Lars von Trier
|1984||The Element of Crime||6.5/10|
|1996||Breaking the Waves||7.5/10|
|1997||>>The Kingdom, Part 2||.../...|
|2000||Dancer in the Dark||8.5/10|
|2018||The House that Jack Built||7.5/10|
Review last updated: November 18, 2018
Lars von Trier is a dangerous filmmaker. When I say "dangerous", I don't mean physically dangerous like he could hurt you or something, I mean the ideas his films present are often abusively challenging on the mind and emotional state. He dethroned the great Ingmar Bergman as the master of despair and hopelessness. His directorial style has evolved from the intentionally-grainy, low definition, handheld-camera Dogme 95 films, to invasive and often disturbingly private portraits of sick protagonists. His realism is often abrasively detached. I often wonder how sick the depression in his mind must be, for him to put himself through these marches into death and suicide. He turns the artist-audience relationship into an abusive one. I find his films to be enormously underrated, and I firmly believe they will be appreciated more in the future.
Breaking the Waves
Breaking the Waves is an emotional portrait of an intellectually disabled woman, the spirit of warmth and goodness and love, being destroyed by reality, the world around her, the provincial expectations of her friends and family, her own role as a wife, and her own gaping void where self-worth and individuality used to be. Bess, a possibly psychotic, highly emotional, intellectually stunted woman, prays to God every day like a good Christian, but "God" also talks to her. She closes her eyes, speaks in a deep voice, and as "God" she tells Bess she is stupid, selfish, and that she is responsible for her husband Jan being injured and paralyzed on his job on the oil rig.
Her mental health issues, and her past hospitalizations, are frequently referenced by the characters in the film, but they do not fully grasp the reality of Bess's love, nor the extent of her psychosis. They (Dorothy, the mother, Dr. Richardson) all understand that she is not completely responsible for her actions. However, the world around her prosecutes her and scrutinizes her as if she were a mentally competent person, willfully disobeying and willfully destroying herself. She is excommunicated from the church, kicked out of her house by her mother (in pure antiquated, patriarchal, hypocritical religious indignity), harassed and stoned by a gang of boys, and violently raped and mutilated by sailors on an industrial ship. She is treated as if she is committing unspeakable wrongs, committing adultery, sexually harassing family friends, and willfully destroying her family's reputation, when the only thing her golden heart is really trying to do, is be a good Christian and listen to God, and be a good wife and listen to her husband. She never had a chance. She took the millennia-old indoctrinations, religious bindings, and the crippling power of love, much more literally and fanatically than they are expected to be taken, even in the provincial society that enforces them. When the silence of God leaves her prayers unanswered, and herself uncertain, her mind simply fills in the gaps. When her husband is sick, and he is heavily medicated, hallucinating, and disabled in a hospital bed, her mind simply fills in the gaps for that, too.
Bess is a person who has little control over her emotions. When Jan returns to work after getting married, she completely breaks down, screaming and crying, running to get her husband back to her. She frequently causes scenes in public. The hopelessness of this film is completely disorienting. The intense, sporadic emotional outbursts, leave the viewer drained and lethargic. This is possibly von Trier's purest film. It is the natural conclusion of the Dogme 95 ideas, the highest level of stylistic control exercised by von Trier. The long, picturesque, color-toned nature shots of the sky, mountains, and beaches, used as intertitles for the Chapter breaks function as relief from the emotional claustrophobia.
Dancer in the Dark
Dancer in the Dark is the most devastating Lars von Trier, and I believe it's one of the best films of all times. It is the absolute decimation of goodness, kindness, love, and warmth. The destructive, lying, narcissistic power of the white man decimates the lives of immigrants again. There is so little to say about this film because it's so forward, intense, abrasive, and even abusive. It's a ride of emotional intensity, bitter tears for America and what reality does to goodness, what bad people can do to good people. It's sincerely and profoundly painful.
