Auteur-provocateur, filmmaker-troublemaker, artist-misogynist… if you’ve heard of Lars von Trier, you’ve probably got an opinion on the Danish director. Up to now, discourse on von Trier has existed in a relatively unproblematic sphere. Sure, his films might not sit entirely well with you, but at least we’ve always been able to retreat to our safe haven of ‘art being art’.
Whether it’s the enduring presence of #MeToo at this year’s festival or the director actively seeking to outdo himself, von Trier’s latest feature, The House That Jack Built, premiered at Cannes this week to a staggering degree of controversy (even for Cannes, and even for von Trier). Such was the abhorrence of the film’s graphic violence, around 100 members of the audience walked out with almost an hour left. I won’t detail the particulars of its sadistic pleasures here (von Trier courts controversy, and I don’t like adding fuel to a smug flame), but I’d recommend Caspar Salmon’s impassioned “non-review” to illustrate the general consensus.
I’m yet to watch the film myself, of course, and as such cannot verify that it isn’t actually a subversive feminist reading of male violence. Alas, the very fact that I can tell you with unwavering confidence that it isn’t this film, is indicative enough.
For years, both those inside and out of the film industry knew there was something not quite ‘proper’ about Harvey Weinstein and his treatment of the female stars signed under Miramax. Rumours were spread, jokes were made, but these concerns were easily enough shrugged off – he’s just a dogged producer working efficiently, right? I’m not for a minute attempting to analogize Weinstein to von Trier to the same extent – but it seems we’ve still not learnt our lesson from Weinstein.
In the wake of those very accusations coming to light, Björk revealed that von Trier had sexually harassed her during the production of Dancer in the Dark (2000). “The institution of film allows it,” Björk said, and while cases like hers remain the most significant in condemning Hollywood, I’d argue it’s the cases deemed less black-and-white that are more indicative of the industry’s current state. Nicole Kidman has previously glossed over von Trier’s on-set behaviour, describing how he would take his clothes off and stand there in front of her – adding, “but that’s Lars”. That, too,was Harvey.
Cinema – and Cannes in particular – has been struggling of late to reconcile the progressive significance of #MeToo and the age-old defence of what’s on-screen being left on-screen. This justification is perhaps most vindicated when we’re dealing with the work of ‘serious’ male auteurs. From Godard to Hitchcock, Tarantino to von Trier, the hallowed ‘oeuvres’ of these filmmakers are posited as sacred institutions that exist in an unimpeachable limbo – only accessible to those bold enough to enter it. ‘Art’, in this untouchable form, has been abused for decades as a vessel for the elite – for the creatives, the criminals, and all of the above.
This isn’t a cry for greater restrictions on what we see on-screen – violence has always been integral to cinema and should continue to remain so. What needs to end, though, is the sort of unnecessary, superfluous violence against women that is so often a characteristic of these revered auteurist ‘classics’. To do so, the idolisation of male auteurism needs to end too. Evidenced by the current crisis of von Trier, auteurism remains a toxic corpus that not only panders to the sort of authoritative reverence that protected the likes of Weinstein for over 20 years, but it also condones any of its consequences – through the self-given title of ‘art’.
Art can be art, existing in a vacuum removed from our everyday lives – the realm of the cinema certainly helps maintain this illusion of disconnect once the credits roll. Yet it’s boastful-at-best and unethical-at-worst to assume that the cinematic art doesn’t ever cross this boundary. Oscar Wilde wasn’t wrong when he postulated that life imitates art – but that isn’t to suggest that the inverse doctrine of Aristotelian mimesis doesn’t still hold true either. And, if art imitates life, what can we infer from the work of Lars von Trier?