Back in the spring of 1996 I had the opportunity to attend the Cannes Film Festival. The whole week was a whirlwind, my first real fest experience that involved a lack of sleep, running from screening to screening and seeing some of the best (and worst!) films that I’d ever experienced.

’96 was the year of SECRETS AND LIES (the eventual palme d’or winner, a film I had a ticket for but couldn’t get in without wearing a tux!), FARGO, Cronenberg’s CRASH, TRAINSPOTTING, and more films that to this day continue to be among my favourites. Spike Lee’s phone-sex themed GIRL 6 played, as did Altman’s KANSAS CITY and Cimino’s “comeback” SUNCHASER, these among the worst films I’ve ever seen. Towering above them all was what is still my most serene filmgoing experience, being handed a ticket for an afternoon screening of a film directed by some Scandanavian director I’d not heard of, starring some English actress that was equally obscure. I sat at the Palais, in the row normally reserved during premieres for the talent as it has extra leg room. As the lights came down, a classic rock soundtrack kicked in on these beautiful title cards, and I was hooked.

BREAKING THE WAVES left me shattered – mid screening, a group of us would applaud the chapter breaks, so stunning were they at that projection! Emily Watson’s performance left me completely ruined, so committed to the role she was. So compelling was the screening that I didn’t even really pay attention to the technique, the fantastic hand-held look that ace cinematographer Robby Müller was able to convey such beauty and manic energy with a handheld camera, without ever resorting to shakycam or haphazard composition. It was only later that I learned about Dogme ’95 and the highly stylized films Von Trier was known for before he made the “break” with conventional types of “glossy” moviemaking.

Von Trier the man has received much criticism and nattering commentary regarding his recent performance at Cannes, but for those following his career his acerbic and often inappropriate wit is hardly a revelation. Behind the controversies is one of the few directors who truly can be said to hold a unique vision, steeped in the history of classic cinema (particularly Bergman and Dryer), but unabashed in his exploration of modern form. Exceptional, extraordinary, maddening, the screening of a Lars Von Trier film is always an event to be cherished for any cinephile.

As part of their Fall/Winter schedule, TIFF brings a selection of films to the Bell Lightbox, providing a brief overview of some of LVT’s (many) essential films. While my kneejerk reaction that Lars is one of the few directors who has had no abject failures, a filmmaker among a small pantheon that demands to have every single one of their films viewed, TIFF is presenting the appropriate films to provide context to his most recent work, along with one genuine surprise.

 

THE ELEMENT OF CRIME, Von Trier’s debut, is a muddy, murky tale of a detective who tries to solve a murder case using a unique method of mental teleportation. A strange mix of THE THIRD MAN and BLADE RUNNER (with some filmed-afterward 12 MONKEYS thrown in for a bit of temporal anachronistic referencing that LVT would appreciate), it solidified Von Trier’s reputation, earning an Award at Cannes for its technical achievement. Certainly not his most accessible film, it’s a fascinating, challenging debut.

 

EUROPA (or ZENTROPA, as it was renamed for North America) is the last major work LVT directed before BREAKING. It most clearly shows the divide between the impeccable, classical craft evident with this work, and the break he was to make in the mid-90s from this type of work. Ostensible the third part of the EUROPA TRILOGY (EPIDEMIC the missing piece), it’s a stunning work of visual bravado. Surreal, epic yet intimate, it’s a crazy story of love, Nazis, trains and forgiveness. The film plays as an enormous pastiche of noir and classic melodrama elements, yet it is so engaging that one can’t help to be transfixed.

BREAKING THE WAVES is a must-see on the big screen, the emotions and sensitivity expressed by Emily Watson’s face is simply astounding on the larger canvas. It will be an absolute pleasure to hear the classic-rock tunes elevate the chapter breaks on the Lightbox’s fine sound system. LVT’s masterpiece, this is a no brainer to see.

 

THE IDIOTS (often noted as LVT’s only “pure” Dogme ’95 release) is the most challenging film for a general audience they are showing as part of the retrospective. Faking mental retardation to find ones inner “idiot”, proceeding to engage in a sex-fueled orgy and anarchistic confrontation with society, this is both a brave and troubling film, certainly among his most explicitly provocative. What’s more shocking about the film is that it’s often both sweet and very funny. Pushing many a button (metaphorically and literally), it’s yet another shocking tale from Denmark.

 

DANCER IN THE DARK takes the musical form and turns it on its head. Perhaps his most accessible work (while others derided it as trash!), Björk’s Selma remains one for me one of the most beautiful and delicate performances of recent decades. The score (by Björk herself) is a wondrous cacophony of found instrumentation, and the tale of love, betrayal and blindness is both an emotional and sonic treat. Like BREAKING, the audio presentation should be stunning at Lightbox.

 

DOGVILLE – Von Trier crafted another brash film form with this work, creating an explicitly theatrical space (with walls drawn upon the floor), yet presenting such a rich and varied world that we’re drawn in immediately. The audacity of the technique never undermines the complex story of a mythological America (a land LVT has never stepped into), a weird wonderland of myth and mystique drawn from other films and images of popular culture. By the time the chords of Bowie’s Young Americans plays through, you’ve been transported through the work of a remarkable cast. If there’s a film here to be revisited its this one – free from the baggage Kidman had at that time due to her public role as Ms. Tom Cruise, she’s a firestorm in this work. While the companion film MANDERLAY is unfortunately not part of this restrospective, the opportunity to see this work on the big screen is not to be missed.

Finally, while not part of the series, all this is in preparation for the post-TIFF release of MELANCHOLIA. While I didn’t love the film, and it pales compared to even his most recent work like ANTICHRIST it’s a disappointment, it’s again well worth experiencing on the big screen.

Since it opened, I’ve been waiting to see some of these films brought back to Toronto, and as we continue to share in the year-round festival nature of Lightbox this is a fantastic opportunity to see these films (some absolute classics, all engaging and provocative) upon the big screen.

TIFF Lightbox Schedule

THE ELEMENT OF CRIME – Friday, November 11th

EUROPA – Saturday, November 12 and Thursday, November 17th

BREAKING THE WAVES – Wednesday, November 9th

THE IDIOTS – Saturday, November 19th

DANCER IN THE DARK – Friday, November 18th

DOGVILLE – Wednesday, November 16th

MELANCHOLIA – Opens November 18th

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