmmaker. Lars von Trier is a hack director who happens to be a genius writer. But when all is said and done, there certainly is no one else like him and that is what makes him an auteur.

 

More on von Trier: We take another look at The Idiots

 

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