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The Hell That Lars von Trier Built

The controversial director’s new film, ‘The House That Jack Built,’ is the summation of a career built on antagonizing and torturing audiences with his brutal vision of the world. But it’s also his most human, and that’s the paradox of all of his work.

IFC Films/Ringer illustration

Lars von Trier’s highly anticipated and already hotly debated new film, The House That Jack Built, begins with a black screen and a disembodied male voice saying, “Can I ask you something?” An older man, equally invisible, replies, “I can’t promise I’ll answer.” As we eavesdrop on this cryptic conversation, the darkness before our eyes seems to somehow grow deeper; we have no choice but to focus solely on these unknown voices. Slowly, von Trier draws in the viewer and makes him weary, calling back to the opening of his 1991 film Europa, in which Max von Sydow’s velvety tones take the viewer into a trance “still deeper into Europa,” while the repetitive rhythm of railroad tracks flashes on screen. The effect in both of these sequences is unmistakably hypnotic.

The older man heard in The House That Jack Built soon warns his interlocutor Jack, who wishes to confess more about himself, “just don’t think you’re going to tell me anything I haven’t heard before.” There might be a hint of irony in the old man’s blasé attitude; knowing the director’s confrontational and playful work, chances are that Jack’s tales and opinions at least will be fascinating, and probably outrageous. Yet the old man’s irritation also speaks for von Trier’s: the Danish director, now 62 years old, doesn’t guarantee answers and has seen things you people wouldn’t believe. To his detractors, his fans, and all his spectators, von Trier says “close your eyes, relax, and let me take you to the scary places I know so well.”

The House That Jack Built is far from the first time that von Trier has sent his audience on a downward spiral into hell, but it is the film that best expresses his reasons for doing so. And because Lars isn’t just a provocateur, never one to shock his audience and distance himself from it with a sense of righteousness (hello, Michael Haneke), it is also his most bashful admission of guilt, fear, and regret as an artist—a major work reduced to a bothersome provocation by too many critics to count.

Anyone with even a minimal knowledge of von Trier’s cinema will make the connection between von Trier and Jack, the Ted Bundy–ish serial killer played by Matt Dillon, whose performance reveals an astonishing range and comic timing. Jack is evidently a bad guy: he tricks, tortures, and kills, mostly women, in often convoluted ways; he calls his crimes “art,” enshrining them in photographs for the media. This equation of shock + craftsmanship is also what von Trier has built his career upon: He could be said to have abused his status as an auteur filmmaker to implicitly legitimize the violence in his films, which is itself often perpetuated by men who justify their cruelty (often against female characters) with assured but inhumane rhetoric.

Von Trier’s “Golden Heart” trilogy—starting with Breaking the Waves in 1996 and continuing with The Idiots in 1998 and the musical Dancer in the Dark in 2000—derives its title from the saintly women each film centers on. Each heroine finds herself in intractable situations with people who take advantage of her generosity with exponential cruelty. Von Trier wasn’t officially credited on The Idiots because that film was made following the Dogme 95 Manifesto, which he had created in 1995 with fellow Dane Thomas Vinterberg as an attempt to make a purer cinema, freed from the capitalist and technological corruption of studios. Yet The Idiots has Lars written all over it: it follows a group of young anti-establishment people who enter particularly bourgeois spaces to disturb the elite by pretending to be mentally ill, the most non-PC thing anyone could do and meant to awaken people to their buried lack of tolerance. Gradually, “the idiots” start losing their sense of right and wrong and soon defeat the very purpose of their enterprise, turning more vile and violent than the people they aimed to discredit. This failure of rhetoric and intellectualism is how von Trier chooses to reveal the hypocrisy at the center of humanity, and how he justifies his shocking images. But it’s also a way to attack the hypocrisy of his audience itself, which came to see a European art film and is now dared to endure those horrible scenes, which are the very expressions—or “illustrations,” as Jack would call them—of its own sense of superiority.

There is maybe something masochistic about liking Lars von Trier’s work, but it’s also somewhat soul-cleansing, like drinking Drano. Witnessing the tragic fate of Björk’s Selma in the Palme d’Or–winning Dancer in the Dark, in which she plays a factory worker going blind who finds solace from her hardships in song and dance, or that of Kirsten Dunst’s bride-to-be in Melancholia as her irrepressible Big Mood initiates the apocalypse, one wonders what he or she would have done to help. Even if we don’t get the answers, sometimes it’s good to really feel the questions.

Von Trier’s setups are so brutal as to be almost abstract, and nowhere does he use storytelling and image-making to discuss the concepts of society and humanity more bluntly and intellectually than in his 2003 epic Dogville. Nicole Kidman plays Grace, a beautiful young woman who one night arrives in the titular small Rocky Mountain town and is allowed by its inhabitants to hide there, and in exchange, she’ll help with everyone’s chores, even though nothing really needs to get done. Turning the Dogme 95 rules inside-out, von Trier doesn’t use natural settings but instead shoots the whole film on a studio set, with only lines traced on the floor to mark the walls of houses on Elm Street, the main avenue in Dogville. The ensemble cast, his most international and bankable yet—including John Hurt as another droning narrator—therefore exists in a single, artificial space, but pretends to open and close invisible doors and to not see past the nonexistent walls. Secrets and hypocrisy are therefore directly exposed, and Grace’s abuse, too, is always in plain sight.

