Lars von Trier’s Golden Heart Trilogy

I finally got my hands on the The Idiots, the second entry (and most elusive) in Lars von Trier’s Golden Heart Trilogy. It was immediately apparent why the film wasn’t readily available at my local library or on Netflix; it makes Last Tango in Paris seem like a Pixar film.  I enjoyed all three movies that made up the trilogy that includes the much lauded Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, and Dancer in the Dark.

Each film centers around a heroine with a heart of gold.  In von Trier’s own words, they’re about “good women overwhelmed by a bad world”.  There is an emotional brutality in these works that has become familiar in his other films.  The audience, by and large, are meant to feel the brunt of this brutality, they are the end user.  But in a less literal sense, the female protagonists become his whipping boys.  Or girls, as it were.

In Breaking the Waves, an outstanding Emily Watson plays Bess McNeil.  Bess is so simple, and kind, and good, the cloistered, deeply religious village she lives in, in northern Scotland, believes she’s mentally ill.  Her marriage to an outsider is frowned upon, but allowed, and she experiences real joy in the union.Her husband works on a deep sea oil platform and in an accident at work, her husband is paralyzed.  After that he insists that she take on lovers, and return to him to explain, in detail, about her sexual adventures.  He promises her that if she doesn’t, he will die.  This takes Bess into some really dark and violent places that she isn’t prepared to understand, and isn’t able to cope with.

The Idiots is the second ever entry under the Dogme 95 Collective.  While von Trier’s films frequently exhibit elements of the Dogme 95 Manifesto (read about it here), this is his first that followed all the rules he and fellow Danish director Thomas Vinterberg outlined.  In Idiots, a group of malcontents, angry at the middle class for their bourgeois indulgences, go into public places and “spass”, or act developmentally disabled.  The practice is defended by the unofficial leader of the group in the name of self discovery, or finding your inner idiot.  Karen, in a awe inspiring performance by Bodil Jørgensen, is our heroine. How she ends up with the group isn’t explained until the final scene. And while she initially resists the groups practices, she’s happy to find people that accept her. Of course, in the end, she’s destroyed.

The final chapter is Dancer in the Dark. Björk stars as an immigrant woman earning to provide for herself and her son.  She’s framed by her landlord for a crime she didn’t commit, and for a number of reasons, she unwilling to come to her own defense, and is ultimately sentenced to death by hanging.  Dancer marks a slight change in tone from the other two films.  While there were moments of pitch black comedy in Breaking the Waves, it, and Idiots, maintains a solemn rigidity in it’s tragic tone.  Where as in Dancer, the film gives way several times to peppy, choreographed musical numbers, allowing Björk’s character a bit of joy here and there.

All of the films were critically acclaimed.  For the most part at least.  Dancer in the Dark won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.  Bjork won the same award for her acting, and the song ‘I’ve seen it all’ (a duet with Thom Yorke) that was written for the film, won an Academy Award.  Breaking the Waves was nominated for an Oscar, a BAFTA, and won the César Award for best foreign film in France.  All three movies met with a bit of controversy as well.  Not the least of which includes showing unsimulated penetration in The Idiots. I read that Lars von Trier was the first director to show this in film outside of hardcore pornography.  Although, I think this could be debated as Leos Carax was doing the same thing in France about the same time in Pola X During the premiere screening of The Idiots at Cannes, film critic Mark Kermode (critic for The Observer) was so outraged by the fictional portrayal of disabilities, he was ejected from the theatre for shouting”C’est de la merde! C’est de la merde!”

Lars placed nearly all his faith in his three leading ladies.  The scripts, all penned by him, depend so much on the central performances, that the films would all be laughable were the roles not so brilliantly executed.  Björk’s character is my personal favorite.  Her story, and performance have always stood out to me as one of the most poignant films I’ve seen in the last decade.  Bodil Jørgensen’s performance stands out as the best of the three.  She completely morphed into her character.  So much so, I didn’t recognize her when I saw her in a totally different role in Terribly Happy (Frygtelig lykkelig).  But Emily Watson’s character is certainly the most interesting.  Throughout the film, Bess prays to God in her own humble and earnest voice.  But she also carries out God’s side of the conversation in a deep, and stern tone, frequently chastising her for her sins, telling her she’s undeserving of his attention.  But this device provides quite a bit of insight into Bess’s mind.  I’m not sure if von Trier was making a statement about the existence, or lack thereof, of God (especially considering the twisted outcome of the film), but it’s a brilliant move that makes Bess stand out.

