Happy Birthday Lars von Trier! A Ranking of His Films (That I’ve Seen)

Chaos reigns (on FilmExodus).

(Fair warning: Some imagery and language used here could be considered NSFW, just a heads up)

“You are all my guests; It’s not the other way around, that’s how I feel…..It’s the hand of God I’m afraid. And I am the best film director in the world.” – Lars von Trier at Canes Film Festival 2009 when a reporter asked him to justify his film Antichrist.

To put it bluntly, Lars von Trier is one of my all time favorite directors. The Danish provocateur, whom is one of the most divisive directors in the history of cinema, has a style unlike another other director out there: His ruthlessly bleak narratives and their even darker conclusions, extensive use of handheld, graphic content, excessive length, memorable if tortured characters, numerous allusions to artworks and paintings that range from the obvious to the obscure, irony to the hilt and nice taste in music. He’s been called bold, visionary and a genius as much as he’s been called an edgelord, pretentious and a misogynist. For me, he’s both: A walking contradiction of a man. He can bounce between reaching deep into the furthest pits of my soul to making me roll my eyes in annoyance – only to show me something that shocked me or makes me think about life differently, either positively or negatively. And in celebration of his 63rd birthday (he was born today in 1956), I wish to rank his films. Though I confess I have not seen everything in his filmography – blind spots like The Boss of It All, The Idiots, Element of Crime – I have seen more than enough to get a good grasp on the mad auteur. So let’s get cooking, shall we?

10.Melancholia (134 minutes, 2011).

“Enjoy it while it lasts.”

How ironic that one of his most well loved movies is something of a dud for me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s quite a bit to like it in it; Kirsten Dunst’s gut wrenching performance, the scale to best even Breaking The Waves, a fascinating premise that uses the end of the world as a metaphor for depression, some of the greatest visuals von Trier will ever conjure – There’s a lot to like here. But between the typically lethargic pacing (of which has always been a problem with him; Here it’s at its worst) and obnoxiously miserable characters, this unique take on the apocalypse just doesn’t do it for me very much. But I know I’m in the minority, so what do I know?

9. Nymphomaniac Vol. II (180 minutes, 2013).

“I am a nymphomaniac and I love myself for being one, but above all, I love my cunt and my filthy, dirty lust.”

The second half of this ambitious five hour plus epic about sex, lust, perversion and taboo through the eyes of Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) unfortunately squanders the potential and fun of its first volume in favor of recycling the motifs of its predecessor with none of the bite and even going so far as to be self referential in a way that’s eye rollingly silly, even by von Trier standards. The cast does what they can (Gainsbourg is as fearless as ever, especially during a sequence of self inflicted abortion) and it’s never boring despite the three hour running time. But after a certain point, life’s cruelties can go from horrifying to dull as a used blade. At least the above quote is taken from a scene is an all timer and it has far better discussions about the nature of political correctness than whatever neckbeard on the internet could ever muster.

8. Nymphomaniac Vol I (145 minutes, 2013).

“Fill all my holes.”

Going back to what I said of wasted potential, part of what makes the Nymphomaniac saga so frustrating is how it starts: Brisk, bold, graphic and ironically funny. And for the first time in a long time, von Trier remembers how to properly pace a movie with this. For its two and a half hour run, peeking into the early days of Joe’s life is at times disgusting to view but gleefully distasteful in a way that I haven’t seen from von Trier while also being genuinely insightful about human nature and power of lust. It actually looks like he’s having fun, believe it or not, amongst all of the graphic content. And though Gainsbourg plays Joe, its mostly Stacy Martin’s show in as a younger Joe in what would be something of a breakout role for her. Though not without its bumps in the road (including absolutely bizarre British accents for Shia Labeouf and Christian Slater of all people) and though it ultimately leads to a disappointing end, Vol. I does have its pleasures if one were so curious. And in the case of both films, stick with their Director’s Cuts.

7. Manderlay (138 minutes, 2005).

“I think you could enjoy being the guardian for a kind of menagerie of creatures who have no chance in the wild.”

