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.

Von Trier has been a constant commentator on his own work: in interviews, in his manifestos, in assorted documentaries, and now in Trier on von Trier. Discussing each of his films in turn, he emerges as a self-mocking and contradictory man of undisguised ambition, oscillating between shyness and exhibitionism. Most revealing is his antipathy to contemporary cinema. ‘There’s certainly something lacking in films today,’ he says. ‘A lot of what’s made is shaped in a very conventional mould, or else put together in a sort of MTV-style, with fast editing and a thumping rhythm.’ Even films regarded as off-beat fail to appeal: ‘I hardly see any new films. I don’t think much of films that are fashionable today. Like Brazil by Terry Gilliam. I hated it! Or . . . Delicatessen. I couldn’t stand it . . . And I feel the same way about Peter Greenaway’s films . . . Yet I still get compared to these directors now and then.’ In the introduction to Trier on von Trier, Stig Björkman makes it clear where he places von Trier: ‘His development . . . is as daring as it is astonishing,’ he writes, ‘but it is also consequential. Questions, challenges and renewal have been recurrent motivations and arguments in Lars’s work in film . . . Much of his work has been intended to expand both his and our vision.’ For Björkman, von Trier’s future is intimately entwined with ‘the future of film’. Von Trier appears to agree. On the official website for his new film, Dogville, his entry runs: ‘Lars von Trier is widely considered to be the prime mover behind the current revival of Danish film-making and has made a significant impact on a new generation of directors both in his home country and around the world, not least because of his central role in Dogme95.’

Discarding the Greenaways and Gilliams, von Trier reveals a troubled fascination with the works of Ingmar Bergman, and a self-conscious emulation of Bergman’s processes. Asked why he has agreed to collaborate on the book, von Trier answers: ‘I like this sort of book . . . I’ve read the book that you and a few other people did with Ingmar Bergman several times.’ ‘It’s nice that it’s my game we’re playing,’ he wrote in one diary entry during the filming of The Idiots, and, in another, ‘It’s a tiny little game that tiny little Lars has set up.’ Explaining these notes in Trier on von Trier, he says: ‘That’s an almost exact Bergman quotation! He said the same thing at some point, that he sees film as a game.’ Discussing a single he released in connection with The Idiots, he says: ‘That’s something I don’t think Bergman has done. Made a record. But that feeling of being able to float into your art, I’m sure he’s experienced that.’ Some of von Trier’s Dogme techniques are indebted to Bergman: the lingering, uncomfortably candid close-ups, showing hairs, lines, sweat, the flaws on the most smooth-cheeked Hollywood beauty; the camera sliding from one person to another as a way of representing emotion-” al relationships – a technique used by Bergman in Autumn Sonata (1978), for example, as the camera moves between Eva and the confused invalid, Helena. But von Trier seems uncertain whether to imitate or slay Bergman:

I . . . regard Bergman as . . . a father figure . . . I’ve seen all Bergman’s films, even the adverts he made for soap . . . I can see parallels between Bergman and a Danish author called Leif Panduro. Panduro wrote . . . middle-class dramas in comfortable surroundings where keeping quiet and having secrets were the most obvious dramatic ingredients. That sort of television drama doesn’t get made any more. Now you have to kill people to get attention.