Prior to Dogville, von Trier had never been so cruel, nor so direct in both his provocation and his argumentation. After Grace has been repeatedly attacked and enslaved by everyone in Dogville, her gangster father (James Caan, whose dynamic with Kidman is surprisingly credible in its complexity) comes to find and criticize her for her arrogance: by forgiving the mediocrity of her torturers, Grace is placing herself on a higher moral ground than them, and thus insulting their humanity. The ideological discussion between father and daughter feels ridiculously elevated in contrast with the hard reality of the milieu and of Grace’s physical abuse, and von Trier’s sadistic sense of humor is hard to resist. His informed yet fervent hatred of egotism and duplicity, too, makes Grace’s ultimate murderous decision difficult to argue with, and von Trier’s thesis all the more convincing. Over the course of Dogville’s three-hour runtime, the director has relentlessly exposed the excuses that an entire populace found to take advantage of a kind and smart woman, but also her own difficulty to perceive just how debased these people were underneath the surface. Grace’s story has made it painfully clear that hypocrisy is a vicious beast, contaminating both sides of a power dynamic with a sense of superiority.

Nicole Kidman in Dogville
Zentropa Entertainments

Ironically—irony is, obviously, von Trier’s preferred modus operandi—the most reprehensible character in Dogville isn’t anyone who has actually attacked Grace directly (and it isn’t Grace either), but rather the one man who thought himself above such pathetic power plays. Tom Edison (Paul Bettany) believes that Dogville is corrupt, but also that he alone, with his powerful novelist brain, can help it become more humane. The term “mansplainer” doesn’t quite cover the extent of his smug big-headedness, but it’s a good start. It is Tom who convinces Grace to offer herself up to the inhabitants as a scapegoat to test their tolerance. His mistake is to underestimate how low one person in need—let alone an entire poor town—can go when she is given the opportunity to take just a little too much from someone. And he can’t even detect this same tendency to persecute within himself.

Stuck in his theories and privilege, Tom is a typical male von Trier antihero, a model that the director would further evolve and (literally) deconstruct in 2009’s Antichrist, the first entry in his “Depression” trilogy (which also includes 2011’s Melancholia and the two parts of 2014’s Nymphomaniac). Willem Dafoe’s character (simply called “He”) is something worse than a writer: he’s a psychiatrist, supposedly an even greater expert on human nature, and therefore incredibly self-satisfied. Pushing his abstractionist tendencies further but in a somewhat unexpected and surreal direction, von Trier here presents his misgivings about mankind by having his hero miscalculate the antichrist itself, in the shape of his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg’s “She”). Of von Trier’s more notorious works, Antichrist might be his least convincing (he declared he was suffering from depression during the production), but also his most robust and angry—and most scandalous pre-Jack. Sympathies lie on both sides, as the violence of the images makes it hard to take von Trier seriously on any register. As narrow-minded as the husband may be, the extent of his suffering never seems warranted and, more interestingly and upsettingly still, neither does the wife’s mania. Hypnosis makes a comeback as He tries to talk She out of her grief; her response suggests that she may be extremely suggestible and has perhaps internalized her husband’s and the world’s misogyny to a supernatural degree, thus complicating von Trier’s position. A perplexed viewer would (as many have) claim that Antichrist demonizes women and life itself; a more generous reading would see it as an absurdist feminist critique of sexism and the impossible demands that this deeply corrupt world puts on women.

The generally fiery and offended response that Antichrist received, in particular for its scenes of sexual organs torture, can explain why von Trier used sex itself as the fabric of a subsequent project (in between, either by accident or for fun, he expressed some compassion toward Hitler at Cannes and was temporarily banned from the festival). The underrated 2014 diptych Nymphomaniac is told from the informed and analytical perspective of a woman, Joe (played at different ages by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin) on humans’ perpetually disappointing search for love and connection. Joe is the opposite of a mansplainer. Even though she describes her lifelong sexual experiments and heartbreaks to a man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who listens patiently, she speaks from a point of self-realization. Rather than defending her actions or predetermined arguments—like Tom in Dogville—she offers an honest explanation of her past mistakes and newfound skepticism about humanity. In truth, it is the monkish Seligman who is arrogant: after hearing Joe’s thoroughly-researched and clearly illustrated (thanks to an essay-film like interpolation of graphs and archival footage) account for hours, Seligman demonstrates that he never really took her theories seriously by attempting to have sex with her—the last thing she wants to do now, and for the rest of her life.