These three films contrast quite well with Lars’ most recent film, Antichrist, where the tables are turned a bit. No, the male protagonist, played by Willem Dafoe, isn’t a saint too good for this world. But he does suffer a remarkable amount of physical (and, arguably, emotional) pain at the hands of a woman, his wife. In fact, symbolism associated the feminine is so closely linked with violence, it shouldn’t be beyond even the most casual movie-goer’s grasp.  At one point, Willem Dafoe climbs into a hole in the ground, seeking safety from his homicidal wife, only to be savagely brought out of it by her hand.  This hole in the ground is so clearly contrasted with a phallic tree stump, it can clearly by ascertained what is being alluded to.

I couldn’t stand Antichrist. I thought it was self-indulgent, pretentious and sexist.  But after watching the trilogy, I wonder why I was so offended, besides the fact he dedicated the film to Andrei Tarkovsky (a big “fuck you” to whoever was actually paying attention).  Basically, Willem Dafoe is slowly destroyed physically and emotionally by a woman, where the same is true in the trilogy, the men and women just switch places.  I’ve had to closely consider whether or not I was the sexist one, and a bit of chauvinism made the three films okay, and the one inappropriate.  Ultimately, I’ve decided this is not the case.  I take issue with Antichrist for many, many other reasons (I’ve listed them all here).  But I like that because of these films, I had to examine myself, to think much harder than I would have, had I chosen other films to watch.  And that’s what I love (and hate sometimes) about Lars von Trier.

What do you think about the Golden Heart Trilogy films?  What do you think about Lars von Trier in general?

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8 Responses to “Lars von Trier’s Golden Heart Trilogy”
  1. Colin says:

    Well thought out and detailed. As you can guess, I’m no fan of von Trier – Breaking the Waves notwithstanding – but it’s good to see you consider both sides.

  2. Damn, you’ve no idea how much I love reading stuff from other Von Trier enthusiasts! In exactly the same boat as you, thinking that he’s one of the most fascinating directors in the world – even when he does put out tripe like Antichrist.

    The Golden Heart trilogy’s pretty good, and you can’t argue with the storys but each film isn’t without it’s flaws. Breaking was spellbinding, but a little to long (it also had GCI at the end, Dogma fail!). Dancer was heartbreaking, but very bleak and The Idiots, well you covered that up there! As you say though, the performances by all three women are jaw-dropping, as he definitely gets the best out of his cast,

    If you haven’t come across them already the Europa Trilogy (Element of Crime, Epidemic, Europa) were his firs three films and all fairly decent in their own right. Europa/Zentropa was my first exposure to LVT and it absolutely blew me away.
    Paragraph Film Reviews´s last blog post ..District 13

  3. blake says:

    @ Colin – I’d like to here what you have to say about Europa. Have you seen it?

    @ Paragraph – Us von Trier fans seem few and far between these days. Dogma fail made me laugh. It IS a bit weird that he came up with the rules and then rarely, if ever follows them. I need to get my hands on Epidemic and Elements of Crime, but I totally loved Europa. I believe that’s the second von Trier film I ever saw, Dancer being the first.
    blake´s last blog post ..The Tourist

  4. Would hunt down Element before Epidemic, the later’s a bit wankier. Tartan DVD released a fantastic ‘Europe Trilogy’ box set in the UK, pretty much the only way you can get your hands on Element & Epidemic here.

    He’s just such a strange character, loves his trilogies, love setting rules / constraints then loves breaking them all with ridiculous CGI bells!!!! WTF

    Have you seen The Five Obstructions? I’ve had it for ages but dreading to watch it…
    Paragraph Film Reviews´s last blog post ..District 13

  5. Tom A. says:

    Dafoes Character is the bastard in Antichrist. He starts of by (against all advise and standards) to be his wifes therapist after their sons dead. He begins to dig deep into her mind, with textbook solutions, he hypnotize her and tells her to go to the place she fears the most while under hypnoze and pressure her with arrogant provoking questions, ignoring her feelings and true state of mind.

    Unfortunally for Dafoe, his wife has not been the same since she was in the cabin in the woods some year ago alone with her son, studying medieval witch hunt and the thought of women as closer to nature, and thereby inherited more evil.
    From there on she builds up a psykose that culminates when her son dies while they irresponsibly had sex. Shes filled with guild and grieve.

    In the cabin, Dafoes arrogance, he’s lack of showing real grieve, the pressure he puts on her daily with, in his wifes eyes, stupid textbook therapy games and schemes, is finally driving her over the edge and she goes full insane in violence.
    If Dafoe to begin with, had ejected his selfish and arrogant desire to heal his own wife, she probably would’nt have gone completely mad, but instead gone through a slow and sure healing process.

    In no way, can one argue that Dafoe was emotionally destroyed or even harmed during the movie, by anyone else than himself.
    In the end he is psycially destroyed but still survives with the wife dead. Just like Bess, just like Selma.

    Someone implies tha LVT and/or his movies are sexist and misogynistic. Thats just sloppy knowledge and ignorance of the material. If anything, his heart trilogy and Antichrist is ABOUT sexism and mysoginy in the western christian world, then and now.

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