It’s hard to see The Seventh Seal (1957), with its cast of travelling actors, knights, plague-infested peasants, blacksmiths etc, as a middle-class drama. Von Trier seems to have in mind those Bergman films that stage the anxieties of the bourgeois intelligentsia: artists, writers, lawyers, academics, doctors, concert pianists, translators, playing out their psychodramas in luxurious houses, their confusion and desperation discussed over cognac and coffee. By contrast, von Trier’s recent films focus relentlessly on the lives of the powerless and impoverished: Selma and the immigrant factory workers of Dancer in the Dark, the workers on the oil rig in Breaking the Waves, Bess and her mother in their shabby house. There is a distrust of clever talk; against the scripted eloquence of Bergman’s characters, he offers stuttering improvisation, characters so incoherent they fall into antic displays. It’s a technique that works well in the depiction, for example, of Selma’s musical fantasy world in Dancer in the Dark or in the breakdown of the community in The Idiots. But at times von Trier is too emphatic. Breaking the Waves seems to be heavily influenced by Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960), in which the naive and beautiful Karin is raped and murdered by goatherds, as Bess is by the sailors. The Virgin Spring ends with the miracle of a river gushing from the place where the murdered girl’s body lay, while Breaking the Waves culminates in the miracle of celestial bells, ringing out for the innocence of Bess. Yet in Bergman’s film, sexual assault and murder take place in a single scene; in Breaking the Waves Bess offers herself up time and time again, with the camera zooming towards each scene of grubby, traumatic sex. Because of his disdain for subtlety, von Trier’s most successful work is The Kingdom I and II (1994 and 1997), a perverse soap opera set in a haunted hospital with a cast of corrupt doctors, ageing spiritualists, cult-followers, ghosts, and women giving birth to spirits. The absurd setting allows von Trier to revel in freakish incidents, exorcisms and crazy visions.

Like Bergman, von Trier has been organising his thematic discussions as trilogies: Dogville is the first of three about America. It tells the story of Grace (Nicole Kidman), a soft-spoken, childlike woman who is exploited, abused and, eventually, raped by the inhabitants of a small American town. The action is played out on a set that could be that of a low-budget theatre production, with painted lines and words signalling the boundaries and functions of the buildings of Dogville, and a few random props – a couple of chairs, an organ, and some rocks for a mountain. There are hardly any walls and no doors at all: characters enter houses by miming the action of opening a door, to the sound of a creak and a slam. This works well, allowing the camera to pry into all the houses simultaneously, evoking the intimacy of a small community. The time is the Depression, the location somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, in a fantasised America of heterogeneous accents. Von Trier’s drunken camera is much in evidence, cutting people off at their foreheads, reeling away from them as they speak, diving towards them again. Grace speaks as slowly as someone with a bellyful of Prozac, and has a neat line in wide-eyed virtuous glances recalling Bess, Karen and Selma. A few elements have changed: Grace comes from a mysterious but apparently wealthy background, her riches revealed in her alabaster hands and expensive clothes. She is on the run from mobsters, for reasons unknown, in fear for her life. Dogville is structured in chapters, like Breaking the Waves, but also has a narrator (John Hurt) who supplies a mocking commentary on the town and its hypocrisies.

Grace is found by an aspiring young writer called Tom (Paul Bettany), who is engaged in an inquiry into Moral Rearmament. Tom believes that the people of Dogville have no sense of community; and Grace’s arrival provides a perfect test of this notion. Politely, soft-spokenly reluctant to impose on Dogville, she is persuaded to stay there by Tom. ‘They’re good people and honest people. They’ve all been in need themselves,’ he says of his neighbours. ‘But I’ve got nothing to offer them,’ Grace protests. ‘I think you’ve got plenty to offer,’ he replies. Stripped of wealth and status, Grace appeals to Tom in her honesty and helplessness: ‘She could have kept her vulnerability to herself,’ he thinks, ‘but she had elected to give herself up to him . . . as a gift.’ Tom believes he holds Grace’s life in his hands, in the form of a business card given to him by a gangster in a limousine who came looking for her. Grace announces herself at the outset as a masochist, someone who has to be punished: ‘I was raised to be arrogant, so I had to teach myself these things,’ she explains, as she prepares to deny herself food for stealing a bone. At the town meeting that evening, Tom proposes that the community of Dogville show its kindness by allowing Grace to live there. Instead, the locals offer her a trial period of two weeks, after which she will be invited to stay or leave. Tom suggests to Grace that she ingratiate herself by offering her services for odd jobs.

