REVIEW: Book Release: Lars von Trier
Book: Lars von Trier
Release date: 25th April 2011
Author: Linda Badley
Publisher: University Of Illinois Press
With his visually uncomfortable and often disturbing movies, it is evident that Danish director Lars von Trier is certainly an influential character in the current artistic climate. But behind his overtly constructed media persona, and his willingly risqué presentations, it is difficult to pinpoint who exactly the real Lars von Trier is. In this short overview of his works, Linda Badley analyses his more recent films, and explores the fundamental question: is Lars von Trier a genius or a fraud?
Lars von Trier is one of the latest releases in the Contemporary Film Directors series published by the University of Illinois Press. Beginning in 2003, the series has featured critical analyses on the likes of Pedro Almodóvar, Joel and Ethan Coen and Roman Polanski. Lars von Trier explores Trier’s films in their chronological order of production, giving the reader a progressive insight into the development of an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. Badley briefly introduces his earlier short films and his conception into the art world, subsequently focusing on his more modern productions via the use of literary criticism and her own theories and analysis.
Beginning with Trier’s ascension into the role of auteur, Badley explains his desire to shape his character before he had even found a creative outlet – he assumed the ‘von’ in his name whilst studying at the Danish Film School in the early 1980s, thus aiming to construct a particular image of himself in conjunction with his work. Badley uses Trier’s own words to explain how, as a David Bowie fan, he wanted to use the same technique of creating an “entire myth” around his persona and fuse this extension of himself with his elaborate art.
Badley addresses Trier’s childhood uncertainties about his believed Jewish heritage (which was disproved on his mother’s deathbed as she revealed that she’d had an affair), his notorious tendency to abuse his female actresses into disturbingly intense performances, and the influence of early horror like The Exorcist and, more recently, Japanese horror. These various insights into the mind of the filmmaker are used to develop a legitimate and three-dimensional impression of Lars von Trier whilst also highlighting the intention behind his films…
Badley does not merely skip over details; this is a direct but abundant walkthrough of Trier’s life and artistic motives. Out of the book’s 214 pages, only 151 are allocated to Badley’s critique of Trier – the remainder is filled with notes, indexes and two interviews with the director himself. In such a small space, Badley manages to intricately investigate his films, touching on the development of Trier himself as a person and as a performance. There are endless opportunities for thorough discussions on such a distinctive character, and yet Lars von Trier is wonderfully concise. Badley seems to pick out the absolutely necessary ideas and build them into an invaluable outline of his entire career; you can open the book at any page and instantly land upon a fascinating perspective or debate.
Each chapter is freighted with plenty of valuable quotes; there is a constant connection to Trier’s own viewpoint and ideas. Films are discussed within allocated sections, marking a clear path through the director’s professional journey. Badley highlights areas where Trier’s style and ethics both overlap and develop: from his transition to focusing on the female in Breaking The Waves (1996) up to his now expected inducement of actress distress by the time of Antichrist (2009), and his regular adoption of a perpetually bleak and stark visual palette.
Literary criticism is used to analyse the theoretical aspects of Trier’s work; such as discussions in the fields of gender relations and religion, the psychoanalytical approach to assessing the role of the suffering female, and the influence of Nietzsche on Trier (particularly the title choice of Trier’s Antichrist, having kept a copy of Nietzsche’s The Antichrist with him since the age of 12). As Trier is intrinsically linked to repression and exploitation of the female role, it is uplifting to see his choices explained through his own words. He is not the sadist he is socially understood to be; Trier is in fact projecting these women as metaphorical self-portraits, not as real people. The informality and openness of the included interviews with Trier are useful in questioning the rumours of brutality in his creativity.
Trier’s prolific supply of emotional distress is observed rather than attacked, presenting an unbiased critique of his style. Chapters are organised with clarity, followed by a useful filmography and a clearly presented index. The book is aimed at scholars; it is not a light read, and it is linguistically sophisticated. However, the content itself is extremely interesting and informative, rendering it appropriate for an audience outside media students and other authors.
Linda Badley provides a succinct exploration of the Lars von Trier catalogue, omitting a ‘conclusion’ chapter in order to let the individual film analyses speak for themselves. ‘Genius or fraud?’ becomes irrelevant after reading of Trier’s ambitious ideas and challenging persona, not to mention his various awards. Anybody wanting to see deeper into the eyes of a modern cinema icon will definitely have something to gain from reading Lars von Trier.
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