Lars von Trier

31/01/2014

Questioning the Imagery

Can a filmmaker demand to be taken seriously if much of his work indicates the facetious, and if the consistency of vision gets sacrificed to the abrupt parti pris? Lars von Trier is a Danish director who makes films that often insist on the seriousness of subject matter contained by the self-reflexive humorousness of intent, and moves from films that indicate the importance of formalist preoccupation to those of realist purpose. Many other great millennial directors like Michael Haneke, Bela Tarr, The Dardennes and Hou Hsiao-hsien suggest a body of work that is all of a piece, despite ruptures which show occasionally  fracturing in auteurist ambition. Haneke started in television before constantly critiquing the medium through film; Bela Tarr’s early films appeared to have been playing with form before finding a very deliberate one with Damnation in 1988. The Dardennes rejected their first two features as not quite their own and started again with La Promesse, while Hou’s very first films fit in more clearly with Taiwanese preoccupation as semi-commercial endeavour, where the films from the mid-to-late eighties onwards show a filmmaker with a certain style.

However, von Trier moves from the formalist preoccupation of The Element of Crime and Europa where the actors are dictatorially positioned within the frame, to the thespian freedom of The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark where the camera sacrifices light and shade to bodily movement within the image. Then he makes Dogville and Manderlay, films that are both apparently realistic in their freedom from the point of view of the actor, but oppressively formalist from the audience’s position. Both films are set on a sound stage, and invoke the US that they are set in by markings on the floor and the odd stray prop, like a door or a set of curtains. So threadbare is the set design that von Trier has talked in interviews about one of his leading actors in Dogville, Paul Bettany, getting mad when people wouldn’t respect the suspension of disbelief that wasn’t only on the audience’s part but the actor’s also: Bettany would angrily tell the person they had just walked through a wall. Von Trier reckoned he himself should perhaps have been a little more intolerant of such misdemeanours, but it is as though the fixed idea von Trier possessed for the format was only as fixed as the actors required.  What counts for von Trier is the conceit in the concept as much as the execution: his post Europa work often seems to want to incorporate the possibility of error. In The Idiots, when two of the characters start making love, a shirt that has been removed is a shot or two later back on. This approach to continuity isn’t quite as exceptional as we might think. In a recent interview with Martin Scorsese’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, she talks of Scorsese’s interest in improvisation, saying “things don’t necessarily match, but we didn’t care about that.” (Sight and Sound)  Von Trier, though, often wants to play up the amateurish within the professional. In TheIdiots we get to see boom mikes and cameras reflected in car windows. In Dancer in theDark, Bjork’s line deliveries are flat and uninflected, as though she is offering an initial run through.

This is the influence of Brecht, but not as a conscious mentor; more as subconscious presence. “I experienced Brecht’s dramas at a fairly young age and have never returned to him or his work. They exist in my memory mostly as feelings and atmospheres.” (Trier on Von Trier) However, where Brecht wanted the audience distanciated all the better to comprehend their own social place within the drama, von Trier appears more interested in playing up our inability to locate the message and meaning within the film. Brecht could insist that “the worst illiterate is the politically illiterate”, and according to Martin Esslin inA Choice of Evils when Brecht was working in Hollywood he believed that The ThreepennyOpera failed as a vehicle for Left-wing propaganda, and went on to produce Kuhle Wampa“with the help of various communist organizations”. But would von Trier claim the worst illiterate is the cinematically illiterate, someone who takes the clichés of form and feeling for granted? When he says “…I’ve never had any ambitions towards political analysis or analysis of the concept and consequences of power – none at all” (Trier on von Trier), we can contrast it with his claim: “Let’s say I’ve taken the clichés and made them up to play against each other. I am twisting clichés, that’s what Manderlay is all about.” (FilmComment)

At the end credits of Dogville, von Trier offers numerous photographs of the US, mainly of poverty and destitution, while David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’ plays on the soundtrack. What are we to make of these unequivocally harsh images of a country von Trier has never entered, and how do they fit in with the film that we happen to have just seen?  Some might see that von Trier is making a political statement and commenting on the US power structure, with the film an examination of what happens when might is right and vengefulness central to a country’s consciousness. If small town America depicted isn’t the place of generosity, then how does that play out in the real world of the closing images? One shouldn’t underestimate the socio-political aspect of a Scandinavian filmmaker commenting on the small town values that when writ large result in mass impoverishment (aren’t Scandinavian welfare state principles more personally protective than the US’s greater reliance on the kindness of strangers?). But whatever political statement offered the film is contained by an aesthetic enquiry into the nature of the image. When von Trier admits he has never been to the States and probably never will go, he adds, “sometimes things can be even clearer when you’re farther away.” (Film Comment) He can work with the images most of us have of the US, without fretting too much about their relationship with his own perceptual reality of the country. Especially since he sees the real and the fictional as distinct things, no matter that he utilises photographs over the end of credits of Dogville and Manderlay. When asked about realism in cinema he reckoned, “no, that again is an illusion. But I believe in real life.” (Film CommentDancer in the DarkDogville and Manderlay are three films all set in the US, but filmed in Europe and concerned with the image structure of America more than any documentative fact.

To understand something of this approach to the image, we can look at von Trier’s films while keeping in mind a term Milan Kundera uses in The Curtain: an agelast. A neologism from Rabelais, Kundera describes it as a “term coined from the Greek to describe people who are incapable of laughter, who do not understand joking….there are people whose intelligence I admire, whose decency I respect, but with whom I feel ill at ease…they do not live at peace with the comical.” Kundera adds: “People who at the time cast ideological (theological) anathema upon Rabelais were driven to do so by something deeper than mere loyalty to an abstract dogma. What drove them was an aesthetic disaccord: a visceral disaccord with the non serious; anger at the scandal of the misplaced laugh.” To take these three American set films seriously is to miss the point. However, if we refuse to take seriously the seriousness that they are confronting, this would be to miss the point also. To be properly facetious is to take weighty things lightly, but if we are to assume the weighty things are of no consequence in the first instance, then the scandal of taking them lightly is missed. Von Trier’s subjects are not at all light: execution, revenge, slavery. They demand to be taken seriously as subjects (as ‘real life’, as von Trier would say), but perhaps not as cinematic images. Yet this is not the same thing as saying that we shouldn’t take the subjects seriously. One feels much of von Trier’s work resides in a proper twisting of clichés, as he says, through taking a serious subject, demanding a self-reflexive and often humorous approach to the image containing the subject, and then finding out of the subject the seriousness that looks as if it has been extricated but in fact merely lies dormant. How many films make us feel politically correct and socially right-on without challenging our preconceptions? Thus, the comedic and the serious play against each other in many of von Trier’s films to create a proper sense of aesthetic ambivalence.

