The reception of Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built (2018) has, in effect, rendered the film nearly impossible to watch. Initial press reports focused exclusively on the nearly one-hundred walk-outs at the Cannes premier last May.1 Subsequent reviews have taken issue with its failure to adhere to the usual Hollywood conventions: it is overlong and tediously abstract, misogynistic in its depiction of the mutilation of famous actresses, and gratuitously violent from beginning to end. A “one-night only” showing of the unedited director’s cut in November only reinforced the prevailing impression that the film was little more than an empty provocation. In a short video message that introduced the cut, a gleeful von Trier wished the audience “good luck”, as if the point of the event was to test our endurance, and not to screen the new work of an occasional auteur. What has made the film so difficult to watch is not its content, as its many vocal critics have argued, but the controversy it has provoked – and the willingness of its director to fan the flames. Yet the theatrics surrounding the film and its release are also, curiously, part of what make it necessary viewing. In fact, the treatment of violence in the film – and the treatment of film itself as a form of violence – is meant to raise the issue of theatricality in art, the question of whether film can “really mean it” any longer. This is not to excuse von Trier’s antics, but to understand how his cinema might go beyond them, enacting a critique of the sub-artistic, theatrical tendencies with which both director and film have frequently been identified.
To better understand the motif of murder in von Trier’s film, it will help to recall the thematics of violence that has always been a hallmark of modern visual art. Given what I would consider the “lateness” of von Trier’s modernism (I have reservations about the notion of a “postmodernism,” which will emerge in due course), it might be useful to go back to the very beginning, to the figure who both gave the theme of violence in visual art pride of place and fathered the most distinctly modern of visual media – aside, that is, from cinema itself.
In the realist paintings of Baroque master Michele Caravaggio, people often lose their heads. Consider his David with the Head of Goliath (1610), in which a sullen David proffers Goliath’s bloody head to the beholder. Or the equally gruesome Head of Medusa (ca. 1596-97), which depicts the decapitated head of the Gorgon, with an expression of horror still frozen on her face. Acts of violence figure prominently in Caravaggio’s paintings, but beheadings are of especial significance for his art. In Michael Fried’s A.W. Mellon Lectures in Fine Art – collected in the 2010 work The Moment of Caravaggio – he argues that the motif of decapitation in Caravaggio’s work is part of a complex painterly strategy that played a key role in emancipating painting from architecture and enabling the medium to come into its own. It is an ambitious claim that, so stated, probably sounds outlandish and only distantly relevant to our topic, The House That Jack Built. But bear with me.
Not only does Fried illuminate the particulars of Caravaggio’s blood-spattered canvases like no one else; he also convincingly demonstrates a profound connection between the birth of an autonomous visual art in modernity and the brutal art of murder. The violence in (and of) Caravaggio’s art is indicative of the fraught nature of the achievement of autonomy in early modern painting. Caravaggio’s canvases dread their own reception and thereby express or bring to consciousness a growing collective anxiety over the possibility of shared public meaning, which comes to a head in the abstract and blackened works of late modernism. In what follows, I want to suggest that the preoccupation of von Trier’s film with violence as a kind of “art” is symptomatic of the precarious status of cinema as a distinctly visual way of making sense of society and history in late modernity. More to the point, the film reflects a deepening of a crisis – both social and artistic – that found its most powerful early expression in Caravaggio’s gallery paintings, as understood by Fried. The ambiguity of the film and of von Trier’s oeuvre more broadly – is it empty nihilism, a pointless and abusive exhibition of human suffering, or is it something more? – cannot be easily clarified, but it can at least be brought into sharper focus, through a genealogy of the film’s most controversial theme.
Before I can address Fried’s analysis of the decapitation motif, I will need to provide an admittedly sketchy summary of his general understanding of Caravaggio’s significance. According to Fried, Caravaggio wills the autonomous gallery painting into existence at the end of the sixteenth century through his pioneering employment of a technique of absorption. One of the key ideas in Fried’s art criticism, “absorption” refers to “the depiction of figures so deeply engrossed in what they are doing, feeling, and thinking that they strike the viewer as wholly unaware of anything else, including the presence of the viewer before the painting.”2 The denial of the presence of the beholder has the effect of compelling her interest in the goings-on within the frame, the autonomous logic of the work at hand. The opposed term, in Fried’s scheme, is the idea of “theatricality,” which denotes a manner of explicit acknowledgment of the viewer that poses an existential threat to the enterprise of painting itself. While theatricality does not explicitly emerge as a painterly problematic until the eighteenth century, it is anticipated by Caravaggio and brought to a pitch of self-consciousness in artworks like von Trier’s.
