In “celebration” of the release of Melancholia, Lars von Trier’s magnum opus of morosity, the savvy programmers at the TIFF Bell Light Box have curated an apropos selection of the Danish depressive’s odes to joylessness.
Foremost among them is his misanthropic 2003 masterpiece, Dogville, which screens on Wednesday, November 16. In an overt homage to the epic theatre of Bertolt Brecht, von Trier surrounds a star-studded cast (including Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Lauren Bacall, Patricia Clarkson, Stellan Skarsgård, Chloë Sevigny and James Caan) with a sparsely-furnished soundstage, and delivers a caustic parable of intolerance, exploitation, and cruelty, set in a remote town in Depression-era Colorado. Dogville was hugely divisive upon its debut and often narrow-mindedly construed as Anti-American, but is actually all-encompassing in its mordant cynicism, and was specifically inspired by xenophobic attitudes in von Trier’s native Denmark. Provocative, formally daring, superbly acted, and culminating in a near-biblical demonstration of wrath, it’s probably the consummate von Trier experience.
Also classic von Trier (i.e. deeply divisive and another colossal downer) is Dogville‘s predecessor, Dancer in the Dark, which will screen on Friday, November 18. The 2000 Palme d’Or winner sees the director heap unrelenting misery on spritely Icelandic songstress Björk, who won the Cannes acting prize for her portrayal of Selma, a struggling, factory-employed single mother forced to conceal the fact of her rapidly-failing eyesight. Although her impending blindness can’t be reversed, she hopes to cure her son of the congenital condition by means of a costly operation. It’s manipulative, tear-jerking melodrama, but with von Trier at the helm and Björk on board, it’s also a euphoric, industrial-tinged musical, as Selma seeks refuge in flights of lyrical fancy. Indeed, for all its prestigious accolades, one of Dancer in the Dark‘s greatest legacies is its 2001 Oscar nomination for Best Song and, by extension, Björk’s sensationally indelible swan dress.
And speaking of indelible spectacles, 1991’s Europa is a kaleidoscopic post-War fever-dream, and a brilliant demonstration of von Trier’s visual mastery, steeped in cinematic allusion. Von Trier borrows compositions from the likes of Hitchcock and Carol Reed in framing his black-and-white-and-sometimes-colour postmodern noir, but makes them inarguably his own. His experiments with double exposures and front- and rear-projection lend an explicitly surreal air to the dangerous liaisons between naive American émigré Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) and German heiress Katharina Hartmann (Barbara Sukowa), whose family operates the Zentropa railway company and is dogged by allegations of Nazi collaboration. Unsurprisingly, Kessler eventually finds himself in over his head in every sense of the term, though Europa is more hypnotic than harrowing, predating von Trier’s preoccupation with protagonistic martyrdom. Europa screens Thursday, November 17.
The full programme for Lars Von Trier: Waiting for the End of the World is at TIFF’s website.