A good example of this challenge is The Idiots, described by A. O. Scott in the New YorkTimes as a film “ shot in smeary, hand-held digital video, [which] has nothing on its mind besides the squirming discomfort of its audience, the achievement of which it holds up as a brave political accomplishment”,  “and where  hovering at the margins, skeptical of the ethics of spassing but grateful for the sustaining community the idiots offer, is Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), who carries around a sense of hurt the source of which is only revealed in the movie’s last scene, during which the film descends to truly contemptible emotional brutality.” Scott’s piece is a text book case of the negative review as rather less complex in its emotional and ethical analysis than the film itself happens to be. Scott takes his own reaction as the film’s intention, an affective fallacy as moral self-aggrandizement. But if we accept that von Trier is wary of humourlessness he is equally suspicious of the ease of the image. When asked by Film Comment about the all-important question for von Trier of where to put the camera, the director replied: “Yes, absolutely. It’s constantly on my mind. Answers like: you have to see the face of the hero closer in that scene to see his reactions – that’s not good enough. The camera as the stand-in for the spectator? Doesn’t satisfy me. Why can’t the camera do a certain move? Because you get sick of seeing it? So? Those reasons are simply not enough.“ This type of image becomes so obvious that the director cannot countenance it any longer and so must find a way of transforming it and/or undermining it. Experimentation and humour are two modes of questioning in this context, and The Idiots offers both of them whilst still refusing to allow the humour to settle into its own set of assumptions, and for the experimental technique to take on its own cliché of authenticity. In the former case, half the comedic set pieces appear based on letting us to take for granted the odiousness of those who are victims of the able-bodied characters’ spassing activities, the other half we might feel are more worthy of our sympathies. When at the beginning of the film the waiter in the fancy restaurant comments sniffily on Karen’s order, we don’t yet know of the existence of the idiots and assume that a group of people in the restaurant have learning difficulties that leads to various acts of disruptive behaviour. However the upmarket nature of the restaurant and the uptightness of the waiter (“this won’t do”, he says, as the ‘idiots’ misbehave) means that even if we have no idea that these are able-bodied people pretending to have mental and physical health issues, anyone countering the priggishness of the waiter and the stuffiness of the customers is worthy of commendation. When, moments afterwards, as they bundle into a taxi (with the newcomer Karen) and discuss their antics, this doesn’t especially ask us to read the situation we have just witnessed differently .The waiter and the customers remain victims of a ruse we may feel they have deserved.

However, what about the manager in the insulation factory; their next victim? Does he not seem undeserving of the joke played at his expense as he shows the gang around, and where they mock his attempt at rudimentary learning before leaving the factory with one of the ‘spasses’ driving into a few crates of insulation? However, it isn’t that we should concern ourselves with those who are deserving or otherwise of their ruses; more what sort of responses can we detect in those who are their victims. These are limit situations designed not only to find victims, but also to find certain types of heroes, heroes very different from the hero von Trier invokes in the above remark in Film Comment. Surely it is more useful if we come away from the scene in the factory thinking not that the manager has been the victim of a practical joke, but that he has been the ‘hero’ of one. He acts with respect and consideration, without condescension or hypocrisy, and the shots to his concerned look as he sees the idiot driving off is one we might find hilarious but not at all at the manager’s expense. Who wouldn’t share his troubled expression as the van lurches forward and takes a clumsy turn?

In the first instance we have a scene where the victims fail to live up to the simple, heroic action of treating another as an equal within the problem presented, where in the latter we have a man who acts with humility in the face of an experience he doesn’t quite know what to do with.  It is this notion of a dormant humanity or its opposite that von Trier appears to want to access, and chiefly through the character of Karen. It is not until the very end of the film that one discovers Karen has become part of the group to escape a personal tragedy: she has just lost her baby daughter. At the conclusion, she goes back to her family with another member of the idiots and we’re made aware that she disappeared the day before her baby’s funeral. As the family sits down to eat, Karen proves that she can do what none of the other idiots could do and that is spass in front of her own family. The fellow idiot looks on, perhaps horrified by the manner in which the idiots have exacerbated a woman’s mental instability; perhaps strangely proud that Karen is living up to the idiot ideal. Karen is exposing her feelings and not hiding them, however unusual the manifestation happens to be.

One offers the latter reading cautiously but provocatively: that if the purpose behind the group has been to find a humanity that can incorporate all social situations, then this is surely about as human an occasion to offer it. We might be inclined to look back on the film and read The Idiots retrospectively through the pain that Karen feels which we may chiefly have taken to be empathic concern for others, and see that within it lay a horrible concern for her own fracturing self. Of the numerous examples where the idiots generate these ruses, how many contain the weight of pursuing humanity at its core, and how many appear to be bourgeois provocations that have little to do with the human and more to do with merely playing against convention? To what degree can we say that von Trier’s film is itself part of that provocation? Retrospectively, taking into account Karen’s loss, many of the scenes can seem frivolous: very funny but of little consequence, while others echo the loss that Karen feels, and where, again retrospectively, we will take those feelings to be the film’s focal point. It might be Stoffer (Jens Albinus) who is the important figure within the action as he’s the nephew looking after his uncle’s place where the group stay. He is also the most pro-active when it comes to generating the ruses, and the angriest when it comes to confronting bourgeois hypocrisy. Yet the film is also punctuated by interviews with the group after the gang has collapsed, and the name that keeps getting mentioned is Karen’s. One gets a sense of portent through the interviews that is often missing from the antics, but seems nevertheless to cast a shadow on events without quite explicating them.

Yet of course The Idiots is a sort of ruse of its own: a film made under the rubric of Dogme 95, with its ten rules towards a less contrived approach to filmmaking, or perhaps a means by which to set up its own set of contrivances. In one of the film’s more serious scenes the father of one of the girls turns up, determined to take her away and horrified that she hasn’t been taking her medication: he believes her to be seriously ill, and none of the idiots seem to quite know her medical history. The character has in his pocket the newspaper Politiken. Some critics believed von Trier was allowing us to make a judgement about the character through the newspaper, but von Trier claimed the actor Anders Hove turned up with it on set. “Not as part of the character, but because he had been reading it on his way to the shoot”(Trier on Von Trier) , and the director thought it would be contradicting the rules if he asked him to leave it off camera. One of the rules is that no props be brought onto the set, but equally would it be aesthetically dishonest to ask him to remove the paper that he had with him? Within von Trier’s fixed idea, perhaps, even though the director couldn’t pretend that the liberal journal that refers to itself as Denmark’s international newspaper wouldn’t go entirely unnoticed. It is as though the rules are set up to generate freedoms elsewhere, so it makes sense that von Trier would be laid back about errors in his films and a semiotic freedom in the images created. Indeed how are we to take this man, with a liberal newspaper in his pocket, a casual tee-shirt worn with a crumpled sports jacket, and sun glasses that simultaneously indicate a cool-attitude containing an aloof, even slightly aggressive demeanour? Is he a voice of reason or a parental evil; obnoxious in the situation, or dealing as best he can with an obnoxious scenario?