Seemingly determined to get bolder with age, von Trier now turns from excessive sexual drives to an even greater taboo: the death drive itself. Just as Nymphomaniac used episodes of explicit sex for its construction, the building blocks of The House That Jack Built are murders, of women especially—and for Jack, this isn’t just a metaphor. But von Trier’s growing impatience with subtlety also shows in the presence of Verge (Bruno Ganz), the old man talking with Jack in voice-over and constantly calling him out on his arrogance and, you know, murderous impulses. Of all of von Trier’s argumentative duos—Grace and her father, Joe and Seligman—it is Jack and Verge that best represent the constant push and pull at work against the director, but also within himself. Once and for all, von Trier wants to make evident the internal divide which is at the basis of his oeuvre, and of his anguish. Instead of diffusing his ambivalence toward human nature across several complex characters—as he did in the loving but destructive community of The Idiots—or having one person move between those contradictory notions through time—such as Grace or Joe—von Trier now presents two distinct extreme cases, and has one interrogate the other. At the risk of being didactic, his conceptual approach is more obvious and effective than ever.

Shia LaBeouf in Nymphomaniac
Zentropa Entertainments

Inevitably, and delightfully, Verge eventually asks Jack why the victims he chooses to talk about are all women, and “stupid” ones. This is Lars hearing the critics, and asking himself the same question: Why are the sufferers in my films so often naive women? After initially dismissing his picks as purely random, Jack concedes the point and concludes that women are simply “easier to collaborate with”—a line begging for a laugh track. Von Trier isn’t just being glib, however, nor is he lying: his “Golden Heart” trilogy made clear that, since patriarchal society hates women so much, it is much easier for him to criticize its hypocrisy using women as sympathetic protagonists. He is simply employing the raw material that this big bad world has given him.

But von Trier hasn’t lost his sense of humor, and immediately, Verge remarks that “collaborate” is here a euphemism for “kill.” Even as he is defending his approach more clearly than ever, von Trier is also trolling his detractors with increasing panache: you can compare him to Jack, but keep in mind that, contrary to his character, the director doesn’t really kill women. Considering Björk’s more recent complaints regarding an unnamed Danish director’s sexual harassment on set, this looks a lot like von Trier both acknowledging that he has toed a dangerous line, and briskly dismissing the allegations. Poking fun at the ready-made attacks for misogyny that he is bound to receive, von Trier goes to an even murkier territory when Jack complains during an encounter with Riley Keough’s Jacqueline, who he nicknames “Simple” (those two names are, again, unsubtle), that women “always get to be the victims” while men are “born guilty”—but the serial killer delivers this little speech to a woman he has tied up and is about to torture to death. The risk here is that constant exposure to images of mutilated women—à la Game of Thrones—and to cruel, empty irony in the media, will have desensitized spectators to the absurdity of this situation. But von Trier choosing to take that risk may be his boldest declaration of humanity: to him, there is no doubt that Jack is deeply wrong.

Still, Jack keeps trying to convince Verge of the intelligence and righteousness of his actions—and Lars keeps trying to persuade himself of the virtues of his abrasive art. To the uninitiated, von Trier’s obsession with hypnosis may suggest a desire to control others; but true hypnosis only works if both the subject and the hypnotist himself welcome it. When von Trier takes his audience under, he goes there too, and both Verge and Jack have to undertake the doomed journey that the serial killer has embarked on. Von Trier never leaves his audience alone when he goes looking for the darkest truth of human nature. The question is, does this in-depth exploration also dig out ways to deal with these buried realities?

Joe’s sexual exploration only leads to her ruin; Tom’s intellectual and social experiment in Dogville generates mass murder; the idiots’ anti-establishment rebellion proves self-destructive. Jack’s artistic murders also haven’t satisfied him or made the world make more sense: he can’t live in the house made of the corpses of his victims, just as Selma in Dancer in the Dark cannot inhabit the magical world of her mind. Von Trier himself seems unable to live within the walls of his filmography, because his films have only revealed difficult problems at the core of human nature, without resolving them. His confrontational art hasn’t helped the world—it may even have made it a worse place to live.

Von Trier himself appears as the lead in his extremely DIY 1987 film Epidemic, playing a filmmaker named Lars whose script about a medieval plague is so visceral and immersive that it requires a hypnotized spectator to fully realize it. But the hypnosis itself, in the film’s horrifying and hilarious climax, actually makes the scripted plague come true—life doesn’t imitate art as much as become infected by it. Several people die and the director is left feeling guilty, sitting pathetically in a closet, with a stunned look on his face. Making art about—and thus, out of—the dark fundamental nature of humankind has turned out to be like digging for gold and opening up a gateway to hell, from which evil itself sprays out onto the universe.

Of course, one could question von Trier’s true motivations in blaming himself. Is he looking for sympathy, or sarcastically trying to abuse our compassion? Is he testing our limits, or our patience? Is he again trying to hypnotize us into forgiving him for what he’s done to God’s creation? I can’t promise I’ve answered that question, but I’ve tried.

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