When Lars von Trier Stopped Writing Jokes

Curator's Note

Lars Von Trier abandoned jokes after The Boss Of It All. The film is ostensibly a comedy of errors, filled with fumbling characters whose incompetence and trickery puts them at ignorant odds with one another. It is set in the workplace, and shares a feeling with something like the American version of The Office; you might mistake it, at first, for something light-hearted and fun with a moral at the end.

Von Trier wouldn’t stop you from doing so. He powers through it, and each arc is met with a happy voiceover from the director himself where he cheerily explains why these arbitrary bad things are happening to these seemingly-good people. And, of course, it all ends horribly.

The Boss Of It All is funny along the way, much like many of Von Trier’s films manage to be funny along the way to something truly horrible. The characters of Epidemic laugh at the contrived plot they’ve cooked up in their screenplay before the exact same contrivances happen to them. The film ends with infinite screaming and blood to match. The traumatic Dancer In The Dark revels in the absurdity of its musicality before the violent execution of its protagonist. The Five Obstructions is a longform comedic gag where Von Trier prods his former mentor.

Antichrist is the end of the jokes. It is so serious, so explicit and violent, that we can’t even laugh at how absurd it is. The horror transcends any potential comedy, and that bleakness travels through Melancholia, although sometimes, at the corner of a mouth, we can see a smirk in Nymphomaniac.

The horror of Von Trier’s comedy lies in the fact that horror, pure unadulterated paralysis, moves through even the most lighthearted moments of human existence. It is not baseline absurdity--to look and then laugh at where we are--but rather the incommensurability of material existence and any emotion other than abject depression. Von Trier’s cinema is comedic because to receive it head-on would be to crumble in response.


Very insightful post, Cameron. My thoughts went immediately to Zizek/Lacan and a return to the Real. Violence is entailed in the return, and the term used is the Event (also, Cut or Trauma): a violent rupture from the previous paradigm/reality. What also comes to mind is American Psycho, film and novel. Many find the text(s) humorous in the way violence is portrayed as an outlandish series of events that seem predicated on an unstable reality. Even so, the horror is amplified by the dark humor entailed in the movie: when did violence of this caliber become funny? Certainly some of the shock results in pure horror, but Bateman's superficiality in the face of so much carnage is almost laughable. It seems that the loss of humor in dark comedy/horror is connected to this return to the Real. Thoughts?

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