Von Trier’s purpose is surely to complicate the image, to take the clichés and twist them around enough so that they lose their ‘dogmatic’ dimension and assume a new configuration. For all the digital truth he may find in the image, von Trier refuses to see the technique as worthy of more authenticity than an ostensibly more artificial approach to film. One can see how this approach to cliche works in Manderlay, and we can put von Trier’s remark about the question of form from Film Comment alongside director Steve McQueen’s statement about another film on the subject of slavery, 12 Years a Slave, where, according to Calum Marsh in his review of the film in Sight and Sound, McQueen insisted form must follow function. The problem with form following function however is that the image is often full of impurities that the director cannot see or do very much about because they are caught in the demands of the image structure. When McQueen offers his remark it is as if he is unaware of the difference between an ‘Institutional Mode of Representation’ (to use Noel Burch’s phrase) and the struggles with escaping from it that have been of importance to numerous filmmakers; filmmakers who have refused to take the image for granted. McQueen’s film might be keen to show up the power structures of the white man oppressing the black, but it falls into a cinematic power structure of its own. The Hans Zimmer soundtrack, the reaction shots of a torn conscience, the mournful and symbolic close-ups of soap and welts, the ironic rising shot showing Capitol Hill near where the central character has been incarcerated before getting sold off as a slave, all fitting neatly into a vocabulary of unquestioning imagery. Von Trier is instead interested in ‘questioning imagery’, in generating an image structure that keeps asking questions within questions by virtue of inverting McQueen’s assumption. It isn’t that von Trier is interested in form for form’s sake, but that he is well aware that the context exists through the form, and that if he takes the form for granted then he is in danger of taking the content for granted also. When he says “often it takes me a while to get into a new film, to find the right style and form for it” (Trier on von Trier), it is because he doesn’t want the film to take itself for granted, and allow the audience to take themselves for granted too.

In Manderlay both form and content are systematically confronted while at the same time von Trier creates a vicious narrative circle within which to contain the problem. Here we have once again a sound stage standing in for the location  (a plantation), as in Dogville, and a handheld aesthetic that lets the director get in close to his actors as if scrutinizing thespian behaviour as readily as filming a character playing a role. Von Trier might say that he sees his approach in Dogville and Manderlay resembling that of a child: “the idea was that the actors would perform in a very realistic way, even though the scenery and external set-up are far from realistic. They’re real in the same way that a child’s drawing is real. If you give a small child some crayons and ask him or her to draw a house, you’ll get a house made of a few simple lines. That’s how our scenery works.”  (Trier on Von Trier) But we might be more inclined to see that von Trier’s suspension of disbelief is ambiguously demanded, so that the film is constantly balancing the artificiality of the form with the viewer’s need to get into the story, and that his method with actors is central to this. In Movie Man David Thomson has talked of the actor in an interesting way. “If a film employs a person’s presence, appearance, voice, gestures and movements towards a statement of personality or the condition of life, what right does the actor have to make his own contribution to the events that are being used to make a conclusive statement about him? In other words, the cinema has brought the epistemological condition of the actor forward into the universal consciousness.” Now, if one gives to the actor as many elements of make-believe as possible, then the performance can hide beyond the numerous props available to the part. But if you remove most of the props it is as if you have an actor in rehearsal, and we might think of all those screen tests that we assume reveal rather more of the actor’s personality than the display found in the film itself. What we then have in a film like Dogville or Manderlay is at one and the same time the actor more nakedly revealing themselves through the character, and the audience overcompensating for the lack of verisimilitude by extending their suspension of disbelief. In this sense it is as if both actor and viewer are like the child turning a series of chairs into railway carriages, or sticks and stones into a grocery store.

But we have also talked about the vicious circle in Manderlay, with von Trier offering a story of young Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) arriving on the plantation and freeing the slaves, but by the end of the film realizing that one of the slaves was in league with the plantation owner to keep the blacks in a state of slavery. This was because it was the best option for the black person given the circumstances, assuming that possessing their freedom they wouldn’t know what to do with it and end up in a far worse condition than they were in as slaves. Equally just as Grace arrives and stops someone getting a whipping, so at the end of the film she is the one caught in a position where she has to whip the very man she originally rescued from punishment.  Can we take the film’s ideological position seriously, no matter the circular logic von Trier displays? Set in the 1930s, seventy years after the abolition of slavery, von Trier’s film may seem ever the more unlikely because of the rigour of its reasoning: as if it were a theorem being worked through rather than a dramatic realization. While McQueen says of his use of location, “the heat was the thing…the first day we were there it was 108 degrees” (Sight and Sound), von Trier could adjust the heat according to a studio thermostat. While McQueen is the black man indicating the horrors of slavery and offering a film demanding the obvious and continued emancipation of the blacks, von Trier makes a film wondering whether in certain circumstances it is better if a black man remains a slave rather than ineptly free and generates a tight form of reasoning to justify the absurdity of his claim.  Von Trier’s film is clearly a certain type of provocation, but we cannot sink into it dramatically or ethically. For all McQueen’s extreme imagery (Armond White called it torture porn in CityArts), the film troubles us little in message or method. Von Trier’s film surely does.

Yet Von Trier isn’t a filmmaker who demands aesthetic distance no matter the many and myriad methods he uses to generate it, a number of which we have already covered, but others are worth mentioning too. Many of his films for example utilize what we might claim punctuating devices: the interviews in The Idiots, the chapter headings in Dogvilleand Manderlay, the chapter headings with musical interludes in Breaking the Waves, the two chapter format in Melancholia and the opening scenes that give away the ending. Then there are the continuity errors in The Idiots as mentioned, but more deliberately deployed in The Boss of it All as the clocks in the background are never telling the right time, and where the clandestine appointments’ locations  (a la All the President’s Men and the conspiracy thriller) become ever more absurd and amusing. Then are the desaturated colours in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark interspersed with the saturated chapter breaks in Breaking the Waves, the saturated musical numbers in Dancer in theDark. But von Trier does not at all want to remove affectivity even if he tries hard to undermine the ease with which most filmmakers seek it. What he needs to do however is take apart the clichés and the ideological assumptions that cling to them and see what is left, aware that since all that glistens is not gold, how can one find more than cheap metal? It is as though if he has managed to make the viewer weep at the end of Breaking theWavesThe Idiots and Dancer in the Dark,  respond with horror at the conclusions to Dogville and Melancholia, then he has arrived at proper feeling because he has twisted the cliché so completely that he has risked destroying feeling at all.

