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Top Ten: Lars Von Trier's Actors

Jose here with your weekly top ten.


Visionary. Lunatic. Nazi. Enfant terrible. Misogynist. Genius. Poseur.

Lars Von Trier is called so many things that we often forget that he's a terrific director of actors. With his strange sense of humor and world views, his films are often as alienating as they are enlightening, but actors seem to die to work for him. He's led three of his actresses to wins at the Cannes Film Festival and has injected new life into the careers of actors like Kirsten Dunst, Willem Dafoe and now Uma Thurman. Whether you're a fan of his films or not, his contributions to directing actors are incomparable. Now that both of his Nymphomaniac volumes are out in theaters (reviewed), it's a great time to look back

Ten Best Performance in Lars von Trier Films
(after the jump)

10. Willem Dafoe in Antichrist

Dafoe simply has delivered some of his greatest work with the mad Dane, who has found the right way to take advantage of the actor’s ability to encompass suffering and humanism in the very same way Marty achieved in The Last Temptation of Christ. In Antichrist he plays a man trying to help his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) deal with the pain of losing a child; he’s the “conscience” to her extreme emotion and scene after scene we can see his inner turmoil as he realizes there are things that go beyond rational comprehension.

9. Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia

When Penélope Cruz dropped out of Melancholia (to star in Pirates of the Caribbean of all things…) Kirsten Dunst must’ve been the last person anyone would’ve seen taking over the role and yet she was breathtaking as the tragic Justine, who realizes she’s not living the life she wants, just as the world is about to end. Melancholia is Von Trier’s most depressing film to date, and Dunst delivers one of the most heart wrenching portrayals of extreme sadness ever, but there is a reassuring beauty in her work, that allow us to see flashes of unexpected hope.

8. Patricia Clarkson in Dogville

Cruelty has rarely been put onscreen with the creepy delight Clarkson displays in Dogville. Her Vera is the embodiment of all the evil in the film’s title township, especially because we get a sense that not even she understands why she’s drawing so much pleasure out of Grace’s (Nicole Kidman) suffering. Her one big moment, where she inflicts pain through some seemingly harmless objects is harder to watch than any S&M scene in Nymphomaniac...

7. Uma Thurman in Nymphomaniac Vol. 1

Too soon? Perhaps, but the truth is that Thurman’s ferocious performance as Mrs. H is the type of thing that we’ll be discussing for quite some time. Her chapter might me the single most memorable sequence in Nymphomaniac, because it reminds us of the kind of magic Uma can deliver when she works with the right people. Her ferocious, completely deranged turn as a wronged wife is both humorous and terrifying...can we please get started on a Best Supporting Actress campaign for her?

6. Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist

Playing symbols is hard, but that is precisely what Gainsbourg does in Antichrist. She is given the almost impossible task to try and embody “womanhood”, with all the flaws Von Trier sees in the concept. She is the devilish Eve whose entire purpose seems to draw man (Willem Dafoe) into sin and Gainsbourg takes on the role with a lack of self consciousness that’s almost chilling to watch.

5. Nikolaj Lie Kaas in The Idiots

While Lars is usually praised for the work he gets from his actresses, few performances in any of his films have been as powerful as Kaas’ Jeppe in The Idiots. Considering this remained the director’s most controversial film for almost a decade, looking back at it now, it’s interesting to see how beyond the novelty of the unsimulated sex and the Dogme concepts, it has some of the most touching work in Von Trier’s filmography. Kaas is absolutely magnificent as Jeppe, who must hide his love for Josephine (Louise Mieritz) because it doesn’t adjust to the rules imposed by his group of “idiots”. In a way, his performance perfectly encompasses the intellectual and emotional battle at the center of the making of the film itself.  Von Trier often seems to be mocking the very idea of normalcy with the mere existence of the film, but as proved by Jeppe, even his coldest intellectual exercises have a warm heart very deep inside.

4. Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves

Emily Watson could’ve easily played Bess McNeill as an amalgam of cliches and affected mannerisms, after all we are told from the very start that she has some mental issues (not to mention the weight of her religion). But even as we see her answer her own prayers in church, Watson makes us believe Bess truly has a connection with the divine. It’s the sincerity of her work that makes her so impossible to judge.

3. Bjork in Dancer in the Dark

Bjork’s Selma is one of the rawest performances captured on film. The Icelandic singer not only puts her voice to excellent use, but also allows her impish qualities to turn her into a martyr for the ages. Her sad smile as she takes on the world’s injustice without a single complaint would result even more infuriating if it wasn’t for the fact that we’re probably sobbing endlessly and can’t even think right. It’s a shame she decided not to act again after dealing with the pressure of such a role, but in terms of iconic work this is up there with Falconetti.


