Lars Von Trier Season

July 31st, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

The films of one of world cinema’s most renowned and daring provocateurs, Lars von Trier, will be making a comeback to the big screen this summer with a new retrospective entitled Enduring Provocations 

The retrospective looks back on von Trier’s controversial career, having courted ardent fans and enemies in equal measure during his nearly four decades as a director.

Known for his restless technical innovation and rebellious approach to the genre, von Trier has confronted the taboo subjects of the day and the eternal existential problems of the human condition with the same thorny, troubled intelligence and puckish humour.

Enduring Provocations revisits some of the director’s most incendiary works on the big screen headlined by remastered versions of Breaking the Waves, Idiots and Melancholia. The season asks whether his cinema of narcissism and self-abasement still has the power to get under our skin. Is it the on-screen violence that is hard to stomach, or those troubling questions his films ask about human suffering, morality and the disorders of society?

The retrospective will launch on the 4th of August with the newly remastered Breaking the Waves. The power of faith, love and friendship lies at the heart of this devastating drama from Danish wild-child Breaking the Waves won the 1996 Grand Jury Price in Cannes and created two stars: Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson in her raw screen debut that saw her nominated for an Oscar. Watson would never again reach these heady heights in a performance, and this was arguably Von Trier’s heartrending masterpiece, although he would go on to become the agent provocateur per excellence with a string of outrageous hits has never since reduced audiences to such a collective blithering emotional wreck.

In seven chapters and an epilogue, von Trier sets out to prove faith is stronger than any dogma. Set in the early 1970s Emily Watson is Beth McNeill (Watson) is a naïve and emotionally vulnerable young woman living in a devout Calvinist village where the residents cower in fear of being excommunicated by a coral of draconian religious ministers. Beth soon falls foul of them, marrying an ‘outsider’ in the shape of Jan Nyman (Skarsgard), an oil platform worker. Intoxicated by sexual passion she swears undying love for Jan and vows to keep him alive whatever the consequences when an accident on the rig renders him paralysed and bedridden.

Beth believes that God (whom she prays to out loud in the church) has punished her for asking Jan to return early from a contract on the rigs. Disturbed by a brain injury, Jan demands that Beth stimulate his libido by having sex with other men and recounting the details to give him hope of recovery. Beth blindly follows Jan’s wishes, sinking to the depths of sexual depravity by prostituting herself with locals and strangers, jeopardising her own well-being by visiting the occupants of a trawler (headed by a sadistic Udo Kier) declined custom by even the local prostitutes . Her blind faith in the power of divine healing is in conflict with conventional medical advice, and Beth soon turns against her stalwart friend Dorothy (the wonderful Katrin Cartlidge who won Best Supporting Actress) and Doctor Richardson (a memorable Adrian Rawlings).

Breaking is very much Jeanne D’ Arc in reverse: Virtue is replaced by sex as a way to redemption. And like for Jeanne, there is only one way for Beth: all or nothing. It is perhaps von Trier’s greatest achievement to not lose the audience at this point.

Back in 1996, there were long and heated discussions after the Cannes Palme d’Or ceremony (as in the decision to award this year’s Palme d’Or to Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall instead of the radical Zone of Interest from Jonathan Glazer). Breaking the Waves is a more daring feature than Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies (1996), with Leigh’s hyper-realistic stage approach running into difficulties. Apart from the fantastic performances and gut punch of von Trier’s mise en scene, Robbie Mueller’s handheld camera alone makes the film a winner in this tragic celebration of life and the wonderment of human love, carnal and otherwise.



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