At the word ‘services’ a viewer familiar with von Trier’s world may see the direction the story is likely to take. Oblivious of her future degradation, Grace – who has ‘never worked a day in her life’ – follows Tom’s instructions: she collects tasteless figurines from the local shop; she tends the gooseberry bushes planted by Ma Ginger (played with immaculate unpleasantness by Lauren Bacall); she listens to the blind Jack McKay (Ben Gazzara) as he tells her about the qualities of light; she cooks for the drunken Ben (Zeljko Ivanek); she gives beauty tips to Liz (Chloë Sevigny), the only other young woman in the town; she helps Tom’s father, Thomas Edison Snr (Philip Baker Hall), with his pills; and she minds Vera’s children, who have names like Achilles, Pandora, Athena and Jason (Vera is played by Patricia Clarkson). Only Vera’s surly husband, Chuck (Stellan Skarsgård), seems resistant to Grace’s self-deprecating charm. After two weeks the town votes for her to stay. Tom is delighted: ‘Grace fitted Tom’s mission to educate Dogville . . . like a glove,’ the narrator reports. Not only does she educate them, she also exonerates them: when Ben accidentally mentions his visits to Miss Laura, a local whore, Grace says, with a soft, redeeming smile: ‘I’m sure that those ladies bring a lot of joy to a lot of men.’ Meanwhile Grace and Tom fall in love, a chaste playground love expressed in tentative hugs and kisses.

Relations between Grace and the people of Dogville start to decline when the police put up missing person posters that clearly refer to Grace and offer substantial rewards for any information about her. It is then, as the considerate Tom explains to her, that her presence in the town becomes ‘more costly’ to the people, and they decide ‘there should be some counterbalance . . . some quid pro quo.’ Longer working hours begin, in von Trier’s way, to slide into exploitation. The women adopt a collective policy of hostile stares and barbed comments, the men start patting Grace on the knee and trying to fondle her in bushes. And somehow it’s Grace who has provoked them with her trusting eyes, her tantalising virginal nature; as the narrator explains, ‘Grace . . . had laid herself open. There she dangled . . . like the apple in the Garden of Eden.’ Chuck rapes Grace in the orchard – no one could miss the symbolism. Grace tries to escape in Ben’s van but is raped by Ben – thriftily saving himself a visit to the whorehouse, as he tells her – and driven back to the town, where she is chained up and given a collar, like a dog. ‘We don’t like doing this,’ Thomas Edison Snr explains. ‘We don’t have much of a choice if we’re going to protect our community.’ Chained to her bed, Grace is raped nightly by the men of Dogville.

The pace of Dogville is more temperate, more controlled than it has been in von Trier’s recent Goldheart films. Technically it is far more successful than Breaking the Waves or Dancer in the Dark, the intrusive documentary style of the camera work backed up and explained by the omniscient, jaded narrator. But something about the film doesn’t add up. ‘Using the word trilogy,’ von Trier has said, ‘indicates that there’s a theme that’s shown in a new light in each film. Or that you’re trying to expand on an idea. It turns into an excuse for concentrating on the same thing once more. Hopefully it won’t be like this for the rest of my life.’ But four films on the theme of innocence besmirched suggests either obsession or a fear of changing direction. In Trier on von Trier, he denies that Grace is another Goldheart figure: ‘She has to possess a capacity for something else. I tried two or three tricks to get it to work, but I don’t know if it does.’ He is right to be doubtful. Grace is a strange concoction, as if Bess had been sent to Vassar and given a fur coat. She alludes darkly to reserves of learning: she teaches the local children about Stoicism; she appears, at times, to respond with knowing irony to her hosts’ hypocrisies. Yet, despite these intimations of sophistication, she maintains the slow, breathy innocence of von Trier’s previous heroines, oozing wide-eyed forgiveness, apologising to Chuck for provoking him when he makes his first pass at her, abasing herself to the women when they turn against her. And Nicole Kidman is a curious choice for Grace: she towers over every man who rapes her, broad-shouldered and well-exercised, compelling the viewer to wonder why she doesn’t just smack her assailant in the face and walk out of town. Maybe there is something altogether more troubling about Grace. While the narrator tells us at the start that the people of Dogville are selfish and morally questionable, Grace spends the first half of the film exclaiming at the ‘beautiful little town . . . where people have hopes and dreams’. Perhaps she enjoys her humiliation as a form of cultural tourism, a suggestion reinforced when the flimsy basis for her dependence on Dogville is revealed at the end.

