A rock in the shoe: my love-hate relationship with Lars Von Trier, Pt. 1
I had long been considering writing a piece about Danish director, Lars Von Trier, but had never really gotten around to it. Then, at the Cannes film festival press conference for his latest film, Melancholia, Von Trier declared himself to be a “Nazi” and “sympathetic to Hitler.” Well, all right. I suppose that now is as good a time as any.
If it is even possible I’d like to take a step back from that bit of business for the moment (we’ll swing back around) and discuss the reasons that I am often at odds with myself when it comes to the man and his work. I am not terribly fond of Von Trier, but his films tend to be another story. There is no need to choose between discussing either individually as I believe Von Trier and his films are nearly inseparable. So you see: at odds. At the time of this writing I have seen exactly seven of Von Trier’s films. Of the seven I have loved exactly two. I do not regret seeing the five that I did not care for and have plans to see more. Surely that says something of his work.
I was introduced to him through Breaking the Waves (1996), a film I stumbled upon in my film school days. It was a good place to start. Its story revolves around a simple girl in a small, Scottish town named Bess (a brilliant Emily Watson performance) who marries an oilman named Jan (Stellan Skarsgard). When Jan is called away to work on a rig for a time, Bess prays incessantly for his return. Her prayers are answered, though he returns paralyzed from the neck down due to an accident. The story takes an interesting turn when Jan, now bed ridden, asks his new wife to have sex with other men, then describe it to him. Jan’s motivations are little explored and, in fact, are almost inconsequential, as Breaking’s real story is Bess’s undying loyalty to him and the lengths she goes to prove it.
Unfamiliar with Lars Von Trier the man, at the time, I attributed Bess’s sweet, emotional rawness in equal parts to both Watson and Von Trier. Having now seen more of both the man and his work, I am forced to imagine that most of that is coming from Watson.
Dancer in the Dark (2000) came next for me and solidified my opinion that this Von Trier guy definitely had something figured out. It contains much of the same emotional rawness of Breaking, this time anchored by Icelandic pop star, Bjork. The film revolves around a Czech immigrant (Bjork) living and working in America. Having discovered that her son carries the very same degenerative genetic disease that is slowly stealing her eye sight, she squirrels away what little money she can from her factory job in order to pay for the surgery that will save his vision. She uses her love of musicals to occasionally escape her grim reality and Von Trier uses the music of Bjork to fuel those scenes.
Two films in, I began to see familiar themes. It was clear that Von Trier was interested in the female perspective, but it also became clear that his own perspective was quite bleak. His actresses were adding the heart that he could not. Perhaps that’s why he uses so many female leads. I soon read that Bjork’s experience on set with Lars was so trying that she vowed never to make another film. Period.
I began to research. I discovered that he had begun an avant-garde film movement called “Dogme 95” along with fellow Danish director, Thomas Vinterberg. The movement demanded that films be made in strict adherence to a “vow of chastity,” a set of restrictive rules the two men created. Amongst other things, it requires the filmmaker to use only available lighting, on location music and sound, and hand-held cameras.
I read interviews. I learned that Von Trier is afraid. The man himself has stated that he is “afraid of everything in life except filmmaking.” His intense fear of flying has kept him from ever shooting a film outside of Denmark or Sweden, regardless of the story’s setting. He insisted upon driving to France for the festival where he called himself a Nazi. It seems like he could have embarrassed himself more conveniently during a phone interview. Von Trier also suffers from occasional crippling depression, which renders him unable to work. Ladies, get in line.
I soon learned that his next films were to be shot solely on a soundstage with stage lighting only. There would be props, but no real set pieces. The towns in which these films would take place would be drawn out in chalk on the stage floor and they would be shot on digital video. Needless to say, my interest was piqued. Unfortunately, these two films, Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005), are largely responsible for my disdain for Von Trier, later solidified by The Five Obstructions (2003). More on that to come.
Dogville and Manderlay are companion pieces, both set in the U.S. and containing the same protagonist, a woman named Grace. Grace is portrayed by Nicole Kidman in Dogville and by Bryce Dallas Howard in Manderlay. I’ve have read that Kidman refused to return for the second film, as did James Caan, who plays her father.
Grace’s story, as begun in Dogville, is one of suffering. On the run from her gangster father, Grace stumbles upon the mountain town of Dogville. She is greeted with apprehension, but soon the townsfolk warm to her as she begins performing small tasks for them to win their acceptance. As time passes some of Grace’s legal troubles are revealed and the police pay the town a visit. Things begin to grow darker. It’s not long before the residents are exploiting Grace’s situation, giving her an impossible amount of tasks to perform or run the risk of being turned in to the police. The town’s men begin raping her daily. A heavy, iron wheel is chained to a collar around her neck, which she drags around for a good deal of the films later half. It is not surprising that Kidman opted out of Manderlay, no?
Bryce Dallas Howard takes the reins in that film (although, luckily avoids the collar), which sees Grace attempting to rid the town of Manderlay of slavery, which has been the status quo for them even after the abolition. It is the better of the two films, having a more coherent point and less rape (that I can recall, at least); but its ending, along with Dogville as a whole, still left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Von Trier’s largely negative view of America was palpable, but that wasn’t the rub. Our country is not above criticism, after all. There was just something about the spirit of the films that got to me.
I realized that it was the venom behind all of it. The downright mean-spirited vibe these films had. It is not so much that terrible things happen to Grace, because terrible things do happen, it is that we are bludgeoned with them. It is as though Von Trier is forcing his internal torments upon us. It does not feel like a shared experience so much as a narcissistic exorcism of inner demons.
Von Trier has said that a film should be like “a rock in the shoe.” There is no point unless there is pain. In a behind-the-scenes confessional from the shooting of Dogville (2003), actor Stellan Skarsgard describes Von Trier as a “hyper intelligent child who is slightly disturbed, playing with dolls in a doll house, cutting off their heads with nail clippers.” Von Trier himself said he believed that the cast was conspiring against him. But the very thing I was growing to hate about him kept me coming back for more.