Von Trier as Trickster, Cannes You Believe It?

· Joanthan Poritsky

The candler blog is based in New York City and is still in it’s first year, so when I went to the airport to buy my ticket to the French Riviera but could only hand them the lint in my pockets, I was rebuffed and sent back to my Manhattan abode. So yeah, I’m not at Cannes reporting on the biggest film news in the world, but we certainly can get some work done at a safe distance, no? Let’s gather some of the noise and make a little story about it. With me? Here goes…

Last week, the latest film from the ineffable Lars Von Trier, Antichrist, screened at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, apparently causing the international film community to synchronously blush and squirm on the edge their seats. The internets are aflutter with talk about how great/sexy/violent/evil/awful/awesome the movie is. Is anyone surprised that Mr. Von Trier is once again a polarizing figure in cinema? What were you expecting?

An original member of the Scandinavian Dogme 95 collective, Lars Von Trier is one of the group’s most illustrious ex-pats. He made a real impact in the U.S. with his video musical Dancer in the Dark, starring Björk and Catherine Deneuve. After recieving  flack for making a film critiquing North American lifestyles (Dancer takes place in Canada) without ever having visited the continent, the director responded defiantly with Dogville, a grandiose experiment set in 1930s America. For some reason, every time you come close to pinpointing exactly what kind of filmmaker Mr. Von Trier is, he eludes you, sidestepping any label and making something completely unexpected.

I don’t want to talk about his newest film or the headier work mentioned above. I want to talk about Lars Von Trier, the unabashed trickster.

For 2006’s The Boss of it All, the acclaimed director utilized a system dubbed “Automavision”. Basically, he shot the film only from wider angles, or all establishing shots, and allowed a computer randomly tilt, pan, or zoom. Watching the film, you would never know this. It feels wholly organic, intentional. In fact, for Mr. Von Trier, it seems almost tame. Of course, behind the curtain the Danish cinéaste had a pile of tricks he was working with.

Boss Of It All Still

The plot is endearing and appropriate for such a ludicrous filmmaking method. Kristoffer is a struggling actor who is hired for a job at an IT company that he doesn’t quite understand. He quickly learns that Ravn is the company’s CEO, but has been pretending that he is just a manager answering to a higher power, the elusive boss of  it all who no one has ever met. By acting like an underling to the non-existent boss, Ravn is absolved of any real responsibility, particularly when it comes to firing people. He can just blame it on the the boss of it all, whom Kristoffer has been hired to play for the purposes of merger negotiations with an Icelandic company.

The scope of the story is small but the laughs are big and the form is unique. The Automavision process seemingly enhances the story more than detracting from it but questions abound. How much control does the computer really have? Why would Lars Von Trier relinquish so much control? What’s the point of reinventing the wheel here anyway? After leaving the Dogme 95 movement behind, Mr. Von Trier has gone out of his way to break all of the rules of that group’s “Vow of Chastity”. Besides breaking the specific codes of conduct with The Boss of It All, he has left the ideals of Dogme completely in the dust. Giving control over to a machine, he is simultaneously removing himself as creative controller and, amazingly, further pressing his status as provocateur by drawing attention to his shrunken role.

This is Trier the trickster. By defying our best attmepts to define him, he is toying with our expectations not only of the director but of the cinema itself. So bring on Antichrist, Lars. We may not be ready to watch it, but it seems that every time you pick up a camera we are left reconsidering the purposes of filmmaking. For that, we thank you. It is this boldness, this artistry, this prickishness that keeps us moving forward.

For a look at where he’ll take us next, check out this preview of Antichrist.