Amongst the bushel of conclusions one can draw after sitting through the newest film by Danish director Lars von Trier, the most pertinent, perhaps pressing, is: Lars, I think you need some therapy. On the one hand, The House That Jack Built is a cheeky, nasty piece of a confession about the agony of artistry and mental illness, about representation in art as its own form of murder. On the other, it’s a smirking, smarting portrait of an art house bad boy pontificating, getting close to breakthrough, but too caught up in the spectacle of words and rhetoric to ever breach something with total sincerity—like a patient in a therapist’s office who knows they can get off the hook by talking a lot. It’s a spiritual successor to von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy” (Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac), but more directly a continuation of the self-reflexivity and self-effacement of Nymphomaniac, both in style and emotional content.
And it’s…fine? The House That Jack Built is von Trier’s first film to have a man as a protagonist in over a decade (the last time was in 2006’s office comedy—yes—The Boss of It All), a factor he is both blindingly aware of and yet totally oblivious to.
Jack’s (Matt Dillon) quest for artistic perfection by way of a perfect house and more perfect murders is plagued by anxiety, neurosis and OCD, which is, by no means, to be discounted. And while Dillon does a commendable job as Patrick Bateman’s somewhat more pretentious older brother (his debate between he and unseen Virgil about art, ethics, pain, pleasure, love and hate is surely entertaining), there is, at least for me, something missing in Jack—or, once evolved as a serial killer, Mr. Sophistication—besides his rhetorical backtracking. Maybe this is the most heterosexual film Lars von Trier has made in decades?
While von Trier came out of the gate intending to ruffle the feathers of critics and audiences back with his pre-Dogme sci-fi/dystopia/murder mystery experiment The Element of Crime (1984), he’s undoubtedly most famous, and has gathered the most polarizing responses, for his films about women. From Breaking the Waves (which garnered star Emily Watson an Academy Award nomination) to Dancer in the Dark (and one for Bjork), to Dogville and Antichrist, to Melancholia, his female characters are, depending on whom you ask, subject to deep misogyny—to an “unrelenting assault on the female body” or capable of “show[ing] an immense spectrum of strength, perseverance, and cunning, trumping a large majority of the fluffy, feeble female characterizations shown in modern cinema.” He has said, in so many words, that he identifies with his female characters, and, regarding what Antichrist’s Charlotte Gainsbourg told the Guardian, “I find it unjust when people say he hates women. I really have the impression that I was playing him, that he was the woman, that he was going through that misery, the physical condition, the panic attacks.”
Yes, the women in his films face an excruciating, ungodly amount of spiritual, emotional and physical pain. Abuse, rape, misfortune, entrapment, social marginalization. But also, yes, they are more often than not upheld by the end, vindicated, transcending the material and physical world around them. An artist using the body of a (suffering) woman to explore a deeper understanding of their identity and a sense of otherness or angst in the world? Sounds like a queer man to me.
My friend Reid Rohling quipped, “Straight men love LVT cause they [love living] vicariously through men killing women.” Which I don’t think is untrue. But I also believe that, maybe a little paradoxically, the queer appeal in Lars von Trier’s work exists, too, in identifying with the very women who are suffering, whose concepts of pain and pleasure, borne out of being socialized within an equally cruel world, are hazy and opaque. In essence, Lars von Trier has a straight man’s eye for sadism and a queer man’s nerve for masochism, creating an inherent duality to his art and representation.
The director has said he once wished to be a gay man. Von Trier, while rarely written about in this context outside of academia, has a bit of a melodramatist in him. He presents a quasi-nuclear familial structure or romantic dynamic and then breaks it—as a rejection of the genre—never to be pieced back together. He’s a more cynical, yet no less romantic, Douglas Sirk: He lives in a high emotional state, operating with an operatic sense of feeling reminiscent of the romantics. He begins Melancholia with Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” prelude. Breaking the Waves was literally adapted as an opera with music by Missy Mazzoli and a libretto by Royce Vavrek.
But for von Trier, the breaking of someone is as important as the reconception of their selfhood. The structure remains shattered, but the women eclipse the physical realm, and the brutality of the world left behind. Grace (Nicole Kidman) forces the townspeople of Dogville to reconcile with their abuse of her. Justine gets the “happiest of his endings” in Melancholia, peacefully accepting oblivion.
Von Trier’s inclination to revel in pain and pleasure is two-fold: The infliction of it reads as a performance of the hegemonic systems of oppression, while the experience of it reads as the struggle to craft an identity for oneself catalyzed by trauma. That he identifies so heavily with that pain and trauma feels little different than the ways in which queer men and queer male artists employ women as similar vehicles for extreme emotions. Vulnerability flip-flops with resilience.
Von Trier is not so different in his use of female bodies than someone like Pedro Almodovar or Todd Haynes or Xavier Dolan, or François Ozon, whose sketches of womanhood and femininity, while aided by a more explicitly queer sensibility, nevertheless utilize artifice as a means to examine authenticity. Scholar Ahmed Elbeshlawy argues that his attempt to create a genderless subject via his cinematic women is a failure, which is key: His identification with women cannot be stripped of the social factor and gendered implications of what it means to identify with women. (It’s no different, or it shouldn’t be, with queer men, and none of this is to justify questionable representations or attempts of such.)
That Lars von Trier may indeed have a place in a long line of queer artists or makers of queer art, for me, unlocks the key for why The House That Jack Built isn’t bad, exactly—just a little uninteresting. Jack as the avatar for von Trier, more facetious and maybe less upfront, embodies a kind of lack of dynamism in terms of using male bodies, especially heterosexual ones, to explore the same themes. If said male body is supposed to encompass both a broad palette of the humanity’s follies as well as specific neuroses, in comparison to someone like Selma in Dancer in the Dark, that body seems to be, to me at least, way less interesting.
While I believe Dillon as a dopey, goofy, neurotic serial killer that evolves into the epitome of amorality in art and life, there’s the impression that Jack is a bit more distanced from the very pain and anxiety he feels. It’s not as striking as Charlotte Gainsbourg’s She in Antichrist, and therefore cannot contain the friction of being both a spectacle of pain and a spectacle of transcendence. However violent the film gets, that paradox is missing, that complicated relationship with beauty and grotesquerie is absent, the complexity of sadism and masochism gone.
Lars von Trier’s identification with women, exalting and torturing them, is a curious art house film world anomaly, but really is little different from the knotty and thorny history of queer men identifying with women. He worships an idea of women (not insincere, exactly) and femininity, as well as a kind of gay male misogyny, from a place of deep self-loathing and shame. Self-hatred appears to be the unrivaled monster with which we must wrestle—a self-loathing always created by the world outside, but resolved within the self. His solution somewhat recalls the work of Gregg Araki: self-destruction as preservation, transcendence.
Is it because of his off-screen, Wellesian antics that he’s attracted more attention for his treatment of women on film than, say, Rainer Werner Fassbinder? And what would it be for von Trier to return to making films about himself as women? The allegations against him from Bjork are not to be discounted.
Maybe the clear difference between the histrionics of Fassbinder, Dolan, Almodovar, et al. and those of von Trier is that, regardless of the internalized misogyny that may color the depictions of women in their films, there is, nonetheless, a palpable sense of love for women there, for the feminine, for femininity. This is harder to say of von Trier’s films. He may see pain as a gateway to another metaphysical or emotional plain, an end in itself. Queer filmmakers interpret those emotional and material realities as part of the journey, the materials left to them (or us) to form new identities and paradigms of pleasure, desire and pain.