2. Nicole Kidman in Dogville

Grace Margaret Mulligan arrives in the town of Dogville one night, escaping horrors her face only suggests. She takes shelter with seemingly harmless villagers who offer her a refuge from evil, only to reveal to be worse than whatever it is she was running away from originally. Perhaps the key performance of her 2001-2004 renaissance, Kidman’s work in Dogville allowed the actress to create the ultimate calling card for herself, as she uses the same physicality of Moulin Rouge!, the chameleonic abilities she displayed in The Hours (and sans prosthetics!) and the viciousness she had showed in To Die For. Watching her go from meek creature to an angel of death is nothing if not revelatory.

1. Charlotte Gainsbourg in Melancholia

If Dunst is exquisite, then finding the right adjective for Gainsbourg’s work in Melancholia is quite impossible. Starting off as the more “adjusted” sibling, her Claire is the rock to troubled Justine in the first part of the film, but as the plot moves from emotional liberation towards the apocalypse, Claire allows her demons to take over her and we see her do the opposite of what she did in Antichrist. In the former she was so secure of her convictions that she even became murderous, while in the latter we see doubt take over her in a manner we’d only seen in the work of Ingmar Bergman. There are inarguably many other performances in Lars Von Trier’s oeuvre that seem more powerful, more iconic and more important, but to date Gainsbourg’s remains the most haunting.

Your turn dear reader. What are your favorite performances in Lars Von Trier's films? 


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Reader Comments (29)

I just saw it, so it's still fresh in my mind, but I think the work of Katrin Cartlidge in Breaking the Waves is just stunning, and Stellan Skarsgard is pretty perfect too.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

emily watson is the only one of these to be recognized with an Oscar nomination.... Breaking the Waves was heartbreaking work!

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Love this list, but far far far too much Charlotte Gainsbourg for me. Like, I wouldn't have Charlotte in my Top 10 at all. Their partnership brings out all of my least favorite things in Lars. I like him best when he has someone who fights back against his vision a little bit, and Charlotte is a bit too compliant. Emily Watson, Nicole, and Björk would be in a mighty fight for #1 for me with Kiki in the wings. I'd probably have Lauren Bacall for Dogville and Stellan Skarsgård in Melancholia. Maybe Uma and Jamie Bell? I adored them both in Nymphomaniac.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Gainsbourg "Antichrist" is SO #1 closely followed by Emily Watson "Breaking the Waves" & Nicole' "Dogville". I don't think Bjork is very good in "Dancer in the Dark"

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commentersteans

David Morse in "Dancer in the Dark."

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

hmm, weird number 1 choice.

I'd probably also make room for Paul Bettany on here too & Kidman would be no. 1.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

1. Kiki Dunst, Melancholia- Like, and maybe this is the fact I have been a long-time fan of hers and defender of her for years, you can think Gainsbourg is great in the film all you want- as she is- but don't get it twisted. Kiki got that Best Actress at Cannes despite the persona non grata incident. As a depressant, Dunst's performance felt like seeing all my what I live with on screen for the first time.

2. Bjork, A Dancer in the Dark

3. Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia

4. Emily Watson, Breaking The Waves

5. Nicole Kidman, Dogville

6. Paul Bettany, Dogville

7. Stellan Skarsgard, Breaking the Waves

8. Stacy Martin, Nymphomaniac

9. Charlotte Gainsbourg, Antichrist

10. Willem Dafoe, Antichrist

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

CMG -- i weep that i never wrote up Melancholia in quite the massive way I intended. Such a great movie... and heartily agree that Dunst's performance is a revelation in terms of onscreen depictions of depression (of which I also have experience)

Jose - -i love that your spurring this conversation but Antichrist is basically the only film of his taht I don't at least like. I think it's the sole film (i have yet to see Nymphomaniac) where the provocation for provocation's sake and 'i'm being naughty. this is what you think of me, i know it!!! ' element of his work takes foreground rather than just being part of who he is as a filmmaker. Also, though I love Gainsbourg in other things, I don't quite get her in von Trier movies. She seems to lack the humor necessary for his filmography.

anyway. I might list them probably something like this...

10 Albinus- The Idiots or Morse in Dancer in the Dark
9 Cartlidge - Breaking the Waves
8 Kaas - The Idiots
7 Kidman - Dogville
6 Clarkson - Dogville
5 Deneuve - Dancer in the Dark
4 Bettany - Dogville
3 Dunst - Melancholia
2 & 1 a battle between Emily Watson - Breaking the Waves
and Bjork - Dancer in the Dark

April 8, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Have yet to see Breaking the waves, but Dunst gave my favorite performance in his filmography. She could've been like McConaughey now where she showed me something i never knew she had. I remember being blown away and thinking that she was robbed of an oscar nom.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJosh

NO WAY Watson is not the number one, and by a great margin, and that doesn't mean the work by Bjork, Kidman and Dunst are less spectacular. They're not, they're fantastic. But Watson is top ten performances ever material.

And Katrin Cartlidge is the best supporting role in any of this movies, closely followed by Catherine Deneuve in Dancer in the Dark. They both should be here.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Pe dropping out of Melancholia for Pirates has got to be the most ludicrous, paycheck-based career choice in recent movie history!

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarlos

Helena Bonham Carter turned down Breaking the Waves, can you imagine that?