For all his talk about the avant-garde and the positive effects of provocation, there is something curiously old-fashioned about the way von Trier dwells on one kind of humiliation. As Bergman knows, there are a thousand other kinds, a thousand other ways of expressing suspicion and dominance between women and men – or between men and men, or women and women. Bergman stages his conflicts between husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, incestuous siblings, patients and nurses. In Bergman, the dramas are between people: the mad, the dying, the religious, the agnostic, the despairing, the guilty, the desperate, the hopeful and so on. Von Trier’s infant-women, though they bring to mind the passionate childishness of Karin in Through a Glass Darkly or Eva in Autumn Sonata, are repeatedly savaged by brute male strength, by male access to the structures of power. Other characters try to help them – Jeff in Dancer in the Dark, Dr Richardson in Breaking the Waves – but these heroines submit to their suffering with masochistic determination.

The priestly tone of von Trier’s films – the notion that goodness can save the soul, though the body is besmirched – makes his characters seem like figures in a morality play. ‘I’m Catholic,’ he explains in Trier on von Trier, ‘I’ve felt a need for a sense of belonging to a community of faith, because my parents were committed atheists.’ The moral of Breaking the Waves derives, it is suggested, from the Gospel of St Luke: ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seats and exalted them of low degree.’ The effect is not so much avant-garde as reminiscent of the Pardoner, railing against sin while revelling in the details of his exposition. These women’s humiliations are dwelt on with a scrutiny so intense and unyielding that it invites the charge of voyeuristic fantasy. Von Trier blithely owned up to this charge in Manifesto 3: ‘So forget all the excuses: "childish fascination” and "all-encompassing humility", because this is my confession, in black and white: lars von trier, the true onanist of the silver screen.’ The madonna/whore was subject-matter for another self-defined avant-garde more than a century ago, in the lapsed Catholic aesthetic of Baudelaire and his fragile street whores, in Bel-Ami and his prostitutes and slack society ladies, in Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster-prints of painted stage girls.

When he arrives with his henchmen, the gangster supplies a surprise denouement. Grace is not the vulnerable and endangered woman Dogville has taken her for. There are a few baroque exchanges, which attempt to explain why she was hiding out there, but these fail entirely to clear things up. Grace experiences an epiphany: had she acted like the people of Dogville, the narrator reports, ‘she could not have defended a single one of her actions. No, what they had done was not good enough.’ Suddenly far sterner and more decisive, Grace decides that Dogville must be punished.

This is a clear attempt at a twist in the Goldheart tale, with Grace transformed into an agent of judgment. But there are other ways of looking at what she has become: she may simply have succumbed to the violence of the world around her, or she may have shifted religious archetypes, from madonna/whore to avenging angel. Unlike Bess, she won’t be canonised, but she has punished the wicked, sending them a plague of bullets. Condemned by some critics at Cannes for ‘anti-Americanism’, the morality-play machinery of the plot makes Dogville only very tenuously about America, much less so than Dancer in the Dark, with its critique of capital punishment. Dogville is less interested in the prevalence of sexual violence in hypocritical small towns in America than in its globalisation. Sailors off the coast of Scotland and the men of Dogville, USA will rape a woman with equal alacrity. It matters little whether Grace is virtually imbecilic or an expert on the Stoics: they’ll keep on having her all the same. And the more disturbing implication is that they’ll have her so long as multiple rapes get von Trier’s films noticed. On the Dogville website, von Trier describes his work as ‘ranging from the avant-garde to reinterpretations of classical genres’. By the end of Dogville, this remark seems either a failure in self-knowledge or deliberate packaging, the clever creation of a brand. Though von Trier speaks in a broadly anti-American dialect in Trier on von Trier, in Dogville he is compliant with the cultural mores of Hollywood – the broad-brush morality of sin and punishment, the pornographically explicit representation of sex and violence. The most provocative element of his film is its misbranding as ‘avant-garde’ cinema.