A Beginner’s Guide To The Controversial, Brilliant Career Of Lars Von Trier

And we only used the words "enfant terrible" once.

He’s a tyrant! He’s a misogynist! He’s an egomaniac! He’s, quite literally, The Worst.

European cinema’s most high-profile enfant terrible has been labelled many things, often in the same breath, but Lars Von Trier is nothing if not resilient. When the Cannes Film Festival kicked him out in 2011, labelling him “Persona Non Grata” in the process for his comments on Hitler that inspired the greatest Kirsten Dunst gifs of all time, he turned around and used the attention-grabbing label in the marketing for Melancholia (2011), and then wore a shirt emblazoned with the words to this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. When people labelled him a misogynist for his “bizarre, bordering on creepy” portrayal of women, he went and made Antichrist (2009), in which a woman played by Charlotte Gainsbourg crushes her husband’s penis with a brick and cuts at her own genitals with rusty scissors. When complaints surfaced about his anti-American views, he made the end credits of Dogville (2003) roll over images of poverty-stricken children as David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’ played. Roger Ebert certainly didn’t like it, labelling it “beyond criticism into the realm of derangement.”

Not quite ‘from Milan to Minsk’

Some 30 years into the career of one of cinema’s boldest, bravest, and most daring auteurs — only Michael Haneke or Catherine Breillat could possibly compete for the title of ‘Biggest Nihilist’ — the mad Dane is at it again. His new film Nymphomaniac could go down (hah!) as the most radical of them all. A four-hour, sexually explicit examination of one woman’s sexual journey from birth onwards, this is the kind of film you’d get in trouble for watching on SBS back in the ’90s when raunchy fare was less common on the boob tube (that is, of course, if it were even allowed to air). Edited down from an even more controversially eye-opening five-hour version (local arthouse audiences are lucky, though, since the film hasn’t been split into two parts as in most territories, including the USA), this is the kind of crazy and wide-eyed cinema that is all but unheard of today. That it is actually rather good, formally adventurous, and frequently hilarious is just the popped cherry on top (I’ll stop with the puns now).

Needless to say, the following trailer is NSFW:

Breaking through

As we’ve already established, this is hardly the first time Von Trier has courted notoriety. After an early phase of his career that included classically formal and critical successes like The Element Of Crime (1984), Epidemic (1987) and the WWII drama Europa (1991), he broke out by creating the Danish science fiction series The Kingdom (1994), which was partly inspired by Twin Peaks and would go on to influence the one and only Stephen King.

However, with Breaking The Waves (1996), the arrival was complete. It’s a devastating account of a psychologically disturbed woman and the will of God that compels her to have sex with other men, which she believes will keep her paralysed husband alive. The first installment of Von Trier’s ‘Golden Hearts Trilogy’, Breaking The Waves was particularly noteworthy for its aesthetics, coining ‘Dogme 95‘, and a performance by Emily Watson that has been hailed as one of the greatest ever debut performances (ranking behind only Orson Welles in Citizen Kane in one such list). As if its tragic essence wasn’t obvious enough, it has since been adapted into an opera. Those things never end well.

That film was followed by the controversial The Idiots (1998), in which people pretend to be mentally handicapped in public (the subtitles describe it as “spazzing”) to challenge society’s efforts to stifle creativity. If you’ve never seen it, it really is as mad as you’re thinking. Like many of Von Trier’s films, the reactions ran the gamut from “powerful” to (perhaps predictably) “idiotic“. But with his next film, Dancer In The Dark (2000), Von Trier made the first of three masterpieces.

A revisionary musical starring Bjork and featuring cinema legends Catherine Deneuve and Joel Grey, the films was nominated for ‘Best Original Song’ at the 2001 Academy Awards and won the coveted Palme d’Or at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. When I watched it for the first time, I could not keep up with the tears streaming down my face. Rumor has it that the experience was so hard on the Icelandic musician that she fled the set, ate her dress, and swore to never act again. According to the director, Bjork even warned his future actors that he “would eat [their] souls.”


“Woody Allen mixed with a dominatrix”

Von Trier has spent the last decade or so making films as politically provocative as they are visually audacious and experimental, beginning with his second masterpiece Dogville (2003), one of the most radically in-tune meetings of auteur and muse in memory. Collaborating with Nicole Kidman (who was fresh from winning an Oscar for The Hours), filmed on a barren stage and utilising a unique backstage confessional, the three-hour film was yet another lightning rod for the Danish director’s critics, but to me remains a powerful and vicious indictment of the corruptibility of the human race. Co-star Paul Bettany wasn’t a fan of the experience and reportedly labelled the director as “Woody Allen mixed with a dominatrix.”


Comedic trifle The Boss Of It All (2006) was amongst his next works, as was the enjoyable cinematic experiment The Five Obstructions (2003) and the screenplay for Dear Wendy (2004), which very angrily targeted American gun laws. However, Manderlay (2005), a sequel to Dogville, was (quite deservedly) critically ravaged and sent Von Trier into a depressive cycle that he would use as inspiration for his next trilogy, known rather bluntly as ‘The Depression Trilogy’. Never let it be said that he doesn’t know how to get people’s attention!

Down, but not out

Very few seem to know what to make of Antichrist (2009), in which talking animals predict doom, genitals ejaculate blood, and infants fall out of windows in elegant slow motion. Not since The Idiots had Von Trier offended so many audiences on such a grand scale. Courting controversy once more, a poster designed by Australian Jeremy Saunders featured a pair of scissors dripping blood. Calls of misogyny yet again reached fever pitch, but by now many had also realised that the man was the very opposite (he even hired a ‘misogyny consultant’ to make sure!).


At odds with that theory is the fact that he is one of only a select few filmmakers whose films are ostensibly about women. His third masterpiece, the depression spiral parable Melancholia (2011), featured two: Charlotte Gainsbourg (returning for more) and Kirsten Dunst give captivating performances in the visually stunning film. It takes aesthetic cues from Alain Resnais’ Last Year At Marienbad (1961), in between sci-fi disaster film terror that comes off as an arthouse Michael Bay. He famously joked that there would be “no more happy endings”, which, coming from a man whose films have ended with wrongful hangings, mass murder and infanticide, is no hard task.

“The whoring bed”

Male directors (especially heterosexual ones) aren’t particularly renowned for three-dimensional portrayals of women. Speaking of her brief but fantastic role in Nymphomaniac, Uma Thurman was recently quoted throwing down the gauntlet to Von Trier’s accusers. “The idea that people debate whether he’s a misogynist? People should debate whether people who don’t even write women are misogynist. The fact is, he’s dedicated a large portion of his artistic life to the exploration of the female psyche — good and bad, light and dark, shadows, textures. The fact that he’s dedicated a huge part of his talents to that, to me, defies the concept that he doesn’t have respect, interest, and genuine compassion in women. People should question writers that don’t even give a damn about a female character. They are the misogynists.” Amen, Uma!

It’s highly unlikely that Nymphomaniac will do anything to deter the ‘haters’, but those brave audiences who occasionally find themselves on Von Trier’s wavelength shouldn’t miss his latest provocation. Like almost everything he puts his name to, Nymphomaniac will be long-remembered as more than just mere titillation or pot-stirring.

Nymphomaniac opens in select cinemas this Thursday.

Glenn Dunks is a freelance writer and film critic from Melbourne, and currently based in New York City. His work has been seen online (Onya Magazine, Quickflix), in print (The Big Issue, Metro Magazine, Intellect Books Ltd’s World Film Locations: Melbourne), as well as heard on Joy 94.9.