No Longer Enfant, Still Terrible

European cinema's greatest agitator rethinks sin and virtue through extreme melodrama

If Lars von Trier didn't exist, would we be able to invent him? Movie-culture malcontent, formal nose-thumber, pro-am Dogmatist, petulant artiste, phobic imp, and the greatest Danish filmmaker ever to garner the near universal loathing of Denmark, von Trier is a fabulously unique figure. Although his creative bloodline runs from Alfred Jarry to Bertolt Brecht to the Marx Brothers to Jean-Luc Godard to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, his movies are unquestionably the product of a distinctive and restless sensibility. While this is nothing new—von Trier, still labeled an enfant terrible, has been making films for over 20 years, and has in fact been alligator-wrestling with movie dynamics since he was an 8mm-toting kid—this year may place him on a precipice. With the release of and the inevitable critical mutt-fight around Dogville, as well as the appearance of his pugnacious meta-film The Five Obstructions in the spring and the near complete AMMI retro (through March 28), von Trier's importance may have just become unarguably evident, a fact of the biosphere.

"Everything has to do with taste, right?" says the chortling director on the phone from Denmark, asked about the arc from the layered hyper-style of Medea, The Element of Crime, and Zentropa to the post-Dogme theatrical vocabulary of Dogville. "If you like Medea, then you mean, how did I descend to Dogville? I cannot stand Medea—that may not surprise you, otherwise my films would've all looked different. But maybe I should see it again. From my position, the difference, I think, is that I have moved more towards human beings. I've moved away from the landscapes, and now there are almost only human beings in the film."

You wouldn't, however, mistake von Trier for a softhearted humanist—for one thing, he still digs the savage appetites of genre cinema. A Thornton Wilder scenario from the snake pit, Dogville carries on his devotion to extreme, sacrificial-feminist melodrama, running from Medea to Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. "I can give you a clue as to why I have this fondness for melodrama—I've found out recently that what I'm just doing is putting question marks on all the values of my childhood life. All the things and feelings that were forbidden were always articulated in melodramas. Revenge, as in Dogville, or religious fervor, in Breaking the Waves—all these things I can investigate and see if it is really true what my parents told me. This is a sin, this is a virtue, whatever. Thank God, the answer is never so simple."

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Certainly, the ethical relativism at work in Dogville—and even in The Five Obstructions, depending on whether or not you view filmmaker and von Trier victim Jorgen Leth as an accessory to his own creative torture—has an argumentative, exploratory spirit to it, as if testing out different routes to the apocalyptic climax. "I started with this song, the 'Pirate Song,' " von Trier admits, "which my mother was crazy about—she was a big Brecht fan. It's a song about revenge. I set out to end the film with something like that—that's my question mark. I have a conclusion, and my task is to make something that leads up to that and makes it digestible and logical. I had the idea of a miracle in Breaking the Waves, and I had to then lead up to that, make it real. The real question is that of a writer who desperately needs to justify his predetermined ending."

Dogville has already suffered the lash of critics like Variety's Todd McCarthy, who bemoaned its "anti-Americanism," a judgment von Trier finds risible. "If you look at what we saw in the reference material we had, the Jacob Holdt and Dorothea Lange photographs, that was very one-eyed. It's not a true image of America, but it's not a false image either. Then I put Bowie over the photos in the very end, but I thought the lyrics said, "She was a young American," not "She wants a young American," so that was my mistake! . . . But it's still political. I believe—well, I can't really say I believe anything about America, but I don't believe there's good people or evil people, but a portion of animal instincts in each of us, and the political situation people find themselves in can make it come out. Anti-American? In Denmark I'm considered anti-Danish. Anti-American I wouldn't call it, but political I would call it. Anyway, this will all be much more visible in the next film!" Dogville apparently begins a Depression-era American trilogy, with Grace, Nicole Kidman's character in Dogville, continuing her journey across the heartland. "Jah, in Manderlay, Grace comes to Alabama to a place that still has slavery—the reason for that is what the film's about, but it's not what you think. Politically correct? Aaahhh, mmmmm, aaaaah . . . no!"

In a culturescape of preaching earnestness and diminishing irony, von Trier's inventive self-consciousness may be his crowning resource, forever objectifying heartbreak, stylizing social trauma, mixing volatile genres, assaulting taboos, debasing the very idea of "realism," and holding him up for brutal scrutiny. In fact, showing at the AMMI series are just two of the many documentaries about von Trier: The Purified (2002), an autopsy on the Dogme 95 hubbub, and The Humiliated (1998), a making-of memoir of The Idiots. Viewed together with the self-portrait-of-the-artist-as-an-obnoxious-homunculus in The Five Obstructions, they compel you to wonder if there might be a limit to the man's self-reflexive hubris. "Yes, those documentaries, that will stop now, I will tell you. The humiliated one is me. The thing is, you're always doing these behind-the-scenes films where everyone says nice things about each other, and since they're so awful we've tried to make real films instead. But I hate them. It is stupid and self-serving and it will stop. You haven't seen the documentary about Dogville? What's it called again? Dogville Confessions! Another one! Confessions! Ow! It will stop now!"

 
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