In Breaking the Waves the narrative hinges on an absurdity: that the central character Bess (Emily Watson) all but wishes for her new husband’s accident on an oil rig so that he’ll be forced to stay at home on Skye. When it happens and Jan (Stellan Skarsgaard) looks like he will lose the use of his legs and possibly his life she takes up casual sex with other men believing that this will save him. Near the end of the film the doubting doctor tells a tribunal that any mental disorder that could be thrown at Bess would be a less honest a description of her condition than that she was simply good. At the very end of the film when Bess dies after a particularly nasty encounter with men she has slept with, the now much better Jan and his work colleagues look up at the sky and see two bells chiming. While church elders in the strict religious community have indicated that Bess will burn in hell for her sins, von Trier proposes instead that she will be ringing out in heaven. The church might have no need for bells we have earlier been told, but it seems Bess does. The film is of course an absurdist melodrama, with the doctor at one moment announcing his love for his patient Bess, the accident that almost kills Jan on the rig happening moments after he saves his friend’s life, and the thugs on the boat near the end playing pretty close to plain evil. But the operative word here is absurd, and not in the derogatory sense. It is absurd more in the manner of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and his exploration of Abraham’s Story in Fear and Trembling. Why would Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac, Kierkegaard asks. “For God’s sake, and what is exactly the same, for his own. He does it for the sake of God because God demands this proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake in order to be able to produce the proof.”

Of course in von Trier’s film Bess does it for Jan’s sake, as much as for God’s, but while the church elders can only see a woman committing sins, Bess sees that God works in the most mysterious of ways and that the greater the infidelities the greater the chance of returning Jan to well-being. “Not one of you has the right to consign Bess to hell”, her friend says as the church elders bury what they think is her corpse but is instead a coffin full of sand. (Jan and his friends will bury Bess at sea.) If many are moved by Bess’s sea burial then the film has achieved affectivity without assuming it. It has perhaps instead done the opposite: it has generated a properly absurd narrative to test our capacity for new feeling.

Thus von Trier explores this problem of emotion through a faith in ‘God’, though a God we can nevertheless put in inverted commas. We can take Bess’s loss seriously without taking the God she believes in seriously as well. When von Trier talks about his conversion to Catholicism, he says, “of course the need was there. And I’ve always had a longing to submit to external authority. But at the time it’s been difficult because my upbringing was based upon the idea of not setting my faith in these authorities. Thanks to my upbringing I appreciate the importance of religious freedom.” (Trier on Von Trier) But he explores it in Breaking the Waves also as an aesthetic question: the absurdity of religious choice suggested by religious thinkers like Kierkegaard surely resembles the absurdity of aesthetic choice available to von Trier. How to believe in cinema without believing in the institutional mode of representation that props up many of its productions? The answer might be that such an approach isn’t paradoxical but rhetorical: how can one believe in film other than by constantly looking for ways in which to renew and replenish the image? As von Trier and his co-signatory Thomas Vinterberg say in ‘Manifesto-Dogme 95’: “In 1960 enough was enough. The movie had been cosmeticized to death, they said; yet since then the use of cosmetics has exploded. The ‘supreme’ task of the decadent film-maker is to fool the audience. Is that what we are proud of? Is that what the ‘100 years’ of cinema have brought us? Illusions via which emotions can be communicated?” Absurd choice cinematically is better than no choice at all; better to risk humility and scorn than predictability and ready manipulation.

While we initially proposed that von Trier might be seen as a less serious filmmaker than others of the millennial generation through his inability or refusal to arrive at a fixed aesthetic form within which to work, it would be more justifiable to see in von Trier a director whose very aesthetic integrity resides in constantly renewing himself through asking questions of the form, and appealing to his own preoccupations, whether theological, psychological or ethical. Sometimes these three preoccupations are interlinked, but often one is more prominent than the others. “Bess is also an expression of that religion,” von Trier says of Breaking the Waves.” “Religion is her foundation, and she accepts the conditions without question,” (Trier on von Trier). Of Dogville the director says it was more political. “Do you know the child’s game where you have to adopt a point of view and argue purely from that opinion? It was a good game, and it was best when you had to argue in support of a view completely opposed to what you yourself thought. Arguing for inappropriate and wrong points of view.” (Trier von Trier).   At the time of the release of Antichrist in 2009, Von Trier spoke about how he made the film during a depression. “The idea is that you have given up. You lie there, face a wall and cry. They ask what you hate the least, then I say a computer game I played years ago. “Okay,” they say. “So that will be your treatment, three times a day for five minutes.” That’s how you start. Then there are medications, of course. It’s about trying to put your life back together.” (Time Out) When Von trier insists that his recent work has been more content based we might be inclined to think it is just more personally preoccupied, and that there is in von Trier’s world no clear line between personal impulse and aesthetic instinct. As Sean O’Hagan notes during an interview with the director. “As he talks, von Trier shakes off his shoes, lies down on the couch and closes his eyes. I sit quietly and take notes. It all feels very strange: the interview as therapy session.” (The Observer)

Von Trier may have said of Dancer in the Dark: I was trying to give it the same freshness that I think the Dogme films have, or Breaking the Waves, for that matter. But I prefer not to start with a form or style anymore. I’d rather start with the content of the story.”(Trieron von Trier) However, maybe form and content are irrelevant terms next to the director’s will to expression, a need to make films that cannot countenance the givens of rules next to the need to create. Von Trier could be seen as one of the more troubling of the great auteurs at the beginning of the 21st century because he lacks the ready and obvious convictions in form or content of Haneke, Sokurov or Tarr, but this would to view integrity too narrowly. Von Trier remains one of the most searching of contemporary filmmakers, with an ongoing need to question, even undermine that forcefulness without quite destroying the sense of ongoing enquiry. “So what can we say about sacrifice? I can’t stop myself thinking at least ten times a day about how pointless life is. You make your entrance, then bow and disappear again. And I suppose you also have time to get a bit of food inside you while you’re here. But someone who sacrifices himself or herself is at least giving their existence some sort of meaning.” (Trier on von Trier) It is this combination of utter seriousness and casual facetiousness, about the potential pointlessness of existence that still requires getting a bit of food inside us, which captures well the tone of von Trier’s work.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Lars von Trier

