The Mysterious Case of Lars von Trier.

As one of my major interests is film, and as the major subject of this blog is mental health, I thought I would try to bring the two together with a little biographical story about the Danish film director and screen writer Lars von Trier.
Von Trier started out as a prodigious talent, directing his first film at the age of eleven after receiving a Super-8 camera as a gift, and continued to be involved in independent movie making throughout his high school years. But, perhaps, cinema was an emotional outlet for the young auteur, being raised in a way which has been described as having "complex results for his personality and development". Indeed, while his mother considered herself a communist, his father was a social democrat, and both were committed nudists who regarded the disciplining of children reactionary. They are said to have not allowed much room in their household for "feelings, religion, or enjoyment" and refused to set any clear boundaries for their children. And, Lars did not realise, until 1989, after a death-bed confession from his mother, that, in fact, his real biological father was Ulf Trier, and that he had been conceived as the result of an affair.
Such complexity, though, seemed only to serve von Trier's latent talent, and he went on to win great acclaim, receiving the Palm D'or, the Grand Prix, and the Prix du Jury at the Cannes film festival for various films. The filmic movement with which he is most associated is Dogme 95, which he co-founded with fellow director Thomas Vinterberg. The movement provided a sort of manifesto, which eschewed big budget Hollywood production values in favour of hand held cameras, grainy photography and naturalistic lighting.
I have long been an admirer of von Trier's films. I thought that "The Idiots", despite its very explicit sexual content, was a great film, and I also admired "Dancer in the Dark", starring the Icelandic singer Bjork, which brought von Trier the Palm D'or at Cannes.
However, some, it seemed, had already noticed a "disturbing" streak in von Trier's films, notably in their treatment of women. The critic Mark Kermode, for example, found von Trier's 1996 film, "Breaking the Waves", which won the Grand Prix at Cannes, to be, if I remember correctly, "really pernicious, misogynistic stuff". He even appeared to compare it unfavourably with the infamous, and once banned, film, "I Spit on Your Grave".
Von Trier, however, is no stranger to controversy and is, perhaps, well known for the sexually explicit nature of some of his films. In 1998, he made history by having his company, Zentropa, be the first mainstream film company to produce hardcore pornographic films. The films were made, though, specifically with a female audience in mind. They were extremely popular in Europe, and even led "Cosmopolitan" magazine to suggest that one of the films, "Pink Prison", was the "role model for the new porn generation".
So, it seemed that, far from being a misogynist, von Trier was actually attuned somewhat to the female psyche, making films of an explicit nature which actually appealed to a female, and not just a male, audience.
But, then came the stories that von Trier suffered from depression. Then came the film that appeared to put an end to any suggestion that he was some kind of liberator. The film was called "Antichrist", and von Trier said that it grew out of his experience of depression. Again, the film was explicit in its content, and one of its stars, Charlotte Gainsbourg, received the best actress award at Cannes. I have seen the film myself, and indeed, I think I am with Kermode on this one; that the film displays a somewhat unnerving misogyny. Indeed, one member of the Ecumenical Jury at Cannes described it as "the most misogynistic movie from the self-proclaimed biggest director in the world". So, one wonders, why the sudden change from apparent emancipator to misogynist? Had depression clouded von Trier's vision?
With his next film, entitled "Melancholia", and described as a psychological disaster drama, the answer seemed clear. And von Trier is now said to be working on a new film, entitled, "The Nymphomaniac", about the sexual awakening of a woman (can't wait for that one!). Furthermore, on 19th May 2011, the once darling of Cannes was declared persona non grata by the board of directors for comments he made during a press conference for his film, "Melancholia", the day before. Apparently, von Trier claimed to have some sympathy and understanding for Adolf Hitler and then, jokingly, and I must emphasise, jokingly, claimed to be a Nazi himself, comments for which he later apologised and tried to give an explanation. This debacle led him to announce that he would no longer issue any public statements or interviews.
What to make of all this? Is it the case that von Trier is a social iconoclast- a great man on the verge of greatness? Or is it that mental illness has driven him to areas which, previously, he would not have thought fit to walk in? Is it perhaps the age old question of difference and talent and how we, as a society, view it? Is this man a visionary, or is he, simply, not well? All I know is that the mysterious case of Lars von Trier, and the controversy surrounding it, raises as many questions about our own social milieu as it does about him.


bazza said…
Hello David, This is a really interesting post. To my shame, I knew the name of von Trier from somewhere but did not realise where until your final paragraph!
It's sad that he became known for that after an illustrious but low-profile career.
At least he was a trier!
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’
David said…
Dear bazza,
I have to say that to any one who is interested in film to any great degree, von Trier is certainly not "low-profile". He became very widely known with the Dogme 95 collective, and since then his fame, perhaps mostly throughout Europe, has only grown.
I think it is sad that we, in the UK, get fed mostly Hollywood product, and so it is understandable, but regretable, that he is not that big a name here, and indeed, it is even more of a shame that he is known for those unwise comments. But, whatever we may think of him, he is, or has been, a significant artist.
But, thanks for commenting, bazza. For a while there, I was beginning to think I'd lost my touch!
With Very Best Wishes,
dcrelief said…
Hi David,
I too wish there was less Hollywood and more from other countries. I would love to attend the Cannes!!

Such an interesting post. I'm curious to see that new Von Trier film myself. Might be time for a reawakening, hahaha; a bit of a 'trier' myself.

Thanks David!
David said…
Dear Dixie,
I would love to go to Cannes too. As a film fan, I've always felt their awards reflect more what is going on in cinema throughout the world than the Oscars ever do. I also find that the jurors at Cannes always seem to have much better taste than the Academy, and if you look at the list of Palm D'or winners as opposed to Oscar winners you'll see what I mean.
And, I'm a trier too, so I wish you many happy, new awakenings!
With Very Best Wishes,
klahanie said…
Dear David,
A fascinating and informative article you have submitted. Your knowledge of the film industry and the complexities of the director and screen writer, Lars Von Trier, has brought further awareness to me about this man.
Although I cannot comment with such articulation as Bazza and Dixie, I would say you most assuredly summed it up when, based on his rather disturbing childhood, that indeed, the creation of his films was a way of getting out his feelings.
I'm sorry to have arrived so late in proceedings, David. I'm still having one hell of a struggle with my attempt to bring back a more positive environment in my life.
With great respect, your way,
David said…
Dear Gary,
Don't worry about coming a little late to proceedings, you are always welcome whenever you choose to comment.
And yes, it does appear that the early life of von Trier meant that cinema was an emotional outlet for him. What to make of what has happened sice then is, of course, complex.
Anyway Gary, much more important is that you soon find some solace in your current siuation. I sincerely hope this happens. In the meantime, as I have said, you can always contact me, which may or may not help! But, I shall endeavour, this time, to ring you instead!
Take care, my hairy friend.
With Very Best Wishes,

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