“How do you solve a problem like von Trier?”
The question was posed by the late Irish Times critic Michael Dwyer, after seeing Lars von Trier’s disturbing 2000 film Dancer in the Dark. But it became even more relevant this past May, when the Danish director was banned from Cannes after a press conference during which he made jesting remarks about Jews and Nazis (“Okay, I’m a Nazi”).
He publicly apologized that day, but he later told GQ he shouldn’t have to apologize for joking. In October, after a discussion with Danish police over the remarks in Cannes, he announced he would never speak to the media again.
Von Trier, whose new film, Melancholia, is part of a six-film retrospective at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, is not just a divisive figure but a divided one. He’s sarcastic and sentimental, calculated and slapdash, mocking and mawkish. Thomas Vinterberg ( Celebration), von Trier’s co-conspirator in his Dogme 95 film manifesto calling for a new, pure cinema, described Von Trier as a “thick sentimentalist” but also a director with a “strong formalist, almost mathematical, concept in his films. …
“His films are often literally above the characters, seeing them as chess pieces.”
Though he had made three previous technique-drenched features and some fascinating television work ( The Kingdom, Medea), von Trier’s grand opus was Breaking the Waves, the 1996 film that marked a change to a more direct, emotional style. It stars Emily Watson as a simple-minded young Scottish woman who believes that God talks to her, and is instructed by her paralyzed husband (Stellan Skarsgard) to have degrading sex with oil tanker workers, until it kills her.
After the first Cannes screening, Jane Maslin of The New York Times comforted a distraught Georgia Brown of The Village Voice in the women’s washroom. Yet the film also was, as Vinterberg noted, almost a soap opera. The late English actress, Katrin Cartlidge, who also starred in Breaking the Waves, spoke of von Trier as a gifted child, who wept each time he watched one of his favourite films, Bambi.
Part of the juvenile streak in von Trier is his reckless desire to provoke. In 1991, when a Cannes jury led by Roman Polanski awarded Europa a lesser award than the Palme d’Or, he thanked “the midget and the rest of the jury.”
He did win the top prize in 2000 for Dancer in the Dark, featuring Icelandic pop singer Bjork as a pathetic Eastern European immigrant who ends up on death row, mewling My Favorite Things. It was grotesque, overwhelming and unlike any other film. When he accepted the Palme d’Or, von Trier expressed satisfaction that some people still hated Dancer.
At another controversial press conference in Cannes, for 2003’s Dogville, he was questioned about his proclivity for showing women “in positions of torture, death and humiliation.” His flippant response: “I don't think it's as exciting when men are tortured but maybe that's a personal thing."
After the Hitler remark at this year’s festival, Peter Aalbaek Jensen, von Trier’s long-time producer, said the director suffers from a “light Tourette’s Syndrome. When there is something he is not supposed to say, it seems to drive him to say it.”
Von Trier has been forthright about his emotional issues, which he once described as “a fear of everything in life, except filmmaking.” Both Melancholia, which imagines the end of world, and his previous marriage-gone-bad horror film, Antichrist, were inspired by his therapy for depression.
He describes himself as a casualty of enlightened Scandinavian parenting, raised by commune-dwelling socialist nudists, who had no rules, but also “no feelings, religion, or enjoyment.” Some of this year’s comments in Cannes were a reference to his mother’s deathbed confession that his biological father was a German, not the Jewish man who raised him.
His parents did, however, provide him with a film camera at the age of 11 and he seems to have been performing therapy with it ever since. “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom,” wrote von Trier’s philosopher countryman, Soren Kierkegaard, and the struggle between freedom and order is everywhere in Von Trier’s work, filled with blueprints, lists, and arbitrary instructions, including the Dogme Manifesto.
Though neither subtle nor wise, von Trier is prolific and inventive in creating his allegories of suffering and transformation. How do you solve a problem like von Trier? That’s the question he’s struggling to work out for himself, in films that can be, even within a single scene, both exasperating and exhilarating.
Lars von Trier: Waiting for the End of the World continues until Nov. 19 at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. For more information and tickets, go to tiff.net or call 416-599-TIFF or 1-888-599-8433.