When is art art and when is it mindlessly provocative? That’s a question that’s been around for as long as the film medium has existed. While it is clear that idiotic garbage like The Human Centipede or the Hostel movies only exist so people can hate on them, there are those films and directors whose works genuinely divide opinion. At the top of that list is one Lars von Trier.
Von Trier is the Danish director of such existential films as Dogville (2003), Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011) & Nymphomaniac (2013) & the one of the founders of the Dogma ’95 Movement, which sought to make films in as artistic, yet low-tech way as possible. His films have been met with as much vitriol as they have acclaim. So with a new film on the way the question will again be asked; is he about pushing the boundaries of cinematic expression or just looking to garner controversy for its own sake?
Von Trier’s new film (following a five year break for mental health reasons) is the horror The House That Jack Built. Staring Matt Dillon and Uma Thurman the movie follows the highly charismatic, intelligent serial killer Jack over a twelve year period. Von Trier has stated that the films message is that “Life is evil and soulless”. Despite this the movie received a ten minute standing ovation at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. So, is the film a modern masterpiece, or is it “An ordeal of unsettling gruesomeness” as one of the directors many industry critics put it. The answer to this question may all be down to how you view the man behind the camera and the sincerity of his intentions.
Von Trier’s films and his comments about his nihilistic outlook have been the sources of controversy for nearly forty years now. In fairness to his critics he makes himself an easy target. His now legendary neo-Nazi remarks at Cannes for instance. While these were meant as a joke he still hasn’t grasped that not everyone will understand or appreciate his particularly dark sense of humour.
His movies provoke the same kind of reaction. Scenes of graphic violence in Dogville, of sex in Nymphomaniac or of family tragedy in Antichrist are all to different extents difficult to watch. But they are not done out of a desire to only shock. Von Trier has a clear and single-minded philosophy in each of his movies. They are his way of understanding the world. To him, reality in itself is evil. He just puts it on film. This is at the heart of both his successes and his failures. His movies work best when he uses the extreme visceral scenes as an anchor to explore existential issues from that point on. Von Trier never sets out to shock for shocks sake. Those feeling pass quickly. His intentions (weather he succeeds or fails) is to say that the shocking is not shocking at all, it is a natural part of existence.
Von Trier’s movies, much like the man himself, are complex, challenging and sometimes unpleasant. But one thing they never are is dull. In a cinema landscape so often dominated by the blandness of Hollywood someone like von Trier is the kick in the balls the industry needs. Stop taking the audiences for granted, take a risk and create something that will last in the memory long after the credits roll. For that reason alone I hope von Trier doesn’t go through with his oft-touted threats of an early exit and continues to pour his pain into his camera and share it with the world.
Last modified: 21st February 2020