Tiny Little Lars

Joanna Kavenna

The provocation begins with the name. Lars Trier, a boy from Denmark, went to film school and changed his name to the more aristocratic Lars von Trier. In Trier on von Trier the question of the name opens the account of the director’s life. ‘I started using the name again at film school, because it seemed the most provocative thing I could do,’ von Trier explains. ‘No one really cared how my films looked or how well they did. But this “von” business, on the other hand, really upset people.’ ‘Provocation’s purpose is to get people to think,’ he has said. ‘If you provoke people you give them the credit for interpreting things themselves.’

Von Trier is the better known of the two architects of the Dogme95 manifesto. ‘Today a technological storm is raging,’ he and his cosignatory Thomas Vinterberg wrote, ‘the result of which will be the ultimate democratisation of the cinema. For the first time, anyone can make movies. But the more accessible the medium becomes, the more important the avant-garde.’ The manifesto contained a vow of chastity, implicitly defined against Hollywood norms: shooting must be done on location, the sound must be recorded with the images, the camera must be hand-held, the film must be in colour, there must be no murders or weapons, temporal and geographical alienation must be avoided, genre movies are not acceptable, and the director must not be credited. Vinterberg wrote and directed the taut and edgy Festen (1998) – full of flashbacks and violence – and von Trier is the author of the ‘Goldheart’ trilogy, named after a Danish fairytale about sacrifice and selflessness: Breaking the Waves (1996), The Idiots (1998) and Dancer in the Dark (2000). With these films, von Trier championed a style of pseudo-realism in which a drunken camera reels through disordered ranks of actors who seem to be improvising. The Goldheart theme was played out through a trio of ingénues destroyed by circumstances: in Breaking the Waves, the devout Bess is raped by a succession of sailors until she dies, after her paralysed husband has commanded her to sleep with men and report to him on the experience; in The Idiots the shy and inarticulate Karen is blamed by her husband for the death of their child and finds solace with a renegade group who pretend to be mentally handicapped; and in Dancer in the Dark, the imaginative and childlike Selma is forced to kill the man who stole the money she was saving for her son to have an eye operation, and hangs for the crime because she uses the recovered money to save her son’s sight rather than pay for a lawyer. Von Trier was festooned with prizes for the films, including the Palme d’Or and the Grand Prix at Cannes; Emily Watson was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Bess in Breaking the Waves.

The question that arises is how these blood-stained women fit in with von Trier’s rallying of the avant-garde: whether they say something complex and radical about the human condition, or whether the gruesome rapes and deaths are primarily intended to provoke. Von Trier was experimenting with varieties of provocation and scattering manifestos in his wake before his Dogme95 movies. Manifesto 1 appeared while he was working on a first trilogy of films, about Europe. Its call for a bout of directorial machismo was a wilful act of patricide aimed at the ‘hardened old men’ of film-making: ‘We want to see heterosexual films, made for, about and by men. We want visibility!’ In Trier on von Trier, he explains: ‘I think, for me, "heterosexual” stood for polarisation. You can’t deny that within contact between men and women, there are two different poles.’ These early ‘heterosexual’ films were slick melodramas shot in weary sepia, their angles indebted to Hitchcock, set in a Germanic Europe devastated by environmental catastrophe or war. The jaded heroes roamed through wasteland, abandoned buildings, rubble, degraded suburbs, finding Gothic horrors: former Nazis dead in overflowing baths of blood, suicides dangling from ropes, bleeding whores, dying horses and abandoned children. In The Element of Crime (1984), a ravaged cop called Fisher (Michael Elphick) struggles through a flooded landscape, trying to solve a crime. Fisher is a particularly bad detective: he has an affair with a prostitute who turns out to have been the lover of the murderer he is trying to find, then he accidentally murders the girl he has been trying to protect from the murderer. In Europa (1991), naive young Leo Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) returns to Germany in 1945, having spent the war in the US. He falls in love with his boss’s daughter, Katarina, later revealed as an anti-American terrorist who has dragged him into her intrigues. As a hero, he is as unsuccessful as Fisher, and drowns after a bomb the charming Katarina gave him blows up. ‘Polarisation’ in these films seems to mean desperate corrupt men struggling against deceiving femmes fatales.

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