Before there was Get Out, von Trier was one of the first to take a stab at liberal racism/white savior complexes and tearing it a new asshole in the process. Set not long after the events of Dogville (more on that film next), the continues the story of Grace (here portrayed by Bryce Dallas Howard) and her trips through the heart of America, this time stopping at a plantation that is still using slavery in the 1930’s. Though not as fresh or as satisfying as its predecessor, von Trier offers a lot of meat to chew on here in the topic of slavery. It’s obviously condemnatory but in the most twisted way possible, to the point it makes you wonder what truly is righteous and what isn’t. It’s a blunter, leaner movie too; While it lacks Nicole Kidman’s presence as the film’s lead protagonist Grace, Howard shows she’s no slouch either in portraying a character that is as sympathetic as she is hypocritical. It’s a shame von Trier would never complete this trilogy but at least we have these films to treasure. (To an extent we did get a third film with The House That Jack Built; more on that one in a bit).

6. Antichrist (108 minutes, 2009).

“Nature is Satan’s church”.

Though not my first von Trier film to watch, it certainly was the one that got me into him. This was also, rather fittingly, the first time I was ever introduced to the word “misogyny” thanks in part to the film’s particularly sexually charged violence towards its its leads played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg (the latter of which won an award at Cannes for Best Actress at its premiere). But I was a young enough cinephile so when the time would come, I gave the film a spin and whoa mama was this a whirlwind. To this day, Antichrist still remains as one of the director’s most iconic and controversial features, as he takes a riff on the plot of The Evil Dead (a couple out in the woods begins to go crazy as personal madness and just plain out freaky shit starts happening to them) with a tinge of personal emotional grief (the plot of the movie is kicked off when the two leads’ child dies in the opening scene). You may not understand what it all means by the time you get to the end (I still don’t) but it’s imagery is extremely hard to throw off and you’ll be hard pressed to find a horror film this extreme, even in the current resurgence the genre has been going through as of late.

5. Dogville (178 minutes, 2003).

“I think the world would be better without Dogville.”

The quaint little town of Dogville is not what it seems in this three hour stage play-ish film. When a mysterious young woman by the name of Grace (Nicole Kidman) enters while fleeing from gangsters, the town sees her with obvious distrust but over time begins to accept her as one of their own. But like all good things, they do not last. So it goes with the film itself, as we see von Trier entering the part of his career where we see his love of irony bleed through in every character, frame, dialogue and even end credits sequences. As much as I’m a patriotic son of a gun who loves his country and doesn’t take too kindly to those saying bad about it, I can’t help but find myself oddly compelled by this dark fairy tale that doubles as a very unsympathetic eye to the USA. Honestly, what’s holding it back is the length; This is the sort of story that did NOT need to be three hours. But when its darkly cathartic climax and the subsequent middle finger of a credits sequence hits, I start to wonder that maybe the three hour running time is worth it after all.

4. Breaking The Waves (158 minutes, 1996).

“Love is a mighty power, isn’t it?”

When he wants to be serious, von Trier is a force to be genuinely reckoned with. Much as I enjoy him as the dastardly evil troll in the world of cinema, he can also show us powerful things. And with Breaking The Waves, his epic romance picture with Emily Watson (in an Oscar nominated role) and Stellan Skarsgard, tells the tale of newly wedded couple Bess and Jan who find themselves in turmoil when the latter is grievously injured at his job and left immobilized. Bess is obsessed in returning her love to proper health, even if it means doing things that could demean her body, alienate those around her and risk her very soul to damnation. Every motif you can see from what I described in the opening paragraph is out here to show us it all, though unlike most of his film, this is by far his most hopeful work. You feel Bess’ struggles in every second, thanks in part ot Watson’s heart wrenching performance and the whole film is just sumptuous to look at in nearly every frame, in spite of its “guerilla” approach to filmmaking von Trier took a liking to with his Dogme95 movement. You could honestly just watch this film and get everything from what his deal is about with this. It’s hard to watch but delivers the emotions stronger than most films do.

3. The House That Jack Built (152 minutes, 2018).

“Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires which we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they’re expressed instead through our art. I don’t agree. I believe Heaven and Hell are one and the same. The soul belongs to Heaven and the body to Hell.”

