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Rebel Without Applause

Lars von Trier squanders his brilliance for shock

The same day that I saw The House That Jack Built, Lars von Trier’s new serial killer film in which no women have names other than the killer’s sometime-girlfriend, who he nicknames “Simple,” a publicist sent me a new book filled with nothing but rape jokes. (“What’s small, shiny, and makes women want to have sex? A penknife.”) The work of the controversial artist and poet Vanessa Place, adapted from her own rape joke performance piece, You Had To Be There: Rape Jokes is less funny ha ha than funny oh God, and its unbearableness is the very reason it exists: it spins potential trauma, like shit into gold, into a source of uncomfortable mirth. “No wonder the best films about the Holocaust are comedies,” Slavoj Zizek writes in his blurb for the book. “Sometimes, laughter is the most authentic way to admit our perplexity and despair.”

The House That Jack Built is to some degree—as most films about human evil are—a film about the Holocaust. It is also a comedy, both in the usual sense and in the sense that might be prefaced with the word “divine.” Von Trier is not the first auteur to look at the agony and the cruelty inherent in human life and wonder how it might feel, figuratively speaking, with a laugh track, and it seems unlikely he will be the last. As he did in his last film, Nymphomaniac, he situates scenes of tediously provocative excess within an interminable discussion of philosophy and art, and as he did in Nymphomaniac, too, he appears to mine his own carefully cultivated status as a tireless provocateur to suggest that he is somehow subject to unfair interrogation from his audience. (What’s long, occasionally dull, and makes women never want to have sex again? Nymphomaniac.) “Von Trier exposes himself as the true subject,” writes Wesley Morris at the New York Times, “like a cuckoo in a clock, like a flasher.” Always, he reminds us that he is at heart a bad, bad little boy—the kind of man who probably loves Cards Against Humanity, or who laughs at a rape joke.

One more thing to know about von Trier: at fifty-five, he got a tattoo on the knuckles of his right hand reading “FUCK.”

Jack, the titular killer of (mostly) women, believes himself to be an artiste. In lieu of a gallery, he makes use of a meat-locker. “Don’t look at the acts,” he says, meaning the murders. “Look at the works.” The “works” are what he does with the resulting bodies, either female or child-aged: a breast reworked into a coin purse, a Danish “hunter’s parade” featuring approximately fifty dead crows and the bodies of a family. A sentence I cannot believe I’m writing: at one point, he freezes and then stuffs a young boy, arranging his face into a red-raw and mutilated smile. He leaves another breast he does not happen to be using to store spare change underneath a cop car’s windshield wiper. If Jack is an artist, he is not a very good one, and if his art is repulsive it is also somewhat dull. (In my own first year studying at art school, I produced an “installation work” drawing a direct line between the serial killer and the artist, a fact I am not including here in order to suggest that I was preternaturally inventive in my late teens, but to point out what a quintessentially teenaged idea this is. One more thing to know about von Trier: at fifty-five, he got a tattoo on the knuckles of his right hand reading “FUCK.”)

The film is framed by conversation between Jack, who we discover is being transported into hell, and “Verge,” who is revealed to be Virgil from the Inferno. They talk about Glenn Gould, the screaming whistle of a diving Stuka bomber. We see footage shot at Bergen-Belsen. “Why are all the women in your stories stupid?” Verge asks, although neither Jack nor von Trier offers any interesting or convincing answer to the question. “Do you hate women?”

I have noticed that male critics in particular are worked up over the misogyny in The House That Jack Built. It is possible that women, perhaps having more experience with men so desperate for attention that they act like boors, know that to be outraged is to play into his kink. Do I think Lars von Trier hates women? On some level, yes. He has not been especially coy in this regard. Truthfully, I did not find anything more frustrating about this particular example of his jaundiced worldview than the fact that there is a great deal about The House That Jack Built that is very good—like this year’s other big word-of-mouth-driven shocker, Ari Aster’s bait-and-switch domestic horror film Hereditary, it has a fantastic, sharp first hour that is marred by a descent into absurd, too-dumb-to-be-dark excess. “Mr. Sophistication” is a brilliantly funny sobriquet for a serial-killer, and Matt Dillon is in general brilliantly funny, handling any setback to his killings with the humdrum irritation of a clerk. “I’d like to see a badge,” a woman tells him when he turns up at her door claiming to be a police officer. “So would I,” he deadpans.