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Gainsbourg for the nº1 spot is definitively a ballsy choice. I salute you.

I have to agree with Nathaniel and split the gold between Björk and Watson. I might have a favorite, but I can't really tell you right now because I haven't seen their performances in a long time. Those girls break my heart!

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I'd bump Gainsbourg in Antichrist for Bodil Jørgensen in The Idiots. I can't speak of Nymphomaniac yet as I haven't seen it. I will.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

Gainsbourg is so amazing in all of Lars' movies. Great to see that you picked her incredible performance as your number one choice.

I'd have a very hard time making this top 10 list, there are so many amazing performances. But I guess my favorite because of the impact it had on me at age 13 would be Björk in Dancer in the Dark.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSad man

I hardly ever defend movie stars career decisions, but Penélope Cruz was reallly big (pregnant) when shooting Pirates of the Caribbean. I've never been pregnant :) but playing a depressed person while pregnant or planning to with your hormones playing games, must be some tough stuff to go through. I remember her people explained her decision as being too dark material for her (Pfieiffer and the Lambs anyone?) and I remember thinking the reason was Pirates' big paycheck. But then Melancholia came out and yes, it was fucking dark. So good for her personal life.

My favourite performance in a Von Trier film is indelible in my mind and it's Bjork's. A performance that would've been career best for any actress, but that was given by a newcomer!! (how can we keep forgetting that?). My favourite film is still Idioterne and his career choices alfter that still suprise me.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteriggy

1. Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves

2. Everyone else (special mention to Kirsten Olesen, Medea)

3. Kirsten Dunst, Melancholia.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

I also get way PC dropped out of Melancholia. She had done a dark character recently for Woody (VCB) and probably felt it was too much, too soon complicated by the pregnancy.

Bjork and Watson are top of my list with Deneuve right on their heels. His films annoy me, but I always appreciate the actors work.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

cal roth, I heard that Helena Bonham Carter was cast in 'Breaking the Waves' but dropped out at the last minute. Emily Watson was brilliant in the role, but it would have been interesting to see HBC's take on it, too.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMike M.

Penelope Cruz probably would've been amazing in Melancholia (we saw a little flavor of that in Nine), but I'm really glad Kirsten Dunst got it. She's my favorite Lars performance. As someone who has depression issues, I must echo previous comments in that it was such an accurate portrayal. (Kirsten has also been my favorite actress since I was a kid, though...). Too bad she couldn't nab any big nominations for it. :/

Am I the only one who found their siblinghood in Melancholia so strange? Haha. Like, the british-american thing. I came to my own solutions in my head, but the fact that I never even heard anyone question it was weird to me, lol. Would've been even weirder with Penelope and Charlotte, lol.

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

I doubt Penelope dropped out purely because of Pirates - it's very possible she just didn't want to spend several months with von Trier. (Though how I wish she had.. despite Dunst's uncanny work in that role.)

I haven't seen most of von Trier's early work. And I'm very much looking forward to see what he came up with for Sukowa. But in the meantime

my Top 10:
1. Watson in Waves (astonishing work, up there with Falconetti)
2. Bjork in Dancer
3. Gainsbourg in Antichrist (raw, possessed, hypnotic work, though this is the only von Trier film I dislike, and I thought Dafoe was actively awful)
4. Dunst in Melancholia
5. Thurman in Nymphomaniac
6. Gainsbourg in Melancholia
7. Kidman in Dogville
8. Gainsbourg in Nymphomaniac
9. Stacy Martin in Nymphomaniac
10. Bettany in Dogville

April 8, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

Helena Bonham Carter was indeed cast in Breaking The Waves and replaced by Emily Watson.

I've always understood that it was a nudity issue (HBC had assumed that there'd be a double, Von Trier was having none of it...)

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKermit_The_Frog

I've only seen Breaking the Waves, Antichrist, Melancholia and the first volume of Nymphomaniac so I wouldn't rank, but I thought Thurman was great and Dunst was very good. I liked Watson and Gainsbourg (Antichrist) but I hated their movies so much I could never truly appreciate the performances.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMYS

Emily Watson should have been number 1. Meh.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSal

1. Paul Bettany, Dogville
2. Emily Watson, Breaking the Waves
3. Nicole Kidman, Dogville
4. Charlotte Gainsbourg, Melancholia
5. Bjork, Dancer in the Dark

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterryanmc

Watson should be number 1, but I would add Bodil Jørgensen from The Idiots. She's simply stunning.

April 9, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermads

1.) Bjork- Dancer in the Dark (there is just no other real performance I have ever seen than this)
2.) Emily Watson- Breaking the Waves
3.) Nicole Kidman- Dogville
4.) Kirsten Dunst- Melancholia
5.) Charlotte Gainsbourg- Melancholia and Antichrist

April 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMCL

Emily Watson and Bjork all way up to 1st place! sorry, gaisbourg and kidman... but NO!

April 10, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteragdhn

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August 8, 2017 | Unregistered Commentersee this

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