If Breaking The Waves is von Trier at his most genuine, then The House That Jack Built is him at his most ironic, egomaniacal, button pushing, trollish and surprisingly, self critical. Jack himself (Matt Dillon in a show stopping, go for broke performances that makes him easily one of the best protagonists I’ve seen in YEARS) is a stand-in for the director himself while the murders Jack creates are to represent his films. And what does von Trier paint Jack as? A contradiction much like himself: A serial killer with OCD, a diabolical monster who’s also a clumsy idiot, a guy who’s got good taste in art and literature as he is a childish nerd who can’t handle criticism – But if there’s one thing to be certain on with Jack, it’s that he’s evil. 100% E V I L. von Trier even said so that he’s by far the most evil character he’s ever written and it shows. But what he didn’t tell us is that he was making what is easily his funniest and gleefully entertaining film in his entire career. By taking the narrative structure of Nymphomaniac and cutting it half while making it more abstract, he’s actually made what might be his most accessible film to date. To say too much would spoil the fun. So sit down, grab a drink, watch it (make sure it’s the Director’s Cut too) and enter this delightful journey into hell. It’s a hoot.

2. Europa aka Zentropa (107 minutes, 1991).

“You want to wake up to free yourself of the image of Europa. But it is not possible.”

My first von Trier film and far from my last. A stark, obviously inspired by German expressionist thriller set in Germany after WWII, an idealistic American train car conductor (Jean Marc Barr) finds himself embroiled in a film noir conspiracy plot between a mysterious woman (Barbara Sukowa) and terrorist Nazi sympathizers still around even after Hitler was defeated. Though when compared to his later films this one can stick out like a sore thumb in terms of how ultra stylistically and conventional it is, it doesn’t stop it from being a suspenseful, surreal and at times terrifying ride. From the inventive B&W cinematography to Max von Sydow’s ominous narration/hypnotic induction on the audience, this fast paced thriller casts a unique and unsettling spell from first frame to last. It’s been years since I’ve seen this one and yet it sticks with me in all the right ways. Perhaps I am due for another rewatch!

1. Dancer In The Dark (140 minutes, 2000).

“In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens.”

I wish to tell all of you a story: When I first viewed Dancer In The Dark nearly ten years ago, I had to take a break about halfway in due to how grueling it was slowly becoming. When I returned to it, my predictions about it getting worse as the story progressed were true and by the end, my face was kind of slack jawed at what I witnessed. I vowed to never watch it ever again and to this day, I still refuse to. And for those who wish to take the plunge, I warn them for what is to come instead of recommending the film with glowing praise. But do not think I view DITD as a bad film; Far from it actually. It’s pretty much von Trier’s masterpiece, his most creative, gutting and deeply idiosyncratic work to date. He has yet to top it, in spite of whatever endless but memorable tricks he has up his sleeve. And this anti-musical, of which follows Bjork as a woman named Selma in the 1960’s trying to raise her kid as the two slowly begin to lose their ability to see, shows him at the absolute peak of his prowess.

You thought Breaking The Waves was hard to stomach? Just you wait. From its varied visual palette that switches to grungy grays in reality while the fantasy musical numbers go for a showier bloom effect, to the uniformly amazing performances, to the unforgettable music (numbers such as Cvalda and I’ve Seen It All, the latter of which was nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars), all leading up to the thoroughly crushing final minutes. Some claim the film is manipulativebut aren’t all films on some level manipulative? Really, the sign of a truly good film is one where you don’t notice that manipulation; Dancer In The Dark is one of my go to examples of such a claim. I’ve called the film many times a “Musical From Hell” and I will continue to stand by my assessment, with all of the positives and negatives one would associate. You may have seen many musicals before but none like this.

So there you have it: My rankings of the Great Dane. I would never claim to be an expert on the director but he his one that will continue to fascinate me till he’s done. He has said that his latest feature might be his final film due to his depression and emotional/substance abuse problems have been getting worse as of late (watching interviews of him being a shaking wreck is as tough to watch as his films are). But I hope he continues doing his own thing because his voice is too distinct to leave the world of film. For better or for ill, he’s one of a kind

And on a final note: I commissioned a personal friend of mine (her twitter is here) to make some fan art for The House That Jack Built just for fun, so take a gander!

Happy B-day, Lars!