Questioning the Imagery

Can a filmmaker demand to be taken seriously if much of his work indicates the facetious, and if the consistency of vision gets sacrificed to the abrupt parti pris? Lars von Trier is a Danish director who makes films that often insist on the seriousness of subject matter contained by the self-reflexive humorousness of intent, and moves from films that indicate the importance of formalist preoccupation to those of realist purpose. Many other great millennial directors like Michael Haneke, Bela Tarr, The Dardennes and Hou Hsiao-hsien suggest a body of work that is all of a piece, despite ruptures which show occasionally fracturing in auteurist ambition. Haneke started in television before constantly critiquing the medium through film; Bela Tarr's early films appeared to have been playing with form before finding a very deliberate one with Damnation in 1988. The Dardennes rejected their first two features as not quite their own and started again with La Promesse, while Hou's very first films fit in more clearly with Taiwanese preoccupation as semi-commercial endeavour, where the films from the mid-to-late eighties onwards show a filmmaker with a certain style.

However, von Trier moves from the formalist preoccupation of The Element of Crime and Europa where the actors are dictatorially positioned within the frame, to the thespian freedom of The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark where the camera sacrifices light and shade to bodily movement within the image. Then he makes Dogville and Manderlay, films that are both apparently realistic in their freedom from the point of view of the actor, but oppressively formalist from the audience's position. Both films are set on a sound stage, and invoke the US that they are set in by markings on the floor and the odd stray prop, like a door or a set of curtains. So threadbare is the set design that von Trier has talked in interviews about one of his leading actors in Dogville, Paul Bettany, getting mad when people wouldn't respect the suspension of disbelief that wasn't only on the audience's part but the actor's also: Bettany would angrily tell the person they had just walked through a wall. Von Trier reckoned he himself should perhaps have been a little more intolerant of such misdemeanours, but it is as though the fixed idea von Trier possessed for the format was only as fixed as the actors required. What counts for von Trier is the conceit in the concept as much as the execution: his post Europa work often seems to want to incorporate the possibility of error. In The Idiots, when two of the characters start making love, a shirt that has been removed is a shot or two later back on. This approach to continuity isn't quite as exceptional as we might think. In a recent interview with Martin Scorsese's editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, she talks of Scorsese's interest in improvisation, saying "things don't necessarily match, but we didn't care about that." (Sight and Sound) Von Trier, though, often wants to play up the amateurish within the professional. In TheIdiots we get to see boom mikes and cameras reflected in car windows. In Dancer in theDark, Bjork's line deliveries are flat and uninflected, as though she is offering an initial run through.

This is the influence of Brecht, but not as a conscious mentor; more as subconscious presence. "I experienced Brecht's dramas at a fairly young age and have never returned to him or his work. They exist in my memory mostly as feelings and atmospheres." (Trier on Von Trier) However, where Brecht wanted the audience distanciated all the better to comprehend their own social place within the drama, von Trier appears more interested in playing up our inability to locate the message and meaning within the film. Brecht could insist that "the worst illiterate is the politically illiterate", and according to Martin Esslin inA Choice of Evils when Brecht was working in Hollywood he believed that The ThreepennyOpera failed as a vehicle for Left-wing propaganda, and went on to produce Kuhle Wampa"with the help of various communist organizations". But would von Trier claim the worst illiterate is the cinematically illiterate, someone who takes the clichs of form and feeling for granted? When he says "...I've never had any ambitions towards political analysis or analysis of the concept and consequences of power - none at all" (Trier on von Trier), we can contrast it with his claim: "Let's say I've taken the clichs and made them up to play against each other. I am twisting clichs, that's what Manderlay is all about." (FilmComment)

At the end credits of Dogville, von Trier offers numerous photographs of the US, mainly of poverty and destitution, while David Bowie's 'Young Americans' plays on the soundtrack. What are we to make of these unequivocally harsh images of a country von Trier has never entered, and how do they fit in with the film that we happen to have just seen? Some might see that von Trier is making a political statement and commenting on the US power structure, with the film an examination of what happens when might is right and vengefulness central to a country's consciousness. If small town America depicted isn't the place of generosity, then how does that play out in the real world of the closing images? One shouldn't underestimate the socio-political aspect of a Scandinavian filmmaker commenting on the small town values that when writ large result in mass impoverishment (aren't Scandinavian welfare state principles more personally protective than the US's greater reliance on the kindness of strangers?). But whatever political statement offered the film is contained by an aesthetic enquiry into the nature of the image. When von Trier admits he has never been to the States and probably never will go, he adds, "sometimes things can be even clearer when you're farther away." (Film Comment) He can work with the images most of us have of the US, without fretting too much about their relationship with his own perceptual reality of the country. Especially since he sees the real and the fictional as distinct things, no matter that he utilises photographs over the end of credits of Dogville and Manderlay. When asked about realism in cinema he reckoned, "no, that again is an illusion. But I believe in real life." (Film Comment) Dancer in the Dark, Dogville and Manderlay are three films all set in the US, but filmed in Europe and concerned with the image structure of America more than any documentative fact.

To understand something of this approach to the image, we can look at von Trier's films while keeping in mind a term Milan Kundera uses in The Curtain: an agelast. A neologism from Rabelais, Kundera describes it as a "term coined from the Greek to describe people who are incapable of laughter, who do not understand joking....there are people whose intelligence I admire, whose decency I respect, but with whom I feel ill at ease...they do not live at peace with the comical." Kundera adds: "People who at the time cast ideological (theological) anathema upon Rabelais were driven to do so by something deeper than mere loyalty to an abstract dogma. What drove them was an aesthetic disaccord: a visceral disaccord with the non serious; anger at the scandal of the misplaced laugh." To take these three American set films seriously is to miss the point. However, if we refuse to take seriously the seriousness that they are confronting, this would be to miss the point also. To be properly facetious is to take weighty things lightly, but if we are to assume the weighty things are of no consequence in the first instance, then the scandal of taking them lightly is missed. Von Trier's subjects are not at all light: execution, revenge, slavery. They demand to be taken seriously as subjects (as 'real life', as von Trier would say), but perhaps not as cinematic images. Yet this is not the same thing as saying that we shouldn't take the subjects seriously. One feels much of von Trier's work resides in a proper twisting of clichs, as he says, through taking a serious subject, demanding a self-reflexive and often humorous approach to the image containing the subject, and then finding out of the subject the seriousness that looks as if it has been extricated but in fact merely lies dormant. How many films make us feel politically correct and socially right-on without challenging our preconceptions? Thus, the comedic and the serious play against each other in many of von Trier's films to create a proper sense of aesthetic ambivalence.

