Gautaman Bhaskaran
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Lars von Trier: Creating controversy

Moviemaker Lars von Trier courts creativity and controversy with aplomb. His exuberant style and strong narrative add to his creative substance. This Danish director’s extraordinary ability with his actors and his choice of stories make his cinema so engaging that even the harshest of critics have to eventually overlook the Von Trier idiosyncrasies. One of them is his phobia for flying that ensures that he will never go to Hollywood or the U.S.

American critics lambasted him soon after he made “Dancer in the Dark” (2000), a critical look at the U.S. judicial system that won him the top Golden Palm at Cannes that year. The critics argued that he had no business producing this film without ever setting foot on American soil. Von Trier retorted by saying that “as far as I can recall, they never went to Casablanca when they made ‘Casablanca’…”

Bryce Dallas Howard in "Manderlay"
Perhaps in a burst of defiance, Von Trier made “Dogville” (2003), and vowed to make many more movies based in the U.S. A tale of cruelty and revenge, “Dogville”, silenced his critics by the sheer novelty Von Trier adopted here: he marked out a huge space on the ground with white lines to show the homes of different people or shops or work areas, and used very few props to tell the tale of a 1930s rural community. This experiment worked, and at three hours long, “Dogville” was a riveting piece of drama that sustained the attention of – and silenced – even the most diehard critic. “Dogville” proved that cinema is essentially a story-telling medium that could well do without lavish props and designs.

Von Trier himself believes in the beauty of simplicity. In 1995, coming to grips with his mother’s deathbed revelation of his real father, Von Trier decided on a clean break with his past: he became a Catholic and adopted what he and his fellow director, Thomas Vinterberg, called “chastity”. They termed this line “Dogme 95”, and vowed to go back to the basics of filmmaking. No props, no artificial lighting, sync sound, and shooting on actual locations with a handheld camera.

Although Von Trier was aiming at the “honesty” of Danish iconoclast Carl Theodore Dreyer, whom he revered, the new method was easier said than done. His movie, “Breaking the Waves” (1996), which followed a year after the announcement of Dogme, was not quite pure in that sense.

But, “Beaking the Waves”, which I consider to be his best till date, caused a sensation in the world of cinema. Drawing on his new-found religious belief, Von Trier got newcomer Emily Watson to portray the tragedy of Bess, whose sexually handicapped husband drives her to sacrificial destruction. Divided into several chapters, “Breaking the Waves” disturbed one spiritually as it did sexually with Bess (Watson) in her unbelievable naivety hurtling towards a sexual gratification she thinks will make her husband happy, even well.

However, in 1998, Von Trier made a pure Dogme work, “The Idiots”. But this film caused a flutter for other reasons: the story of a community out to disrupt the complacency of the rich and the powerful shocked a lot of people over the movie’s treatment of the mentally ill. Von Trier refused to cut hardcore nudity and sex, though he relented to use black bars to cover body parts.

Von Trier loves to be controversial: His “Dancer in the Dark” combined music with melodrama to follow Selma (played by singing star Bjork) in her doomed journey. It provoked boos at Cannes, but nonetheless went on to win the Golden Palm. What caused a greater furore was the much-publicised on-the-set strife between Von Trier and Bjork.

However, Von Trier’s latest movie, “Manderlay”(2005, and screened in the top Competition section of the Cannes International Film Festival in May 2005), is perhaps his most sedate in a certain sense: no big noise, not even much to rave about cinematically with a few sags here and there. A sequel to “Dogville”, “Manderlay” begins in 1933, when Grace (played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who replaced Nicole Kidman in “Dogville”) leaves Dogville with her gangster father. She chances upon on her journey a commune where slavery is still practiced. She takes over with the help of her father’s men, the task becoming simpler with the death of the white woman in charge of the place. In a postmodern approach, Grace preaches democracy while she sexually fantasises about a proud black man in the community in a work that at once again evokes a debate – however unjustified it may be, at least here in this case -- about Von Trier: is he a pornographer?

While “Manderlay” is one of Von Trier’s most sexually subdued films, his earlier, “Breaking the Waves” and “The Idiots” have explicit sex. Though some see a sense of prurience in this Danish auteur’s repertoire, censors have allowed most of it calling it art. Von Trier himself says that his movies are not about sex, but exploitation, especially of women in “Breaking the Waves”, “Dancer in the Dark”, and “Dogville” (where Grace has to slog mercilessly during the day and provide sexual services for the men of the community at night) and the mentally challenged in the case of “The Idiots”.

I would go along with this view. While Von Trier may show sex in a shockingly liberal manner, I have seldom seen any trace of titillation in these scenes. Bess in “Breaking the Waves” ultimately appears not as an object of sex but as a victim of mistaken religious belief and tradition and male callousness that perpetuates sadistic pleasure. “The Idiots” gets us far away from the thought of sex when we see the inhumanity towards the ill. We are not talking about perverts, a point that Von Trier himself has made.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated August 21 2005)

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