Now, Fried introduces a second set of terms – “immersion” and “specularity” – to grasp the way in which the painter relates to his own endeavor. The moment of immersion reflects the painter’s intense identification with his work, his continuity with and presence in the painted image. It is such continuity that makes absorption possible, insofar as it engenders the intentional space in which a painter’s decisions show up as salient, as worthy of reflective consideration. The specular moment, by contrast, consists in the separation of painter from painting, the release of the object into the public sphere.
As Fried makes clear, the specular dimension of Caravaggio’s paintings anticipates, but does not yet exemplify, the notion of the theatrical. This is because of how deeply intertwined the two “moments” are, which is reflected in the idea that specularity is a kind of “severing.” That is, in paintings like Judith and Holofernes (ca. 1599) and The Sacrifice of Isaac (1602), the expression of pain on the faces of both executioner (Judith) and victim (Isaac) suggest the painfulness and ultimate impossibility of the painter’s necessary task of self-excision. If he does not sever himself from his work, it cannot succeed as a work, as an object with general public significance. Through several well-evidenced but also ambitiously speculative readings, Fried shows that self-portraiture figures prominently in Caravaggio’s major canvases: the contorted faces of both the Goliath and the Gorgon, for example, bear the features of the painter. This is not a matter of simple self-reference for its own sake, but rather of Caravaggio’s veritable invention of the autonomous gallery picture and of the form of painterly subjectivity appropriate to it. But why is the birth of painting characterised by such brutality and pain?
Drawing on Stanley Cavell’s influential account of Shakespeare and modern skepticism, Fried argues that “the invention of absorption in Caravaggio […] can be seen as in dialogue with the skeptical doubt that we can ever know with certainty the contents of another person’s mind. (This is often cast in terms of the question as to whether we can ever know beyond a doubt that another person is in pain.)”3 The crisis of modern epistemology that finds its most exemplary expression in Descartes’ Meditations is not just a philosophical difficulty, but a way of conceptualising and working through a social and historical obstacle to the fulfillment of the promise of modernity – the promise of a genuinely free life, through the mutual acknowledgment of our freedom. Roughly, Descartes in philosophy, Shakespeare in literature, and Caravaggio in painting, are all attempting to render intelligible the threat to shared meaning posed by the collapse of religious tradition, the disenchantment of nature under the gaze of Enlightenment rationality, and the rise of a culture of individual egoism with the birth of commercial society.
The sceptical predicament rests on a failure to grasp that knowledge of the world, knowledge of another’s pain, is a matter not of incontrovertible proof but rather of a practical acknowledgment that leaves us constitutively vulnerable to being mistaken and deceived. To know that a friend is in pain, for example, is not to make an inference based on available evidence, but to feel the force of her reasons for wanting to change her condition. The only way to “know” suffering is to acknowledge the claim that it makes on us. To call that claim into question is thus not to dodge the demand of acknowledgment but to fail to acknowledge the pain of another agent (to be callous or indifferent) or to challenge that agent’s claim (to be distrustful or suspicious). Scepticism, then, is not ultimately the disinterested stance it takes itself to be, but the practical attitude that the atomised subjects of late capitalist modernity have adopted towards one another.
In paintings like the David, Caravaggio dramatises the act of artistic severance through realistic portrayals of beheadings, inadvertently expressing the fear of acknowledgment that underlies the skeptical dilemma. In acknowledging you, I give you the authority to acknowledge me – to affirm and challenge me and indeed to fail me. Caravaggio represents the externalisation of artistic intention as an act of extreme violence in order to express the painfulness of giving ourselves over to a world that may refuse to receive us. He avoids theatricalising violence in his paintings by identifying himself – in a thoroughly tragic mode – with the victims. Violence in Caravaggio has not yet become what it will in later commercial art, the slasher pictures von Trier means to channel. Such films presuppose the voyeur, both utterly entranced and yet ultimately unaffected in her state of invulnerability and separateness. Bearing the features of their maker, the contorted faces in Caravaggio’s canvases disable voyeurism by compelling acknowledgment on the part of the beholder of the painterly purpose the specular moments of violence serve. Instead of curtailing our absorption in the works, the depicted beheadings intensify it and draw us in deeper, disclosing a new level of meaning. They recall us to the precariousness of embodied meaning as such, including that of painting itself.