A good example of this challenge is The Idiots, described by A. O. Scott in the New YorkTimes as a film " shot in smeary, hand-held digital video, [which] has nothing on its mind besides the squirming discomfort of its audience, the achievement of which it holds up as a brave political accomplishment", "and where hovering at the margins, skeptical of the ethics of spassing but grateful for the sustaining community the idiots offer, is Karen (Bodil Jorgensen), who carries around a sense of hurt the source of which is only revealed in the movie's last scene, during which the film descends to truly contemptible emotional brutality." Scott's piece is a text book case of the negative review as rather less complex in its emotional and ethical analysis than the film itself happens to be. Scott takes his own reaction as the film's intention, an affective fallacy as moral self-aggrandizement. But if we accept that von Trier is wary of humourlessness he is equally suspicious of the ease of the image. When asked by Film Comment about the all-important question for von Trier of where to put the camera, the director replied: "Yes, absolutely. It's constantly on my mind. Answers like: you have to see the face of the hero closer in that scene to see his reactions - that's not good enough. The camera as the stand-in for the spectator? Doesn't satisfy me. Why can't the camera do a certain move? Because you get sick of seeing it? So? Those reasons are simply not enough." This type of image becomes so obvious that the director cannot countenance it any longer and so must find a way of transforming it and/or undermining it. Experimentation and humour are two modes of questioning in this context, and The Idiots offers both of them whilst still refusing to allow the humour to settle into its own set of assumptions, and for the experimental technique to take on its own clich of authenticity. In the former case, half the comedic set pieces appear based on letting us to take for granted the odiousness of those who are victims of the able-bodied characters' spassing activities, the other half we might feel are more worthy of our sympathies. When at the beginning of the film the waiter in the fancy restaurant comments sniffily on Karen's order, we don't yet know of the existence of the idiots and assume that a group of people in the restaurant have learning difficulties that leads to various acts of disruptive behaviour. However the upmarket nature of the restaurant and the uptightness of the waiter ("this won't do", he says, as the 'idiots' misbehave) means that even if we have no idea that these are able-bodied people pretending to have mental and physical health issues, anyone countering the priggishness of the waiter and the stuffiness of the customers is worthy of commendation. When, moments afterwards, as they bundle into a taxi (with the newcomer Karen) and discuss their antics, this doesn't especially ask us to read the situation we have just witnessed differently .The waiter and the customers remain victims of a ruse we may feel they have deserved.

However, what about the manager in the insulation factory; their next victim? Does he not seem undeserving of the joke played at his expense as he shows the gang around, and where they mock his attempt at rudimentary learning before leaving the factory with one of the 'spasses' driving into a few crates of insulation? However, it isn't that we should concern ourselves with those who are deserving or otherwise of their ruses; more what sort of responses can we detect in those who are their victims. These are limit situations designed not only to find victims, but also to find certain types of heroes, heroes very different from the hero von Trier invokes in the above remark in Film Comment. Surely it is more useful if we come away from the scene in the factory thinking not that the manager has been the victim of a practical joke, but that he has been the 'hero' of one. He acts with respect and consideration, without condescension or hypocrisy, and the shots to his concerned look as he sees the idiot driving off is one we might find hilarious but not at all at the manager's expense. Who wouldn't share his troubled expression as the van lurches forward and takes a clumsy turn?

In the first instance we have a scene where the victims fail to live up to the simple, heroic action of treating another as an equal within the problem presented, where in the latter we have a man who acts with humility in the face of an experience he doesn't quite know what to do with. It is this notion of a dormant humanity or its opposite that von Trier appears to want to access, and chiefly through the character of Karen. It is not until the very end of the film that one discovers Karen has become part of the group to escape a personal tragedy: she has just lost her baby daughter. At the conclusion, she goes back to her family with another member of the idiots and we're made aware that she disappeared the day before her baby's funeral. As the family sits down to eat, Karen proves that she can do what none of the other idiots could do and that is spass in front of her own family. The fellow idiot looks on, perhaps horrified by the manner in which the idiots have exacerbated a woman's mental instability; perhaps strangely proud that Karen is living up to the idiot ideal. Karen is exposing her feelings and not hiding them, however unusual the manifestation happens to be.

One offers the latter reading cautiously but provocatively: that if the purpose behind the group has been to find a humanity that can incorporate all social situations, then this is surely about as human an occasion to offer it. We might be inclined to look back on the film and read The Idiots retrospectively through the pain that Karen feels which we may chiefly have taken to be empathic concern for others, and see that within it lay a horrible concern for her own fracturing self. Of the numerous examples where the idiots generate these ruses, how many contain the weight of pursuing humanity at its core, and how many appear to be bourgeois provocations that have little to do with the human and more to do with merely playing against convention? To what degree can we say that von Trier's film is itself part of that provocation? Retrospectively, taking into account Karen's loss, many of the scenes can seem frivolous: very funny but of little consequence, while others echo the loss that Karen feels, and where, again retrospectively, we will take those feelings to be the film's focal point. It might be Stoffer (Jens Albinus) who is the important figure within the action as he's the nephew looking after his uncle's place where the group stay. He is also the most pro-active when it comes to generating the ruses, and the angriest when it comes to confronting bourgeois hypocrisy. Yet the film is also punctuated by interviews with the group after the gang has collapsed, and the name that keeps getting mentioned is Karen's. One gets a sense of portent through the interviews that is often missing from the antics, but seems nevertheless to cast a shadow on events without quite explicating them.

Yet of course The Idiots is a sort of ruse of its own: a film made under the rubric of Dogme 95, with its ten rules towards a less contrived approach to filmmaking, or perhaps a means by which to set up its own set of contrivances. In one of the film's more serious scenes the father of one of the girls turns up, determined to take her away and horrified that she hasn't been taking her medication: he believes her to be seriously ill, and none of the idiots seem to quite know her medical history. The character has in his pocket the newspaper Politiken. Some critics believed von Trier was allowing us to make a judgement about the character through the newspaper, but von Trier claimed the actor Anders Hove turned up with it on set. "Not as part of the character, but because he had been reading it on his way to the shoot"(Trier on Von Trier) , and the director thought it would be contradicting the rules if he asked him to leave it off camera. One of the rules is that no props be brought onto the set, but equally would it be aesthetically dishonest to ask him to remove the paper that he had with him? Within von Trier's fixed idea, perhaps, even though the director couldn't pretend that the liberal journal that refers to itself as Denmark's international newspaper wouldn't go entirely unnoticed. It is as though the rules are set up to generate freedoms elsewhere, so it makes sense that von Trier would be laid back about errors in his films and a semiotic freedom in the images created. Indeed how are we to take this man, with a liberal newspaper in his pocket, a casual tee-shirt worn with a crumpled sports jacket, and sun glasses that simultaneously indicate a cool-attitude containing an aloof, even slightly aggressive demeanour? Is he a voice of reason or a parental evil; obnoxious in the situation, or dealing as best he can with an obnoxious scenario?

