2 Oct 2019

Preview: Lars von Trier festival on Rialto Channel

From Widescreen, 2:43 pm on 2 October 2019

Lars von Trier, the great cinematic poet of depression, is celebrated on Rialto Channel this month and Dan Slevin has had a look at the schedule.

Emily Watson as Bess in Lars von Trier’s masterpiece, Breaking the Waves (1995).

Emily Watson as Bess in Lars von Trier’s masterpiece, Breaking the Waves (1995). Photo: Janus Films

How do you solve a problem like von Trier? How do you catch a (very dark) cloud and pin it down?

Rialto Channel is making a bit of an attempt in October with a selection of his most celebrated works, culminating in the Aotearoa television premiere of his most recent, the serial killer drama The House That Jack Built.

We’ll come to that a bit closer to the time but for now I wanted to draw your attention to the four films that will be playing over the next few weeks and why you might want to spend your Wednesday nights with him.

Breaking the Waves – 2 October (repeated 12 October, 10 & 11 November)

First up – tonight in fact – is the film that launched von Trier, the Danish virtuoso, on to the consciousness of most Kiwi filmgoers. Breaking the Waves features most of the elements that we have come to know as quintessentially von Trier – confused (although no doubt honestly and lovingly held) attitudes to women and female sexuality, the presence and absence of God, loneliness and desire, and other fundamental aspects of being human.

The film made Emily Watson a star (she reunited with her Breaking the Waves co-star Stellan Skarsgård for the recent mini-series Chernobyl) and won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1996. Despite von Trier (and his colleagues) famous announcement of the Dogme 95 manifesto the previous year, Breaking the Waves is not a Dogme film – it’s just a very good one.

Dancer in the Dark – 9 & 10 October

Björk and Catherine Deneuve in von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000).

Björk and Catherine Deneuve in von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000). Photo: Palace Films

While Watson took her experience with von Trier and turned it into a wonderful and challenging career, Icelandic musician and songwriter Björk decided after making the musical Dancer in the Dark with him that she would never act again. Björk plays a migrant factory worker in the Pacific Northwest of the US in 1964. She’s going blind and is saving so that her son can be spared the same condition.

Despite winning the Palme d’Or at Canned in 2000, this is one that I’ve never gotten around to actually seeing (yay, Rialto Channel). The Thom Yorke song I’ve Seen It All from the soundtrack was nominated for an Oscar but was beaten by Bob Dylan for Things Have Changed from The Wonder Boys. Those were the days, eh? Now all the songs nominated for Oscars are from animated Disney musicals.

Antichrist – 16 October (repeated 27 & 28 October, 9 November)

Charlotte Gainsbourg in von Trier’s Antichrist (2009).

Charlotte Gainsbourg in von Trier’s Antichrist (2009). Photo: Transmission

Antichrist was released at Christmas (!) in 2010 in Aotearoa and I was reviewing for the Wellington paper, Capital Times, back then. Forgive me for quoting myself:

“I’m not going to recommend von Trier’s Antichrist, despite it being the most impressive, thoughtful, demented, debilitating drama in any recent year. I can’t recommend it because audience members need to seek it out and be reasonably prepared for what it contains. Unsuspecting viewers will almost certainly be traumatised by the content but when you are braced the horror loses some of its power which I think is a good and necessary thing.

Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg lose their young son to an awful accident that might have been preventable but probably wasn’t. Gainsbourg loses the plot in a way that at first seems completely over the top but is slowly revealed to be something more than just grief. Dafoe is a therapist and counsellor who makes the tragic mistake of trying to treat his own family. They head to their remote cabin in the woods to heal but instead tear each other apart in the most brutal and demonic way possible. Like Gaspar Noé’s masterpiece Irréversible from 2002, Antichrist is going to have a reputation for the boundaries it shatters rather than the intellectual and emotional bravery it displays and that’s a shame. Talking of bravery, Gainsbourg and Dafoe deserve awards (and a cup of tea) for their astonishing work.”

Melancholia – 23 & 24 October (repeated 29 & 30 October, 16 & 17 November)

Alexander Skarsgård, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg spot the end of the world in von Trier’s Melancholia (2010).

Alexander Skarsgård, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg spot the end of the world in von Trier’s Melancholia (2010). Photo: Madman

Obviously somebody with a sense of humour decided that von Trier – in the depths of his regular depressive periods – was perfect Christmas fodder because his next film, Melancholia, opened here at the same time the following year.

Me again:

“Anyone looking for a restful stupor on Boxing Day won’t find it in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia – but you will find oblivion of a different sort. The strange new star Melancholia is going to pass very close to Earth. Meanwhile, depression-sufferer Kirsten Dunst is getting married but isn’t sure why, frustrating her family which includes Kiefer Sutherland, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Charlotte Rampling.

Melancholia deserves a whole column – but won’t get it – but I will say that it is one of the most amazing, thought-provoking, profound and frustrating films I have ever seen. Everyone should see it and – as an antidote to the Christmas season – it might as well be now.”

Rialto Channel’s tribute to Lars von Trier starts tonight (2 October) and lasts throughout October. The Wednesday night screenings are all at 8.30pm. Check rialtochannel.co.nz for other screening times.

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