Lars von Trier, Part 1

The first Lars von Trier film I saw was Zentropa, which I saw sometime in the early 90s. This was back in his “stylized” phase and the film was beautiful: black and white, but with various bits of color added in during some of the scenes. Starting with the amazing voice of Max Von Sydow “hypnotizing” the spectator, Zentropa creates a dreamscape, memories that seemed real if not quite your own. There is an inevitablility to the film, a sense at the beginning that we have already reached the end and the spaces in between are important not because of their trajectories, but for their textues – the way light moves across her cheeks, or the smell of his aftershave; the sound of fabric against a smooth thigh or the tast of a rose petal. I still love this film. Despite it’s “tragic” ending, it is one of the more gentle films he has made.

Dancer in the Dark hits you in the gut. Hard. I remember the feeling of hollowness I had after watching it six years ago. For several weeks afterwards I told everyone I saw that they should watch the movie… yet forgot to mention just how depressing and raw the film was. What I watched it again several years later I still felt (and feel) that von Trier is capable of exposing the innards of humanity, the guts and viscera of the human psyche. Bjork’s performance is startlingly powerful, and deeply troubling when you find out how far von Trier pushed her, how sadistic he was as a director. Yet, the result is astounding. As with his movies, there is no easy answer as to the “rightness” or “wrongness” of his actions as a director. Her vow to never act again because of the depths to which he pushed–not led, not guided, but pushed her–is disturbing.

Recently I have seen three of his films, Medea, The Five Obstructions, and Dogville. These are intriguingly different films, with Medea being released in 1987 while The Five Obstructions and Dogville both came out in 2003. Medea, is an interesting take on the Medea play, with a screenplay based on a scenario by Carl Theodor Dryer, who is most known for his silent film The Passion of Saint Joan, and with whom Von Trier was supposedly in contant telapathic contact with while making the movie. Kirsten Olesen’s performance as Medea is riveting, and the film has a clautrophobic, damp feel to it, as if the walls are closing in or the mud is sucking you down. Yet, the scene in which Medea kills her children is done in the open, a landspace of sky and grass with one bare tree breaking the space. Some of the cinematography is utterly unique, creating images that surprise you, yet draw you further inwards to the heart of the story.

I wouldn’t say it is the best telling of the story, nor would I say it is the best of von Trier’s work, yet it is compellingly of a piece with his other films. Specifically, there is a sensibility to his movies that the human condition is inexorable: there is nothing we can do to escape the prisons we make for ourselves out of our desires and our fears. From what is rumored, von Trier is a sadistic director. It would be too easy, however, to dismiss his movies as merely sadistic excersizes in flaying open the human soul to the sheer fun of it. Von Trier forces the spectator to watch and, in some ways, participate in the vivisection of humanity. Medea, as with his other films, seems to me concerned, first and foremost, with issues of responsibility and culpability. There is no guilt or innoncent here: only guilt. Jason is guilty of betraying Medea, Medea is guilty of sacrificing her children. The central question for von Trier, and one that is picked up in both The Five Obstructions and Dogville, is how does one bear his/her sins? How does one take responsibility for his/her actions in a world that refuses to allow even the most innocent of characters relief from the guilt of being human.

(End Part 1, please click here for the second part of this essay)

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