Von Trier's purpose is surely to complicate the image, to take the clichs and twist them around enough so that they lose their 'dogmatic' dimension and assume a new configuration. For all the digital truth he may find in the image, von Trier refuses to see the technique as worthy of more authenticity than an ostensibly more artificial approach to film. One can see how this approach to cliche works in Manderlay, and we can put von Trier's remark about the question of form from Film Comment alongside director Steve McQueen's statement about another film on the subject of slavery, 12 Years a Slave, where, according to Calum Marsh in his review of the film in Sight and Sound, McQueen insisted form must follow function. The problem with form following function however is that the image is often full of impurities that the director cannot see or do very much about because they are caught in the demands of the image structure. When McQueen offers his remark it is as if he is unaware of the difference between an 'Institutional Mode of Representation' (to use Noel Burch's phrase) and the struggles with escaping from it that have been of importance to numerous filmmakers; filmmakers who have refused to take the image for granted. McQueen's film might be keen to show up the power structures of the white man oppressing the black, but it falls into a cinematic power structure of its own. The Hans Zimmer soundtrack, the reaction shots of a torn conscience, the mournful and symbolic close-ups of soap and welts, the ironic rising shot showing Capitol Hill near where the central character has been incarcerated before getting sold off as a slave, all fitting neatly into a vocabulary of unquestioning imagery. Von Trier is instead interested in 'questioning imagery', in generating an image structure that keeps asking questions within questions by virtue of inverting McQueen's assumption. It isn't that von Trier is interested in form for form's sake, but that he is well aware that the context exists through the form, and that if he takes the form for granted then he is in danger of taking the content for granted also. When he says "often it takes me a while to get into a new film, to find the right style and form for it" (Trier on von Trier), it is because he doesn't want the film to take itself for granted, and allow the audience to take themselves for granted too.

In Manderlay both form and content are systematically confronted while at the same time von Trier creates a vicious narrative circle within which to contain the problem. Here we have once again a sound stage standing in for the location (a plantation), as in Dogville, and a handheld aesthetic that lets the director get in close to his actors as if scrutinizing thespian behaviour as readily as filming a character playing a role. Von Trier might say that he sees his approach in Dogville and Manderlay resembling that of a child: "the idea was that the actors would perform in a very realistic way, even though the scenery and external set-up are far from realistic. They're real in the same way that a child's drawing is real. If you give a small child some crayons and ask him or her to draw a house, you'll get a house made of a few simple lines. That's how our scenery works." (Trier on Von Trier) But we might be more inclined to see that von Trier's suspension of disbelief is ambiguously demanded, so that the film is constantly balancing the artificiality of the form with the viewer's need to get into the story, and that his method with actors is central to this. In Movie Man David Thomson has talked of the actor in an interesting way. "If a film employs a person's presence, appearance, voice, gestures and movements towards a statement of personality or the condition of life, what right does the actor have to make his own contribution to the events that are being used to make a conclusive statement about him? In other words, the cinema has brought the epistemological condition of the actor forward into the universal consciousness." Now, if one gives to the actor as many elements of make-believe as possible, then the performance can hide beyond the numerous props available to the part. But if you remove most of the props it is as if you have an actor in rehearsal, and we might think of all those screen tests that we assume reveal rather more of the actor's personality than the display found in the film itself. What we then have in a film like Dogville or Manderlay is at one and the same time the actor more nakedly revealing themselves through the character, and the audience overcompensating for the lack of verisimilitude by extending their suspension of disbelief. In this sense it is as if both actor and viewer are like the child turning a series of chairs into railway carriages, or sticks and stones into a grocery store.

But we have also talked about the vicious circle in Manderlay, with von Trier offering a story of young Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) arriving on the plantation and freeing the slaves, but by the end of the film realizing that one of the slaves was in league with the plantation owner to keep the blacks in a state of slavery. This was because it was the best option for the black person given the circumstances, assuming that possessing their freedom they wouldn't know what to do with it and end up in a far worse condition than they were in as slaves. Equally just as Grace arrives and stops someone getting a whipping, so at the end of the film she is the one caught in a position where she has to whip the very man she originally rescued from punishment. Can we take the film's ideological position seriously, no matter the circular logic von Trier displays? Set in the 1930s, seventy years after the abolition of slavery, von Trier's film may seem ever the more unlikely because of the rigour of its reasoning: as if it were a theorem being worked through rather than a dramatic realization. While McQueen says of his use of location, "the heat was the thing...the first day we were there it was 108 degrees" (Sight and Sound), von Trier could adjust the heat according to a studio thermostat. While McQueen is the black man indicating the horrors of slavery and offering a film demanding the obvious and continued emancipation of the blacks, von Trier makes a film wondering whether in certain circumstances it is better if a black man remains a slave rather than ineptly free and generates a tight form of reasoning to justify the absurdity of his claim. Von Trier's film is clearly a certain type of provocation, but we cannot sink into it dramatically or ethically. For all McQueen's extreme imagery (Armond White called it torture porn in CityArts), the film troubles us little in message or method. Von Trier's film surely does.

Yet Von Trier isn't a filmmaker who demands aesthetic distance no matter the many and myriad methods he uses to generate it, a number of which we have already covered, but others are worth mentioning too. Many of his films for example utilize what we might claim punctuating devices: the interviews in The Idiots, the chapter headings in Dogvilleand Manderlay, the chapter headings with musical interludes in Breaking the Waves, the two chapter format in Melancholia and the opening scenes that give away the ending. Then there are the continuity errors in The Idiots as mentioned, but more deliberately deployed in The Boss of it All as the clocks in the background are never telling the right time, and where the clandestine appointments' locations (a la All the President's Men and the conspiracy thriller) become ever more absurd and amusing. Then are the desaturated colours in Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark interspersed with the saturated chapter breaks in Breaking the Waves, the saturated musical numbers in Dancer in theDark. But von Trier does not at all want to remove affectivity even if he tries hard to undermine the ease with which most filmmakers seek it. What he needs to do however is take apart the clichs and the ideological assumptions that cling to them and see what is left, aware that since all that glistens is not gold, how can one find more than cheap metal? It is as though if he has managed to make the viewer weep at the end of Breaking theWaves, The Idiots and Dancer in the Dark, respond with horror at the conclusions to Dogville and Melancholia, then he has arrived at proper feeling because he has twisted the clich so completely that he has risked destroying feeling at all.

