13 May 2015 | agboone7
Early Von Trier film probes the depths of pretentiousness, but shows promise
The word "pretentious" is very liberally applied in the world of film review, so I'm often tentative about using it. Here, however, I have no qualms.
Von Trier's disparagers have long accused him of being pretentious, and "The Orchid Garden" will provide no ammunition for those who'd like to argue to the contrary. It is truly among the most pretentious films I've ever seen. But in many ways it's also a foreshadow of the greatness to come.
Lars von Trier has made a name for himself over the years, and he's earned it. He's a formally innovative master of the cinema who's amassed a plethora of fans and detractors alike. Like so many great filmmakers, he has a way of polarizing viewers. The vast majority of filmgoers either love him or hate him. I suppose I weigh in somewhere in the middle, but overall I'm a fan. His unique vision, his formal mastery of the medium, and his utter refusal to capitulate to convention have been enough to win my favor.
"The Orchid Garden" was made when Lars von Trier was still simply Lars Trier. It is said that his peers at the Danish film school added the "von" in light of his aristocratic, arrogant demeanor, and certainly Lars didn't do anything to discourage it. I imagine he adopted the nickname happily, as it underlined the air of cinematic nobility that he so obviously wished to project at that time (although it's worth noting that, in another time, both Stroheim and Sternberg had added the "von" to their own names, so it wasn't an unprecedented move).
It is true, though, I must say: Von Trier has always been among the most pretentious of filmmakers. This word "pretentious" is so often thrown around by unenlightened viewers who simply want to tear down a film or a filmmaker that they don't like, and I do like Von Trier, so let me clarify my meaning: Von Trier's attempts at brilliance are as transparent as I've ever seen in a filmmaker. It is not hard to tell how badly he wants to be a genius, and you can see it in his every cinematic gesture. Thankfully, for him and for us, this want-to-be genius did, indeed, have some actual genius in him.
These obtrusive attempts at brilliance can be seen as early as this film and as recently as "Nymphomaniac", but suffice it to say that, with time, his pretentiousness faded and his actual brilliance surged. And while there's always some of both in a Von Trier film, "The Orchid Gardener" is on the extreme end of the spectrum, showing his ostentatiousness at an all-time high, and the true brilliance he was reaching for at an all-time low. There are, however, some touches of brilliance here, if you can sort through the mess of immaturities and (here it comes again) pretentiousness that dominate the film.
I've read that Von Trier had been making films ever since he was given a Super 8 camera when he was eleven, so I'm not sure how many films he'd made by this point, but IMDb shows this as his seventh film. The only earlier Von Trier films I've seen are the 1967 animated ultra-short, "The Trip to Squash Land", and the 1971 short, "A Flower", neither of which are notable entries in his body of work.
"The Orchid Gardener" is a 35-minute short film that was made in 1977, after a six year hiatus following his last film, "A Flower". Von Trier himself stars in the film, and given how young he looks, I can't even imagine how young he must have been when he made his previous films.
The film is largely incomprehensible on a narrative level. Von Trier clearly intended some symbolic interpretation of the film, and perhaps multiple viewings would allow for one, but I don't especially care to make the effort. To me, this film is most noteworthy as an early (probably the earliest) example of the Von Trier we've come to know in the last three decades or so.
Above all else, the thing that has most distinguished Von Trier as a master of the cinema has been his visual style. He is truly one of the great formalists in the history of filmmaking. This is most evident in his early work, such as "The Element of Crime", "Medea", and "Europa". When the lattermost film failed to win the award he wanted, Von Trier, much to my disappointment, adopted a new style, the Dogme 95 style, which instead of stunning formalism, utilized sheer realism and a hand-held style of cinematography. While his most recent films have returned to his previous, formal style for certain bits and pieces of the films (i.e. the introductory sequences in "Melancholia" or "Nymphomaniac"), he has continued to rely on a realist aesthetic for the bulk of each of his films.
"The Orchid Garden" displays the brilliant (albeit unrefined at this point) brand of formalism that he would continue to develop with "Images of Liberation" and eventually abandon after "Europa". It's rough at times, but there are some seriously well-lit, well-shot sequences in this film, and Von Trier had clearly done his homework. "The Orchid Garden" is stylistically similar to '60s Bergman in many ways, has a bit of Dreyer in it, and even evokes Stan Brakhage at times, especially in one particular sequence.
So is the film any good, overall? Well, no. It's not. But there are clear marks of brilliance in its visual style, and it demonstrates an unmistakable artistic ambition on Von Trier's part. It's certainly a subpar film in its own right, but there are impressive aspects of it, and for any Von Trier fan looking to explore this unique filmmaker's roots, "The Orchid Gardener" is absolutely worth seeing.
RATING: 4.00 stars out of 10