So just what is it exactly that makes Lars von Trier so brilliant? Sight & Sound Editor Nick James, who is curating a season of Lars von Trier at the BFI, explains…
I’m not the kind of person who’s susceptible to hypnosis but I sometimes wonder if, when I first saw the opening scene of Lars von Trier’s Europa (in 1991, my second year as a film reviewer), its dream logic had an even bigger effect on me than I thought. The film is in crisp black and white and you stare down at railway tracks preceding you into the night as if you’re strapped to the front of a fast moving train. Strings stab a single note rhythm as Max von Sydow insists gloomily that “You will now listen to my voice”.
Ever since then the films of Lars von Trier have seemed like mileposts in my professional life that speak directly to my need to believe that cinema can renew itself constantly. The stage where von Trier has most frequently achieved his transformations is the Cannes film festival, so it only seems apt that the BFI Southbank has programmed a retrospective that happens at the same time as that festival fills our film news sites and pages. The Danish director set out from the beginning to cast himself as an arch-provocateur and to make films in English so that they could have the maximum international impact. It was at Cannes that von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg launched the Dogme movement that so influenced the way indie cinema looked for a decade or more. It’s also where von Trier has sparked the most spectacular rows the festival has ever seen, whether by confronting religious belief (Breaking The Waves), casting Bjork as a factory worker in a postmodern musical (Dancer In The Dark), seeming to mock the afflicted (The Idiots), assaulting America and its values (Dogville), outraging the audience with sexual violence (Antichrist) or portraying depression as a desire to see the world come to a cataclysmic end (Melancholia).
Of course, Cannes is also where von Trier made his infamous remarks about Hitler last year that saw him made persona non grata at the festival. It has since been made clear that this fatwa was for one year only but we also know that von Trier’s new provocation, Nymphomania, is not among the Cannes selections. While I’m still excited to be going to Cannes, there is a part of me that will miss the outrage his films inspire. And my absence also means that I won’t be able to see his films on the South Bank projected the way they’re meant to be. It’s as if Max von Sydow has said, snap out of it, the fun’s over.
The BFI’s Lars von Trier season runs from May 13th to May 31st at the BFI Southbank. For more details, visit their website.