Introduction to the Auteur Theory
What makes cinema so exciting and interesting is the fact that we have not just directors, but auteurs as well. As with many things, there isn’t one clear definition of what an auteur is. Film critic Andrew Sarris, in his essay Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962 (Sarris, 1962), breaks the auteur theory up into 3 different circles. The outer circle refers to the techniques used by the director. According to Sarris, if a director has little technical skill, then he cannot be considered an auteur, as he believes in the idea that a great director needs to at least be a good one. The middle circle of the auteur theory refers to the personal style of the director’s filmmaking. Sarris states that the auteur must display a set of recurring characteristics that become the auteur’s signature. He also says that the look and movement of the film should have some connection to the way the auteur thinks and feels. Finally, the inner circle is the interior meaning that the auteur places within the film. A director who follows this auteur theory is Danish director Lars Von Trier.
Agent Provoc-auteur: Lars von Trier
There is perhaps no other director working today that is as polarising as Lars von Trier. People see him as a genius or a master filmmaker, others as a pretentious misogynist. When you look at the guidelines set by Andrew Sarris, and compare them to von Trier, there is no doubt that he is an auteur. Caroline Bainbridge in her essay The Cinema of Lars von Trier: Authenticity and Author (Goss, 2009), states that he is not only an auteur because of the films he makes, but also because of the influence he has on the film industry. This is clearly evident through the Dogme 95 manifesto he created with Thomas Vinterberg which, like the French New Wave, created rules for a fresher and more simple style of film making (Goss, 2009).
The Outer Circle: Techniques
From the techniques used in his films, you immediately identify it as a von Trier film. In his later films, he uses a hand held camera to shoot the film, adding a sense of realism. This is completely evident in Breaking The Waves. The use of hand held cameras allows us to be more engaged with the story of Bess, as it seems less cinematic and more realistic. From this we see that he is an auteur, as he is breaking the traditional conventions of filmmaking by going for a more realistic approach by using hand held cameras.
The Middle Circle: Personal Style
One of the most important aspects of being an auteur is that you have to be distinguishable from other directors. Lars von Trier conforms to this in that there are many characteristics of his filmmaking that is recurrent throughout his work. The majority of his later films all focus on women who are placed in tragic circumstances. Melancholia focuses on a woman going through depression after her failed wedding day while a planet is on a collision course with Earth, while Dogville centres on a woman hiding from gangsters in a small town.
The Inner Circle: Interior Meaning
Von Trier’s films are some of the most beautiful looking films in cinema history, easily seen through the opening scenes of both Melancholia and Antichrist. However, to be an auteur, your film needs to go further than just looking nice. They need to have an underlying theme or message. Von Trier deals with many weighty themes in his films, ranging from religion in Breaking The Waves to grief and loss in Antichrist. While many view his constant use of woman portrayed as victims in his films as misogynistic, von Trier says that “those characters aren’t women. They are self-portraits.” (Macnab, 2011) His producer Vibeke Windelov goes on to say, “In society, women are allowed to express more emotionally and verbally.” This is evident through the character of Justine in Melancholia, who’s constant sinking into depression, according to von Trier himself, is “a description of my own state” (Sobolla, 2011).
Lars von Trier is the perfect example of a modern auteur, as stated by Andrew Sarris. In his films, von Trier uses a unique set of techniques, has his own personal style of filmmaking and includes underlying messages, conforming to the guidelines set by Sarris.