Danish director and one of the people behind the Dogme 95 movement (a more "natural" form of filmmaking with only natural sounds, lighting, hand-held cameras, etc.). My favorite foreign director.
The Element of Crime (1984) -- Technically great with its dreamlike imagery, slow dissolves, hypnotic narrative (literally and figuratively), and sepia tones--but the movie is actually quite boring. The story is one of those detective on the trail of systematic serial killers by getting in their heads movies, which was even a cliché in 1984. The whole thing's a little bit of a joke, but that makes the movie suffer rather than improves it. (Really the best thing about the movie is that he gets to make fun of it in Epidemic.) You can tell why Von Trier eventually rejected all these movie conventions and eventually made more naturalistic movies filled to the brim with sincerity.
Epidemic (1987) -- Unclassifiable and very cool. Most of this movie, the part shot in 16 mm, is a half real / half scripted (even then, loosely) documentary of the making of the movie Epidemic itself, showing Lars Von Trier and Niels Vørsel discussing how the movie will work and what its plot will be (one scene showing them working with a plotline on the wall, something Von Trier does for most of his other movies). The movie occasionally cuts to the 35 mm "fictional" movie they are writing, a parable about how religion is like an epidemic. Meanwhile Lars and Niels are filming things tangential to the story such as a visit with Udo Kier and a funny bit about an American pen pal of Niels. During most of the movie, Lars and Niels are snickering, and you can tell that the actual Lars and Niels are snickering as well when the cameras are off; sometimes this comes off as young guy snarkiness (not in a way that makes you dislike them) and sometimes it makes you realize that they're laughing at how they're not taking movies "seriously," which of course is a good thing. You take movies too seriously and you get stuff like The Element of Crime which they somewhat parody in this film by making references to an inferior 200 page script they had worked on (and lost in a computer accident before completing the 12 page script for Epidemic) called The Policeman and the Whore ("It had some good moments." "Name one."). A running "joke" throughout the movie is the fact that the word EPIDEMIC © is written in red letters in the top left corner of the screen throughout the entire movie. The end of the film is the big payoff, where magically all of these disparate elements connect--in a hypnotism scene where a woman is actually hypnotized, and it's one of the most harrowing scenes of any movie. It takes a while to sink into this weird world, but it's one of the many fantastic and brand new ones that Lars Von Trier has created.
Medea (1987) -- Based on the Greek play, this version is all dreamy, misty, and swampy.
Europa (1991) -- This is known as Zentropa in America (so as not to be confused with Europa, Europa). Von Trier returns to the cool-looking cinematography of The Element of Crime, this time using harsh black and white, dashes of color, and dozens of other background effects. It's a little masterpiece in its own way, even if the message is more simple and straightforward than those that would appear in later movies. This movie features Ernst-Hugo Järegård, who was even more brilliant in Von Trier's next project, The Kingdom.
The Kingdom (1994-1997) -- Known as Riget in its original language, this is two seasons (four episodes apiece) of TV series that is the best Twin Peaks inspired thing ever. Very funny, very spooky, and very smart. Unfortunately, the third and would-be final season was never shot due to lack of public interest.
Breaking the Waves (1996) -- Lars Von Trier's first movie after announcing the Dogme 1995 movement, and it really works for him (not that this is strict Dogme, but the point of the movement wasn't so much to be rigid with new "rules" as it was to reject things that had not been working). Emily Watson and her enormous eyes make you fall in love with her in her film debut. The 70s rock music chapter headings with animated photographs are beautiful. The story itself is new and provocative in a way that seems unique to Von Trier, and it begins a series of movies that demonstrate how effortlessly brilliant he is. In spite of what seems a bleak movie, it is actually a very happy one, a celebration of goodness in spite of its stupidity.
The Idiots (1998) -- The first of Lars Von Trier's "Dogma 95" movies (and the second of those kind of movies), it is shot and edited in an even more rough way than Breaking the Waves was. The idea of commune-like society-haters "spazzing" out like retarded people almost seems like a throwaway idea for Von Trier, but one that would never get made in our country, unfortunately (indeed, they censor a few scenes in American releases). There are at least one or two scenes near the end of the movie that are hugely emotional.
Dancer in the Dark (2000) -- A hard film to watch, at first because you know something bad is going to happen, and then because nothing except bad continues happening. Bjork is a good new Emily Watson, a slightly-insane woman who's so cute that everyone tries to take care of her (except those who try to hurt her), and her crazy Bjork voice and industrial music works great with the musical visions she has, as if she's someone having a 00s musical in her head in the middle of the 60s, showing that she's somewhat of an ahead-of-her-time idiot savant. Very good stuff.
Dogville (2003) -- A mix of nineteenth century novel, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, some Peckinpah, and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, all with the Lars Von Trier touch. A three hour long movie that doesn't feel like it (each hour is a story unto itself). Exceptional acting and one of my favorite endings of any movie. Thoughtful and thought-provoking. (See below for the sequel, Dogville.)
The Five Obstructions (2003) -- Directed with Jørgen Leth. A movie about two extremely talented and intelligent filmmakers who respect each other's work but who have very different approaches. Where Von Trier is more messy and internal, Leth is perfect and distanced. Though Von Trier respects Leth, he finds this lack of affect a problem and wants to help him with a kind of "therapy" in which Von Trier asks Leth to remake his 1967 short film "The Perfect Human" five different times, each time giving him "obstructions" in order to make the movies potentially more crappy. Leth, however, thrives on these limitations and treats them instead as gifts that work in his favor. (Not to give anything away.) The movie is one of a kind in that it is sort of a documentary, sort of a short movie collection, and definitely tells a certain kind of story.
Manderlay (2005) -- The only thing that softens the blow of this one is having Dogville prepare you for it. Not as many twists, but just as daring, and the best movie I've ever seen about race in America, not to mention imposed democracy, white power in general, etc. Bryce Dallas Howard, I suppose, is no Nicole Kidman, but I like her a lot and she does a great job here, as does Willem Dafoe who probably betters the James Caan role of her father. The repeat performances of other actors from Dogville, here mostly playing different roles, was also a good idea. I almost wouldn't mind if every other movie by Lars Von Trier was one of these "town" movies. (See above for the predecessor, Dogville.)
The Boss of It All (2006) -- A Lars Von Trier comedy, but only "light" in comparison to his other movies. Actually, this one is just as thought-provoking, with ideas (among others) about evil "the powers that be" not actually existing (instead, the person in power is often the nice guy you see every day), not to mention the crazy way that the comedy was directed with almost-random camera angles and edits that lack continuity in the usual sense of the word. And funny, of course--which Lars Von Trier has always been anyway.
Copyright (c) Jun 2004 - Oct 2007 by Rusty Likes Movies