CANNES, France—Both praised and panned by critics, Danish director Lars von Trier’s new film The House That Jack Built premiered out of competition on Monday at Cannes—“vomitive” and “pathetic” are some of the adjectives being used by filmgoers to describe it. In a surprising turnabout, von Trier was welcomed back to Cannes after being proclaimed “persona non grata” for a joke in poor taste, mistakenly interpreted as pro-Nazi by the festival in 2011.
How did von Trier go from being one of the most respected art house directors of the early 21st century to a near-pariah in the film community?
The answer is complex, but has a considerable amount to do with how von Trier’s reputation was formulated in the first place. By the time the now-aging enfant terrible won the Grand Prix at Cannes for Breaking the Waves in 1996, he had already been making films for many years. Still, for younger film buffs, many of whom were growing tired of aging art house heroes such as Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, von Trier seemed like the perfect director for a cynical postmodern era.
His hip version of auteurism was built on pastiche—ironic versions of the earnest Scandinavian art house template pioneered by Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer. Whereas Bergman, and even more so Dreyer, made austere, rarefied films, von Trier was a highbrow director for the masses. Bess, the anti-heroine of Breaking the Waves, was somewhat reminiscent of the female protagonists celebrated by Dreyer and Bergman. But it was difficult to determine if she was a saint or merely a simpleton. Whatever one’s conclusion, her travails were accompanied by peppy '70s pop music, not the classical or avant-garde musical scores favored by older auteurs. Above all, von Trier made user-friendly films: the kind of non—or anti—Hollywood films that Americans and young Europeans found slightly puzzling but ultimately accessible.
In addition, as Americans and Europeans looked forward to the end of the Cold War in the '90s, von Trier was the ideal director for a world that was beginning to welcome the so-called end of ideology, a concept that political scientists had been jabbering about since the ’50s. While von Trier’s parents were leftists and genuflected to aspects of the counterculture, e.g., nudism, his films were far removed from the sort of leftism embraced by Jean Luc-Godard (or, in a less experimental vein, the British director Ken Loach) in the post-’68 era.
Although the aesthetic of Dogville, a star vehicle for Nicole Kidman, seemed to be influenced by the leftist playwright Bertolt Brecht, it in fact delivered an anti-Brechtian message. Brecht demanded a theater committed to transforming the political consciousness of his audience. Von Trier proved a soured utopian; a sentimental cynic who appeared to believe that human nature was unchangeable and mankind was inherently corrupt and selfish.
The evolution of von Trier’s current pariah status can be traced to his contradictory, seemingly muddled view of his female protagonists. Although von Trier gave many of his most prized roles to actresses—Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, Nicole Kidman in Dogville, and Björk in Dancer in the Dark—and was at one time even deemed something of a feminist, critics were split as to whether he venerated, or identified with, women or merely wanted to feature them in his movies in order to torture them. (It should also be noted that Melancholia was one von Trier film that generated considerable admiration among feminists. Artforum’s Amy Taubin termed it the first von Trier film she didn’t loathe.)
Of course, with the arrival of Björk’s 2017 accusations that von Trier sexually harassed her on the set of Dancer in the Dark, there are few feminist defenders of the embattled Dane. Some commentators have even been astounded that von Trier is considered deserving of an invitation to Cannes. Before viewing a frame of The House That Jack Built, journalists condemned von Trier as the embodiment of male privilege and a symptom of what’s wrong with hidebound Cannes. Melissa Silverstein, a women’s activist and artistic director of the Athena Film Festival, characterized von Trier’s return to Cannes as “unbelievable.”
In any case, The House That Jack Built deserves to be viewed as a film like any other and not as a symptom of male moral rot. In the current cultural climate, it’s easier to conflate an artist’s bad behavior with his (or her, as the case may be) art, however uplifting—or offensive—that art may be.
While von Trier’s new film is ultimately not my cup of tea, it, to be fair, can be viewed dispassionately as a philosophical film and is jam-packed with ideas. The problem is that most of these ideas are rather shopworn—pilfered from writers such as Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and de Sade, who have inspired intellectuals on both the right and the left for decades.
The film revolves around the crimes of Jack (Matt Dillon), who dubs himself “Mr. Sophistication” (an apparent reference to a character in John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie), a serial killer who recounts the details of five of his murders to a mysterious man named Verge (Bruno Ganz), seemingly short for Virgil, the ancient Roman who wrote The Aeneid.
The movie’s central conundrum, call it philosophical or call it perverse devil’s advocacy, is whether murder can be deemed art. It would be silly to claim that von Trier actually agrees with this outrageous proposal—any more than Dostoyevsky, obviously a more nuanced artist, believed that Raskolnikov, the antihero of Crime and Punishment, was justified in killing an elderly woman because he assumed he possessed a superior intellect.
It’s true that most of Jack’s victims are children or women, and it’s more than understandable that Cannes audiences have been repelled by scenes of Uma Thurman being pummeled to death or a sequence in which Riley Keough’s breast is mutilated and removed. Nevertheless, the film’s misogyny is so cartoonish and excessive that it seems a mistake to conclude that von Trier is endorsing this sort of mayhem. Instead, the director, known for enduring bouts of depression, is, with more than a little masochistic impishness, perhaps telling us: “You think I’m a horrible person. I’ll create the most disgustingly misogynistic character I can think of and let you wallow in his misdeeds for two and a half hours.”
In other words, The House That Jack Built can be deemed an elaborate self-indictment or act of self-abasement. In a recent interview posted online, von Trier, who more or less admits to being an alcoholic, appears to be a broken man. And while he may not deserve your sympathy, the suffering he’s inflicted on himself is much more profound than the dismay he’ll experience from the vitriol directed against his latest film.