There is and always has been in von Trier a sick, anarchic streak of savage genius; in Jack Built all the genius parts are especially smart, and all the savage parts are savage to the point that a commenter at Variety felt moved to invoke Lucio Fulci’s grimiest slasher film, The New York Ripper (Fulci, incidentally, having also made a film whose title Jack does not heed: Don’t Torture A Duckling). The auteur has said the reason he cast Dillon as his killer was in part because no other actor he wanted for the role returned his calls. Dillon, in kind, has said that he came close to reconsidering taking the part on reading that he would be not just torturing a woman, but repurposing her right breast as an à la mode accessory. “[That] was difficult for me,” he told an interviewer at IndieWire, “and it only got harder on the day, because Riley [Keough] is very believable at being terrified. And making someone that frightened is just something that I don’t ever want to do to anybody.”

Luckily for von Trier, and for viewers interested in seeing a direct descendant of The King of Rock ’n’ Roll in literal pieces, he ignored his very understandable misgivings in order to turn Jack into one of the best male characters that the director has produced in years: pathetic and extremely dangerous, a Men’s Right’s Activist without much masculinity, a lantern-jawed matinee idol in the wire-rimmed glasses of a cartoon pedophile. In addition to habitually murdering and dismembering women, Jack also has OCD, making the film’s extreme gore triggering not just to us, the audience, but to the serial killer; a near-perfect sequence showing him repeatedly returning to the scene of his own crime, fearing he’s left some small, residual blood splash, deserves to be situated in a better film. In some alternate universe, there is a version of The House That Jack Built that functions as a straightforward black comedy, less flashily sick and more acidly effective as a work of satire.

Outside cinema, in the director’s life as opposed to his work, there is more to be shocked by.

I have not discussed the fact that von Trier calls the serial killer “the [character] closest to myself,” or his repeated invocation of the Nazis in The House That Jack Built as a stupid, nose-thumbing retort to being exiled from the Cannes Film Festival between 2011 and this year for saying “I understand Hitler. He did some wrong things, absolutely, but . . . I sympathize with him, yes, a little bit,” because to do so would be tiresome and repetitive. In cinema, for better or worse, very little shocks me, and if I have railed against von Trier’s misogyny and egotism in the past, nothing is more maddening to me now than his repeated squandering of his brilliance.

Outside cinema, in the director’s life as opposed to his work, there is more to be shocked by. For all of The House That Jack Built’s evil and tenebrous comedy, my loudest laugh of all came during a pre-screening featurette in which von Trier sincerely says “I think that I have done a lot for feminism,” and the interviewer does not challenge him. “Before the film’s premiere, von Trier’s producer vowed to ‘stop slapping asses,’” Slate reported, “while his company, Zentropa, was undergoing sexual harassment investigations. The musical artist Björk posted a Facebook status last October in which she scorned an unnamed ‘Danish director’ who made repeated advances and touched her inappropriately during production on a film.” 

“Some people claim that the atrocities we commit in our fiction are those inner desires we cannot commit in our controlled civilization, so they are expressed instead in our art,” Jack says to Verge. “I don’t agree. I believe heaven and hell are one and the same. The soul belongs to heaven, and the body to hell. The soul is the reason, and the body is all the dangerous things.” Von Trier’s body, as Bjork tells it, has done some especially dangerous things, up to and including “threaten[ing] to climb from his room’s balcony over to [hers] in the middle of the night with a clear sexual intention” and whispering “constant awkward paralyzing unwanted” sexual offers. In fiction, cutting off a woman’s breasts for shock is irritating; in life, threatening to break into her hotel room for sex, a rape joke nothing like a joke, is something immeasurably worse.