In Breaking the Waves the narrative hinges on an absurdity: that the central character Bess (Emily Watson) all but wishes for her new husband's accident on an oil rig so that he'll be forced to stay at home on Skye. When it happens and Jan (Stellan Skarsgaard) looks like he will lose the use of his legs and possibly his life she takes up casual sex with other men believing that this will save him. Near the end of the film the doubting doctor tells a tribunal that any mental disorder that could be thrown at Bess would be a less honest a description of her condition than that she was simply good. At the very end of the film when Bess dies after a particularly nasty encounter with men she has slept with, the now much better Jan and his work colleagues look up at the sky and see two bells chiming. While church elders in the strict religious community have indicated that Bess will burn in hell for her sins, von Trier proposes instead that she will be ringing out in heaven. The church might have no need for bells we have earlier been told, but it seems Bess does. The film is of course an absurdist melodrama, with the doctor at one moment announcing his love for his patient Bess, the accident that almost kills Jan on the rig happening moments after he saves his friend's life, and the thugs on the boat near the end playing pretty close to plain evil. But the operative word here is absurd, and not in the derogatory sense. It is absurd more in the manner of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and his exploration of Abraham's Story in Fear and Trembling. Why would Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac, Kierkegaard asks. "For God's sake, and what is exactly the same, for his own. He does it for the sake of God because God demands this proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake in order to be able to produce the proof."

Of course in von Trier's film Bess does it for Jan's sake, as much as for God's, but while the church elders can only see a woman committing sins, Bess sees that God works in the most mysterious of ways and that the greater the infidelities the greater the chance of returning Jan to well-being. "Not one of you has the right to consign Bess to hell", her friend says as the church elders bury what they think is her corpse but is instead a coffin full of sand. (Jan and his friends will bury Bess at sea.) If many are moved by Bess's sea burial then the film has achieved affectivity without assuming it. It has perhaps instead done the opposite: it has generated a properly absurd narrative to test our capacity for new feeling.

Thus von Trier explores this problem of emotion through a faith in 'God', though a God we can nevertheless put in inverted commas. We can take Bess's loss seriously without taking the God she believes in seriously as well. When von Trier talks about his conversion to Catholicism, he says, "of course the need was there. And I've always had a longing to submit to external authority. But at the time it's been difficult because my upbringing was based upon the idea of not setting my faith in these authorities. Thanks to my upbringing I appreciate the importance of religious freedom." (Trier on Von Trier) But he explores it in Breaking the Waves also as an aesthetic question: the absurdity of religious choice suggested by religious thinkers like Kierkegaard surely resembles the absurdity of aesthetic choice available to von Trier. How to believe in cinema without believing in the institutional mode of representation that props up many of its productions? The answer might be that such an approach isn't paradoxical but rhetorical: how can one believe in film other than by constantly looking for ways in which to renew and replenish the image? As von Trier and his co-signatory Thomas Vinterberg say in 'Manifesto-Dogme 95': "In 1960 enough was enough. The movie had been cosmeticized to death, they said; yet since then the use of cosmetics has exploded. The 'supreme' task of the decadent film-maker is to fool the audience. Is that what we are proud of? Is that what the '100 years' of cinema have brought us? Illusions via which emotions can be communicated?" Absurd choice cinematically is better than no choice at all; better to risk humility and scorn than predictability and ready manipulation.

While we initially proposed that von Trier might be seen as a less serious filmmaker than others of the millennial generation through his inability or refusal to arrive at a fixed aesthetic form within which to work, it would be more justifiable to see in von Trier a director whose very aesthetic integrity resides in constantly renewing himself through asking questions of the form, and appealing to his own preoccupations, whether theological, psychological or ethical. Sometimes these three preoccupations are interlinked, but often one is more prominent than the others. "Bess is also an expression of that religion," von Trier says of Breaking the Waves." "Religion is her foundation, and she accepts the conditions without question," (Trier on von Trier). Of Dogville the director says it was more political. "Do you know the child's game where you have to adopt a point of view and argue purely from that opinion? It was a good game, and it was best when you had to argue in support of a view completely opposed to what you yourself thought. Arguing for inappropriate and wrong points of view." (Trier von Trier). At the time of the release of Antichrist in 2009, Von Trier spoke about how he made the film during a depression. "The idea is that you have given up. You lie there, face a wall and cry. They ask what you hate the least, then I say a computer game I played years ago. "Okay," they say. "So that will be your treatment, three times a day for five minutes." That's how you start. Then there are medications, of course. It's about trying to put your life back together." (Time Out) When Von trier insists that his recent work has been more content based we might be inclined to think it is just more personally preoccupied, and that there is in von Trier's world no clear line between personal impulse and aesthetic instinct. As Sean O'Hagan notes during an interview with the director. "As he talks, von Trier shakes off his shoes, lies down on the couch and closes his eyes. I sit quietly and take notes. It all feels very strange: the interview as therapy session." (The Observer)

Von Trier may have said of Dancer in the Dark: I was trying to give it the same freshness that I think the Dogme films have, or Breaking the Waves, for that matter. But I prefer not to start with a form or style anymore. I'd rather start with the content of the story."(Trieron von Trier) However, maybe form and content are irrelevant terms next to the director's will to expression, a need to make films that cannot countenance the givens of rules next to the need to create. Von Trier could be seen as one of the more troubling of the great auteurs at the beginning of the 21st century because he lacks the ready and obvious convictions in form or content of Haneke, Sokurov or Tarr, but this would to view integrity too narrowly. Von Trier remains one of the most searching of contemporary filmmakers, with an ongoing need to question, even undermine that forcefulness without quite destroying the sense of ongoing enquiry. "So what can we say about sacrifice? I can't stop myself thinking at least ten times a day about how pointless life is. You make your entrance, then bow and disappear again. And I suppose you also have time to get a bit of food inside you while you're here. But someone who sacrifices himself or herself is at least giving their existence some sort of meaning." (Trier on von Trier) It is this combination of utter seriousness and casual facetiousness, about the potential pointlessness of existence that still requires getting a bit of food inside us, which captures well the tone of von Trier's work.


© Tony McKibbin