If there’s an authorial hand in Trier’s films, it serves only to pull the wings off the fly.
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In the thirty-five-odd years he’s been active, Lars von Trier has been called many things: a misogynist, a provocateur, a genius, the enfant terrible of arthouse cinema. The last may need to be amended now that the Danish filmmaker is a sexagenarian – and, while still possessing childlike polymorphous perversities, has shown all the signs of decline that creep with age. Of course, not all enfants terrible become hommes terrible; the tropes that often energize juvenilia (the discursive ramblings, the shithead insolence, the proclivity to shock) are usually grown out of and left behind. Trier’s work over the last decade suggests that this evolution is playing itself out in reverse, though, as the misanthropy and nihilism expected of youth releases itself with renewed ugliness in the autumn years.
If you’re the kind of person who was a fan of Trier’s early work, like Europa and Breaking the Waves and even Dogville, the director’s output in the past ten years has become increasingly embarrassing and indefensible. For those who have never liked Trier, queuing up to execrate him is easier than ever. Such was the case earlier this year, when the director’s latest film, The House That Jack Built, was met with a cascade of boos and walkouts at Cannes. Trier is an easy target for condemnation – his work invites it – so continuing along the path of moral outrage isn’t particularly brave critically, or interesting intellectually. This kind of disgust is difficult to avoid, though. And The House That Jack Built is indeed a distasteful film. Not in the sense that it seeks to disgust (though there is that), but in the sense that it leaves one feeling demoralized, lowered rather than elevated – the very opposite of what catharsis is supposed to achieve. The House That Jack Built is Trier’s thirteenth feature, and by far one of his most inane and indulgent. That would risk being a sanctimonious appraisal if it weren’t a film that self-proclaimingly “celebrates the idea that life is evil and soulless” – a description that can easily be expanded to anything the director has produced since the time of his “Depression Trilogy” (Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac).
Matt Dillon stars as Jack, a serial killer with OCD living in the Pacific Northwest. Jack is also an engineer, and at work constructing a house of his own by the lakeside – a b-story that goes nowhere and which Trier lazily attempts to rescue at the last minute with laughable symbolism. The film is constructed in five chapters, or “incidents” (i.e., murders) that become progressively reckless and shambolic. The first victim is a woman (played by Uma Thurman) stranded on the side of a mountain road with a flat tire, who needs help fixing her “broken jack” (get it?). From there it’s dragging bodies behind cars, shooting children at a firing range, arranging frozen corpses taxidermically, and a mastectomy performed with a kitchen knife.
Trier has a tendency to work with two archetypes when it comes to his characters, and Jack belongs to the first – characters that seem taken straight from the pages of the DSM-V: self-absorbed and remorseless deviants who are always gifted with the monological ability to defend their behaviour and who either: a) escape punishment at the end of the story; b) are rewarded for their shittyness; or c) are destroyed, but are made to look wise or martyred in doing so. She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in Antichrist, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in Nymphomaniac, and Justine (Kirsten Dunst) in Melancholia all fit this description.
Justine, for example, suffers from crippling depression, a condition that gives her license to be shitty to everyone around her. It is only once she realizes that annihilation is imminent (as the rogue planet “Melancholia” approaches on its collision course with Earth) does she become existentially “realigned” – as her view of the world as meaningless and cruel affirms itself before her eyes. These characters are often antagonized by rational figures, men of science, who ultimately debase themselves, or are made to look foolish for their reason; like John (Kiefer Sutherland) in Melancholia, who cowardly commits suicide in the stables after he realizes he’s wrong about the planet’s trajectory; or Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) in Nymphomaniac, an asexual academic who is murdered by Joe after he (completely illogically) attempts to rape her; or He (Willem Defoe) in Antichrist, a psychotherapist who attempts to help his grieving wife by taking her to a cabin and treating her, and has his genitals mutilated and a grindstone bolted to his leg by said wife in the film’s final act.
