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Lars Von Trier's Liar

Lars Von Trier is a critical and awards darling, controversial, making brutally challenging and inimitable films, most none of which are pleasant watches. Von Trier sprints as far as he can from the mainstream, with unconventional structures and pacing, blazingly harsh subject matter, unstimulated sex (which always seems to cover some of the publicity for the films) and at his best; a dark and dreamlike presentation.

Von Trier is, like most trailblazing creatives, very strange, a reality that will bleed into other parts of this article but which should be addressed here. He has a fanatical obsession and reverence for great art, especially great filmmakers. For one, he added the grand “von” to his name in homage to Erich von Stroheim and Josef von Sternberg, who had themselves invented their monikers. He's consistently massively popular at Cannes, but suffered a misstep when he got himself banned after a bizarre joke detailing that he had learned his ancestry was German, and not Jewish therefore “(he's) a Nazi” and “understands Hitler”. He also, upon being invited to the home of his late hero, Ingmar Bergman, accompanied by a camera crew and a host of other important filmmakers, spent a not inconsiderable amount of the visit detailing his interest in the frequency of Bergman's masturbation habits. He ended the interview by comparing the distant Bergman to his stepfather, explaining how much it bothers him that he never got close. For the record, Bergman admired Von Trier greatly, from a distance, once saying he "does not understand what a genius he is." Evidently Lars got over this problem. His unbelievable confidence in his work and views is exactly what has given him his success and strife over the years. Even early on, he was so confident in the value of his view on cinema that he started the Dogme 95 movement by writing a manifesto with Thomas Vinterburg.

von Trier's Liar

Dogme 95's goal was to reclaim power for the directors from the studio system, in practicality it was a set of regulations (e.g. the film must be in colour, no music, only handheld cameras allowed, no superficial action like murders, etc.) and limitations so rigid, that no-one originally involved in the movement stuck to the rules for very long, ESPECIALLY Von Trier, whose later work began to incorporate artifice like black and white photography, contrapuntal music, dreamy and robotically enhanced camera moves, and murder. This kind of goal post moving is what makes his documentary, The 5 Obstructions, so interesting. It chronicles Von Trier setting a challenge for his old mentor wherein they each remake a classic short film of his five times, each time adding an “obstruction”. It must be animated, or made in the unspecified worst place on earth, shots can only last 12 frames, etc. Easily von Trier's best work, however, is when he drops his rules and makes the film however he feels, typically unreal.

There was his Golden Hearts trilogy, about pure-hearted women made to suffer by tragedies or degradation, who must persevere. The best of the three is Dancer in the Dark, in which a factory worker played by Bjork is losing her vision due to a condition passed on to her son. She wants to save up to prevent the condition from taking his vision. Also, it's a musical. The most widely acclaimed is Breaking the Waves, with a heavier focus on morality and social realism, and the most controversial is The Idiots , which is the only film of the three to qualify for Dogme 95 status (though a written confession lists four “breaches”).

Next, avant-garde experimental films Dogville and Manderlay, both parables about American issues in a highly distinctive style: The actors occupy a soundstage with minimal props, and no sets, just spaces marked out by lines of chalk. Another experiment for comedy The Boss of It All, wherein Von Trier placed the camera in an ideal position, and allowed a computer to decide when to pan, tilt, or zoom.

Von Trier has suffered from depression, and a particularly immobilizing bout landed him in the hospital in 2006, where he began to channel his experiences into writing the first in his Depression trilogy, loosely connected by themes of grief and misery, sturdily connected by their shared lead Charlotte Gainsbourg, one of the most fruitful collaborations in Von Trier's career. The first of the films is the most utterly disturbing, the most intimate, and the best film of Von Trier's career; Anti-Christ. Whilst a couple (He and She) are having sex, their infant son falls from the balcony. Overcome with grief, they begin to process it in different, and unhealthy ways. She further develops a belief in the inherent evil of women, stemming from her research into misogyny, mentally punishing herself. He focuses on forcing her into exposure therapy, making it clear that her grief is another problem she's causing. Not something to feel and accept, but an issue he can fix. He makes them retreat to a cabin in the woods they had stayed at before with their son. It is an otherworldly corruption of nature, sort of like if Satan had made the garden of Eden. Yes, grass, and acorns, and foxes, and things, but tainted like everything else by their pain. Needless to say, the therapy does not go well.

Melancholia, less brutal and provocative than Anti-Christ, sometimes feels as though it's running on the fumes, however strong those may be, of the previous film. Still, it channels the reality of living with depression, the utter acceptance of the worst, and having to weather it, into a story of a pair of sisters, awaiting one sisters' wedding and an apocalyptic collision with another planet. Nymphomaniac, Volumes I & II, are the most guilty of passing into self-parody, a collective 4 hours of sex, repetitive unsubtle jabs at critics, and references to his own filmography and public life.

His latest, serial killer POV The House that Jack Built, has resulted in the most significant split in opinion yet; some praising his uncompromising depiction of the ostentatious gratification Ted Bundy-like killers revel in, others admonishing the film's perceived depravity. The most important question to ask yourself before watching it, however, is: “Can I stomach a 2-and-a-half-hour sermon from someone as egotistical as a serial-killer, or, for that matter, Lars von Trier?” It's a satire of the director's belief in auterism as much as the killer's. Let's leave off with Von Trier's sign off at the end of the Dogme 95 Manifesto: “My supreme goal is to force the truth out of my characters and settings. I swear to do so by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations. Thus I make my VOW OF CHASTITY.”