A pocket guide to Lars von Trier

We break down the Danish provocateur’s career, one keyword at a time.

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL Dunst is electric in von Trier's Melancholia.

Given that Lars von Trier’s last film featured a notorious bit of female self-surgery, it’s possible viewers will keep their distance from Denmark’s prince of pain. But with the mutilation-free Melancholia appearing on demand and playing at CIFF Friday 7, it’s a good time for a refresher course on the auteur’s favorite themes.

Depression The single most important factor in understanding Von Trier’s recent films is the crippling depression that descended on him after making 2006’s The Boss of It All. Antichrist (2009) is essentially a feature-length battle between Willem Dafoe’s therapist and the encroaching madness of wife Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose symptoms mirror the director’s own. (Even after he returned to work, Von Trier’s hands were too unsteady to operate a camera.) Kirsten Dunst spends the first half of Melancholia unsuccessfully attempting to suppress her lifelong compulsion to self-sabotage; its second half chronicles the imminent approach of the titular planet, which threatens to pull Earth into its orbit and consume it entirely. As Kiefer Sutherland’s amateur astronomer attempts to rationalize Earth’s destruction, or simply explain it away, Dunst quietly makes herself ready. The message seems to be that when the worst happens, only depressives will be prepared.

Dogma After steering himself into a stylistic rut that dead-ended with 1991’s Zentropa, Von Trier conned a group of fellow Danish filmmakers into signing onto an aesthetic 12-step program called Dogme 95. Taking a “vow of chastity” that required them to forswear artificial lighting and post-synch sound, Von Trier and his fellow “brothers” kicked off a worldwide movement that the director himself rapidly left behind. Considering that one of Melancholia’s principal characters is an enormous CGI planet, it’s safe to say Dogme’s founding figure has shrugged off cinematic chastity. But his penchant for pranks is worth keeping in mind when it comes to…

Fascism It’s deeply unfortunate but not surprising that Von Trier is at the moment best known for shooting his mouth off at Melancholia’s Cannes press conference in May. In response to a question about the link between his aesthetic severity and his recently discovered German heritage, Von Trier launched into a rambling answer in which he proclaimed his understanding of Hitler, before finally wrapping with, “Okay, I’m a Nazi.” Von Trier has a history of provocative and just plain idiotic statements; watch the video of the press conference, and you can practically see competing impulses duking it out on his face as he helplessly fills the void with progressively more outlandish and offensive comments. That’s not to excuse what he said, but it’s worth pointing out that Dunst’s Melancholia character isn’t the only one adept at shooting herself in the foot.

Martyrdom/misogyny Since 1996’s Breaking the Waves, Von Trier has demonstrated a proclivity for putting his heroines on the rack, whether it’s Björk’s treatment in Dancer in the Dark or the prolonged gang rape Nicole Kidman endures in Dogville. The parade of suffering females has fueled the charge that the filmmaker hates women, although given his overwhelming misanthropy, it’s hard to discern where the people-hating ends and woman-hating begins. Von Trier’s heroines are aspects of himself; of Antichrist, Gainsbourg said, “I was feeling that I was playing him.” (Dunst has made similar remarks.) There’s a long tradition of male directors using female protagonists as emotional proxies. While the substitution is not without problems, it’s worlds away from a director simply sticking it to women onscreen.

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