Weird scenes inside Lars von Trier’s mind
Treat his new ‘The House That Jack Built’ with care
Back in the 1990s, a rumour went around that Lars von Trier always carried a length of rope, in case he ever had to climb out of a window.
Among the Danish filmmaker’s many neuroses, claustrophobia is a big one. It’s why he wasn’t in Cannes for the 1996 premiere of Breaking the Waves: after boarding his train at Copenhagen Central, he noticed the carriage windows were sealed shut, so promptly disembarked and went back home.Hence the apocryphal cord, which allegedly travelled with him to even the mildest business engagements, just in case one turned into a blazing death trap. That’s the first thing you need to know to understand Von Trier – that he is a man who packs his own escape route.
Or is he? There’s a twang of absurdity to the tale above that makes you wonder if it really should be taken at face value. But not knowing where you stand is the entire point of Von Trier, whose deserved status as the most highly regarded Danish filmmaker since the mighty Carl Theodor Dreyer hasn’t remotely reined in his nose-tweaking, shin-kicking instincts.
From The Idiots to Nymphomaniac, no other filmmaker working today can outrage and convulse an audience as thoroughly as Von Trier – and the buzz around his 14th film, a serial-killer bildungsroman called The House That Jack Built, suggests it will be gut-wrenchingly on-brand. It premiered at Cannes on Monday night, and was described to me by two people with knowledge of the project as “an obscenity” and “staggeringly misogynistic”. The House That Jack Built frames its title character, played by Matt Dillon, as a kind of artist, for whom each grisly slaying is an act of self-expression.“As the inevitable police intervention is drawing nearer,” reads the film’s synopsis in the festival programme, “he is taking greater and greater risks in his attempt to create the ultimate artwork.” The parallel between subject and creator is, one must assume, 100% intentional.
Von Trier has often described his characters – particularly the much-put-upon women – as aspects of his own personality, which is by all accounts a clump of contradictions. He is the pornographic provocateur who got his start in children’s television, the publicity-phobe whose films cause lava-like eruptions of fury wherever they are screened. He writes fragile, complex women then throws them to the wolves in a filming process so bruising that the singer Björk, who starred in his 2000 musical Dancer in the Dark, called him a “sadist” and swore off acting for good.The trick to enjoying Von Trier’s work isn’t sluicing out these incongruities. It’s wading right into the dissonance, until the rival currents sweep you off your feet. He even introduces elements into his films that he himself dislikes on ideological terms, such as the peal of heavenly bells at the end of Breaking the Waves, which was, he said, “a provocation to myself”. In that soul-scouring 1996 film, Emily Watson’s pure-hearted naif becomes convinced that her paralysed husband will be healed by divine intervention if she sleeps with other men, to the horror of her stern Scottish Calvinist neighbours. The God of Breaking the Waves is both a) a capricious sadist and b) completely non-existent. That may well be the perfect Von Trier twist on the proverbial cake: he wants to have his godless universe and smite it, too.
But can you blame him? He was born plain Lars Trier in 1956 – he added the “von” himself at film school, for gravitas – to upper-middle-class left-wing atheist nudists, who raised him to believe he was Jewish on his father’s side. Yet when he was in his early 30s, his mother revealed on her deathbed that his real father had been a German civil servant. Hence his muddled bad-taste joke at Cannes in 2011 that he was “really a Nazi” who could “understand Hitler”, and that had him drummed out of the festival in disgrace.His third film, Europa, was the first he made in full knowledge of his parentage. It shows. A thriller set in postwar Germany with a debt to Kafka, it follows a naive American (Jean-Marc Barr) who arrives to help with reconstruction, but falls in love with a fascist femme fatale – who shares a surname, Hartmann, with Von Trier’s biological father – and becomes embroiled in a bizarre Nazi revenge conspiracy. Crew members joked that it was unlikely to win the Palme d’Or, but had a good shot at the Iron Cross.Europa premiered at Cannes in 1991, where it won the Jury Prize, eliciting an acceptance speech in which Von Trier referred to jury president Roman Polanski as “the midget”. But it also marked the end of an early obsession with precisely framed expressionistic pomp – and the films that followed felt like the work of a different mind.
Von Trier had become obsessed with the cop show Homicide: Life on the Street – specifically its choppy editing and use of hand-held cameras, which flew in the face of classical filmmaking technique. Four years later, he and fellow Dane Thomas Vinterberg unveiled their Dogme 95 manifesto: a set of new rules for cinema that sought to “purify” the art form, banning background music, special lighting, custom sets and props, and the crediting of a director. Dogme both was and wasn’t a joke, but Von Trier committed to it fully. Both Breaking the Waves and his TV series The Kingdom, a cross between ER and Twin Peaks, used elements of this new styleless style. Then along came The Idiots (1998), which was Dogme uncut. A haywire account of a smug middle-class commune who feign mental impairment in pursuit of inner purity, The Idiots was a legitimate film-world scandal – not just for its mocking caricatures of disability, but also its deliberate ugliness (Von Trier shot it on a camcorder) and a scene featuring unsimulated penetrative sex.In Stig Björkman’s documentary Tranceformer, shot during the making of Breaking the Waves, the late actress Katrin Cartlidge said she believed Von Trier was going through a “personal perestroika. He was trying to rebuild himself … I think he was moving away from something that had a grip on him, his mania for technology, and somewhere within there was this other Lars who wanted to understand people.”
Together Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves and The Idiots form what Von Trier calls his “Golden Heart trilogy”, named after a Danish fairy tale he adored as a child, in which an unselfish girl loses everything she has, but still has faith that she’ll be all right.
Yet more stripping away of artifice followed in Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005), a pair of films acted out on vast, bare stages, with the scenery marked out in white lines underfoot. Both are set in the US and centre on an idealistic young woman called Grace, who attempts to help two suffering communities, the citizens of a backwoods mining town and a group of recently freed slaves.Skip the slight 2006 office comedy The Boss of It All – everyone else did – and you hit Antichrist, drafted in the doldrums of a three-year depressive slump, and featuring a grieving mother (Charlotte Gainsbourg) consumed by Satanic psychosis. The film plays like an unfiltered nightmare: even by Von Trier’s standards, its hallucinatory scenes of mutilation and torment are hard to take. But such is the film’s brutalising force, it seemed to numb all that followed. There was something uncharacteristically unfocused about his depression epic Melancholia, which featured Gainsbourg, Kirsten Dunst, and a rogue planet on a collision course with Earth. And despite its theoretically boundary-pushing portrayals of sex, his two-part porn-epic Nymphomaniac was little more than a Jive Bunny megamix of his previous work – trusty old themes and images arbitrarily strung together and set to a headboard-rattling beat.
So the question is: where next? Perhaps Von Trier has brought cinema so close to the brink that the only place he can go is backwards – or perhaps with The House That Jack Built, he has found yet another way to stun and transgress.© The Daily Telegraph