From de Sade to Baudelaire, from Goya to Pasolini, modernists across media have assumed Caravaggio’s mantle by refusing to produce in their works an ideal unity out of the fragments of a broken world. Instead of papering over the cracks, they allow social reality to stand in its fractured state – but at a cost. Art begins to buckle under the weight of its own burden; it comes increasingly close to exhausting the formal possibilities generated by the social and historical problem of freedom in modernity. Modernism is defined by the critical employment of violence as an aesthetic means. But what happens when the critical gesture is repeated ad nauseam? How long can violence in art remain critical before it is naturalised and itself becomes violent? At what point does art itself converge with the art of murder? This, I take it, is the question at issue in von Trier’s The House That Jack Built.
The film opens in total darkness, as we are made privy to a conversation between the plainly named protagonist Jack (Matt Dillon) and his travelling companion (Bruno Ganz, in one of his last and most memorable roles, as Dante’s Virgil). As Jack explains, his “confession” will revolve around five murderous “incidents”, which structure most of the film. The first incident finds Jack in a red van, driving down a heavily forested road in the American Northwest, where he encounters his first victim. He begrudgingly stops to help a woman (played by Uma Thurman) stranded on the side of the road, with a red jack in hand, and it very quickly becomes clear that our narrator may be less than reliable. Jack observes that her jack is broken; she eventually convinces him to drive her to a local blacksmith to have it repaired. The Thurman character jokes that it was a mistake to get in the car with a stranger, that Jack looks like a serial killer, and that his van is “the kind one might expect to be kidnapped in or used to transport corpses.” Anticipating her own fate, she continues: “But if you really were a serial killer I guess the easiest thing would be just to bury my body back up there by those trees; but you’d have to remember to dig six feet down so the foxes couldn’t dig up my grave.” She then points to the jack, noting that it could probably get the job done.
Jack returns her to her car after the blacksmith repairs the jack, but it breaks a second time. On their way back to the blacksmith, the anonymous “Lady 1”, as she is referred to in the credits, starts in on the serial killer jokes again – only this time, with the clear intention of provoking him: “You’re way too much of a wimp to murder anyone.” Jack handily dispatches with the motorist, taking her suggestion to use the jack.
At this point, Virgil interrupts Jack’s narration to criticise his deed. Jack defends the act as a work of art, over documentary footage of a performance of Bach’s Partita No. 2 by the inimitable Glenn Gould (“He represents art,” Jack earnestly remarks). A montage of images of cathedrals follows, as Jack reflects on his occupation as an engineer and compares the art of murder to the art of architecture: “I often say that the material does the work. In other words, it has a kind of will of its own and by following it, the result will be most exquisite.” That the weapon is Jack’s namesake is surely no coincidence, but is rather a reflection of his “immersion” in his own “work”, the “incident” he is recounting. Likewise, Jack uses his memory of the Thurman character as a way of externalising his own inner monologue, which plays out as a dialogue between them. She becomes a proxy for his own murderous impulses and is ultimately reduced to a mere means to the end of his work.
This subtle denial of the victim’s own autonomous existence is the first expression of Jack’s anti-anthropomorphic conception of art – his implicit opposition to the modernist view, first articulated by Kant and inherited by thinkers like Fried, that artworks demand acknowledgment in the same way that living, striving rational agents do. To take art on its own terms, in that tradition, is to acknowledge the purposive, intentional structure of a work, its inner logic and status as a claim, just as to take a person on her own terms is to acknowledge her commitments and entitlements, her status as the subject of a life. Unlike Caravaggio, Jack does not fear the threat of misrecognition or the withholding of acknowledgment, but aims to create an unhuman art emancipated from all recognitive constraints.