The other archetype is the sweet and meek naïf who is punished for her gullibility. As we see with Dogville’s Grace (Nicole Kidman), who is raped by several members of the town, whom she nonetheless sees as essentially decent; or Bess (Emily Watson) in Breaking the Waves, a righteous and God-fearing woman who offers herself up to be gang-raped and brutalized by a ship full of sailors. What all these characters share, though, is their textbook psychology (Jack: OCD/psychopathy, She: clinical depression, Justine: clinical depression, Joe: Nymphomania) and their one-dimensionality. It’s not really psychology at all, but a bundle of disorders that prevent a character from ever achieving a common humanity, the result of which is that any empathy with these protagonists is rendered virtually impossible. In fact, Trier’s goal seems to be to get the audience to hate his characters as much as possible.
This forms part of the moral architecture of Trier’s universe – in which good people are punished and bad people are tragically misunderstood. And these characters do inhabit a moral landscape, unlike in a Robbe-Grillet novel, or a David Lynch film, where the directory of good and bad seems nonexistent, where characters – who are not really characters at all, but entities – simply act out as things happen. They are incapable of offending because they don’t acknowledge that anything can be offended. In Trier’s films, the capacity to offend is prioritized, as audience morality is acknowledged (usually via a character who stands in for some kind of monolithic consensus [i.e., “society”]), undermined, and then gleefully destroyed.
Of course, not all bad characters deserve to be punished and all good characters rewarded. A drama in which this were the case wouldn’t be a drama it all. Characters shouldn’t conform to our sensibilities, nor do we want them to. Still, there are little ethical slights that can be slipped into a story to help you deal with a villain. Nabokov (who was no stranger to the wretched and the depraved) proposed that you punish characters by way of detail. You might, for example, give a mobster the dirty habit of chewing his fingernails, or showcase the ignorance of a crooked cop by stocking his speech with solecisms and four-letter words. These details, when taken together, are redemptive, and reveal the invisible moral hand operating within the story. If there’s an authorial hand in Trier’s films, it serves only to pull the wings off the fly.
Here then, is a quick list of the many things one can expect to find in the Lars von Trier universe: rape, flagellation, self-mutilation, clitoridectomies, mastectomies, penises ejaculating blood, foxes cannibalizing themselves, kids clipping the feet off ducks, defenestrated children, children used for target practice, people urinating on each other, and characters saying things like, “Nature is Satan’s church,” and “The earth is evil.… Nobody will miss it,” and “An artist must be cynical, and not worry about the welfare of humans or gods,” and “The pedophile who manages to get through life with the shame of his desire, while never acting on it, deserves a bloody medal,” and “If one is so unfortunate as to have been born male, then you’re also born guilty. Think of the injustice in that. Women are always the victims, right? And men, they’re always the criminals,” and so forth.
All of this would be easy enough to write off if it weren’t so utterly incongruous with the visual style Trier is known for, which is often beautiful and carefully crafted. Antichrist and Melancholia in particular are especially gorgeous films – cinematography-wise. What’s more, Trier has the annoying tendency to flourish his style at the most abhorrent moments – for example, the opening scene of Antichrist: a high-def, slow-motion, black-and-white sequence depicting a child dropping out a window into a snowlit street. The effect is that of an aesthetic double bind, where the audience doesn’t know how to receive what they’re being shown.
In writing about why he found the work of Salvador Dali so distasteful, George Orwell felt capable of producing a distinction between a good painting and a Good painting, admitting that Dali was indeed a talented draftsman, but one who nonetheless produced rotten images, adding:
The first thing that we demand of a wall is that it shall stand up. If it stands up, it is a good wall, and the question of what purpose it serves is separable from that. And yet even the best wall in the world deserves to be pulled down if it surrounds a concentration camp.
This is a great line that turns out to be wrong, because it contends that “form” and “content”/ style and function are distinct and separable elements. If they can be successfully separated, then they cease to constitute a true style. A true style is where form is consonant with content, where no such distinction can be produced – no different between what and how. There is only how. And this is what makes a true style inherently ethical: it perceives, it judges. Any style that fails to achieve this is a meretricious one. Trier’s idea of style is to show you a rotting corpse, or a woman being raped, and then play classical music over it, or throw a Breughel painting on screen afterwards, as in the opening scene of Antichrist: chiaroscuro and Handel’s Rinaldo are absurdly overlaid in order to decorate a moment of horror.