My recommended viewing order: Extended Director's Cut Volume I, followed by Extended Director's Cut Volume II. Please try to watch the full five and a half hours in one sitting, but if you can't, two sittings will be fine. Nymphomaniac is a flawed masterpiece. This film is interpreted in many different ways. Some people dismiss it as pretentious hipster neurotic-cinema, some people are disgusted by its presence, and decide it's pornography and nothing else, some people enjoy it but it rarely blows their hair back. I've decided it's the towering masterpiece of von Trier's career. This film is highly topical, something that may make it look dated, or edgy, or indulgent, in years to come, but it also has a timelessness to it. It is a huge attack on patriarchy, gender roles, double standards, and societal norms. It is equally political as it is psychological. Nymphomaniac is first and foremost a portrait of a sex addict: someone whose life has been destroyed by their addiction. The ideas and messages this film sends, are dangerous, upsetting, and brutal, but they are important and necessary.
Like the title suggests, you are in for hours of long, intimate, even desperate sex scenes. But you are also in for a burst of intellectual curiosity, a trip into history, time, and literature. The emotional despair that this film consistently confronts you with, destroys any eroticism or romanticism in these sex scenes. You will notice that none of this intercourse is happy, or emotional, or erotic. It is in fact the opposite: Detached, cold, shameful, abusive. Watching the protagonist Joe have sex with dozens of men throughout the film, evokes the same reaction as watching a junkie shoot up heroin over and over, or watching a recovering self-harmer relapse into cuts and burns. You are watching someone destroy themselves slowly. You see, this is how Joe's addiction works: She attaches to the character Jerome, the man who took her virginity, and later her husband, the way an addict will romanticize their first "hits", or their earliest stages of their new pleasures. Her tolerance builds and builds, until Jerome is no longer able to satisfy her (much like a drug addict needs more and more of a drug each time to get a satisfying high), and she begins having sex with others. In the middle of the film, she suffers a terrible crisis: "My cunt simply went numb." She was deprived of all sexual stimulation. This leads her to venture further into extreme sex and BDSM, chasing a high that she can never quite reach.
This film is not only loaded with sex, but also with academia, history, and intellectualism. The steamy and degrading sex scenes, episodes from Joe's life that she shares with Seligman, are contrasted by his academic digressions. The movie is sprinkled with film samples, classroom blackboard diagrams, symbolism with esoteric literature, and long-winded lectures on history. For how degenerate the subject matter is, this watch is surprisingly educational. This film establishes a rhythm, and a momentum, so the intense emotions are contrasted with objective knowledge, and the two interplay and work off of each other.
At a certain point, Joe becomes aware of the bodily harm she is causing herself, and her vaginal tissues are irreversibly damaged. During her most desperate times, she neglects her young child, and later abandons him and her husband, to get her fix: Being beaten to a bloody pulp by a refined, calculating sadist. Much later in the film, her sex drive tapers off, and she suffers withdrawal - fever, cramps, muscle spasms - the way an alcoholic who stops drinking, goes into cold sweats and night terrors. The most shocking and controversial sequence (in my opinion) is the abortion. Joe becomes pregnant again, after being left by Jerome and her infant son Marcel, and becomes so frustrated that she demands an abortion from her doctors and psychiatrists. She is denied the abortion due to her enraged emotional state, and verbal abuse of her counselors. She takes matters into her own hands, and uses her brief medical training, to perform an abortion on herself in her apartment. The fetus feels excruciating pain before it dies.
The ending of this film is so pitifully cynical, and shameful, and perhaps not even a sufficient reward after five and a half hours. And yet it is perfect. A pure, innocent, and trusted friendship, based on mutual respect and care, is shattered because men are dog shit. Joe's one and only friend turns on her, and she is left to defend herself, returning once again to her life of loneliness and shame.
As much as I adore this tragedy, it is not without its flaws. Lars von Trier has always been revered for his realism, but this is his most transparent work. What I mean by transparent is, after a while, you're not watching two people talk to each other, you're watching Lars von Trier writing a long diatribe on abortion and politics. You see the writing, the intent, and the creative process, right through the screenplay, and the characters start to seem less like people and more like characters. The scenes from Joe's life are realistic, but the dialogue between her and Seligman in his decrepit, decaying apartment, is stilted and wordy. There are a number of moments and elements to the story that kind of take me out of the movie's trance. Joe's meeting with the sex addiction support group, while compelling, is hostile, hollow, and perhaps uninspired. Her high school meetings with her girlfriends, where they discuss sexual conquests, is another scene that is intriguing, but not adequately substantial. But I have still rated this a 8.5/10. It's very difficult to make a 5-and-a-half-hour film, especially one that engages you and holds your attention. There's bound to be 5 or 10 minutes of crap within the 5 and a half hours of genius.