Take the Brechtian black box setting of Dogville, for which there is no conceivable stylistic justification. The film could easily take place in a real location. One would have to imagine Trier saying to himself, “yeah, that’ll be cool. I’ll do it like Brecht,” and thinking about it no further. His films are packed with these kinds of pseudo-intellectual flourishes, and are often used to prop up otherwise clunky and poorly managed plots, or to puff up underdeveloped characters, as in The House That Jack Built, where Jack’s descent into violence is paralleled with the archetypal descent into the inferno, with Jack narrating his story throughout to a man named Verge (Virgil). It is an allegory that is entirely arbitrary and unearned in a story about a remorseless psychopath – since The Divine Comedy is fundamentally a spiritual chronicle of redemption and lost love. Though it nonetheless provides us with a finale, where Jack follows Virgil into the underworld, which is by far the best and most interesting part of the film, and leaves one wishing Trier had made an adaptation of Dante instead.
This narrative framing also offers Trier a delivery system for his usual counterpoint rants against ordinary morality and digressions replete with internet-age erudition on things like structural integrity, romantic poetry, the fermentation of wine, the design of fighter jets (all of which sound like they were acquired from Wikipedia) while playing Glenn Gould and flashing random Blake and Botticelli paintings and footage of fascist rallies across the screen and having Jack say things like:
You [Virgil] kill art by imposing your moral ruler on life, which I want to free, because art is so immeasurably vaster than we will ever understand.
As disinclined as the world is to acknowledge the beauty of decay, it’s just as disinclined to give credit to those – no, credit to us – who create the real icons of this planet. We are deemed the ultimate evil [shots of Hitler and Mussolini]. All the icons that have had and always will have an impact on the world are for me, extravagant art.
In even less elegant moments, these tangents are reserved to antagonize the audience and remind them just how the director feels about any particular subject. In Nymphomaniac (Vol. II), for example, following a scene where Joe invites two African men up to a hotel to “sandwich” her, the camera wags gratuitously back-and-forth between two half-flaccid and also wagging penises, until Seligman objects to her use of the word “negro.” At which point we get this:
Joe: “Each time a word becomes prohibited you remove a stone from the democratic foundation. Society demonstrates its impotence in the face of a concrete problem by removing words from the language. The book burners have nothing on modern society… and I say that society is as cowardly as the people in it, who in my opinion are also too stupid for democracy.”
These moments illustrate, knowingly or not, the essence of Trier’s method and his whole raison as an artist. Like his characters, his imagination is animated by the rhetoric of obsession, the product of which is an elaborate frustration devoid of any higher joy, one that is antisocial and contrarian to the extreme – and like his characters, seeks neither love nor sympathy from the audience. Still, Trier’s oeuvre showcases an irrepressible creative engine. And like a furnace, it burns longly, indiscriminately. The House That Jack Built is 155 minutes; Breaking the Waves 158 min.; Dogville 178 min.; and Nymphomaniac 241 min. (the director’s cut 325 min.). Like all prolific artists, Trier lacks the capacity for self-editing and gauging his audience’s patience. There’s something essentially onanistic about the time and tedium his work demands, and “nothing odd will do long,” as Samuel Johnson said.
Shock art is the lowest form of art because it bastardizes true inspiration by working in service of something other than itself. It holds its audience in contempt, seeing anything external as a threat, and takes gratification in watching it cringe. It’s a sadist’s trade, at best. Trier once described the experience of making Antichrist – a film born of the director’s own depression – as a form of therapy, saying that there was “no pleasure in doing [the] film.” In the four films he’s made since then, with Jack being the most recent update on the director’s condition, one wonders if there’s any pleasure left in it for him at all. There’s certainly none in watching.
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Unless otherwise indicated, all images are screenshots from the films.