Jack’s notion of the “will of the material” has a twofold significance in the context of the First Incident. First, the jack is, as “Lady 1” indicates, the perfect murder weapon, whose potential Jack actualises. As a broken jack, it loses its everyday functionality and becomes material for “art”. Through an extrapolation of the same principle, Jack breaks the will of the woman, reducing her to the bare matter of the body itself. Accordingly, when Jack says that “the will of the material does the work,” what he really means is that his will replaces the will of the material and compels it to do his work. (As Jack remarks later in the film, in reference to the eponymous house of the title that he repeatedly tries but fails to build, “The material didn’t do what I wanted it to do.”) Second, the jack is a metonym for our perverse hero, Jack, whose own brokenness is the basis for the process of artistic self-formation at the heart of the film. For Jack to succeed, he must become an anti-human, the kind of person who belongs in hell. The House That Jack Built can thus be considered the cinematic equivalent to a Künstlerroman, in which the art to be mastered is the serialist art of murder.
Jack’s particular brand of brokenness is described by Virgil as an Ordnungszwang, a compulsion to order (or in the overused and less elegant English phrase, “OCD”). The “Second Incident” follows Jack’s comically inept attempt to enter the house of “Lady 2”, first in the guise of an insurance salesman, and then as a police officer. After a protracted strangulation scene, Jack carries the body to his van and prepares to leave, but is haunted by visions of missed splotches of blood. To humorous effect, he enters, exits, and reenters the house several times, in order to make sure that spaces as improbable as the back of a picture frame and the bottom of a lamp are not hiding a bloody stain. Jack’s cleaning compulsion is meant to evoke the typical serial killer profile, which von Trier repurposes as a part of the broader artistic allegory he is constructing. The imagined blood is a bit of untidiness that threatens to ruin Jack’s “work”, but more generally, it is an element of the unformed, a trace of the lifeforce that Jack must extinguish in order to realise the will of the material. It is only in negating the living will, in eliminating its every trace, that Jack can give it “aesthetic” form (the leveling, procrustean form of death). Divorced form the end of mutual acknowledgment, reason, order, and form become instruments of domination.4 A well-educated, erudite engineer, Jack adopts the name “Mr. Sophistication” as his pseudonym – a mocking admission of his subordination of rationality to irrational ends. The “feeling of life” (Lebensgefühl) that Kant, at the height of the Enlightenment, identified with the experience of beauty is, in the twilight of modernity, displaced by the feeling of death.5
Jack begins to theorise his art towards the end of the Second Incident, not long after a negative of a staged photograph of “Lady 2” flashes across the screen. He speculates about his own photography: “What was really sensational about the work with the photo, it wasn’t the image, but the negative. When I was ten years old, I discovered that through the negative, you could see the real inner demonic quality of the light. The dark light.” What the theory of the negative communicates about Jack’s artistic vision is his belief that art makes explicit the darkness and decay, the “demonic quality”, already implicit in everyday life. The photographic negative does not empty the world of meaning, negating all colour, but rather discloses its inner colourlessness, the death that is the “truth” (for Jack) of all life. If in Caravaggio, the violent gesture is meant to undo the stoic sense of invulnerability that had hitherto defined art as such; in Jack’s hands, the negative element or moment of violence becomes the end of art itself, in both senses of the double genitive.
While the theory of the “dark light” is only mentioned briefly, it anticipates Jack’s debate with Virgil over the meaning of artistic creation – one of the two most important moments in the film. Following the grizzly Fourth Incident (the murder and mutilation of “Simple,” as Jack disparagingly refers to Riley Keough’s Jacqueline), Jack and Virgil make their respective standpoints clear, in a stunning sequence that evokes the dialogic encounter between Settembrini and Naphta in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. As he describes the putrefaction of the corpses he has stored in a freezer, Jack states his belief that “the ultimate goal for the human being is not prior to death but after.” Horrified by Jack’s nihilism, Virgil accuses him of “reduc[ing] everything human to matter, and that way life disappears and along with it art which you value so highly.” Jack illustrates his point with an oenological example, the idea of the “noble rot”. As our learned protagonist explains, Sauternes, a sweet wine from Bordeaux, is produced by allowing the grapes to mold on the vine. “It’s the breakdown,” he remarks, “that lifts the living grape up to be a part of an artwork. You can view the processes that start in a human being after death in the same manner.”
In a discussion of Baudelaire in his Aesthetic Theory, Theodor Adorno meditates on the murderous quality of modernism: “Artworks are a priori negative by the law of their objectivation: They kill what they objectify by tearing it away from the immediacy of its life. Their own life preys on death. This defines the qualitative threshold to modern art.”6 The most advanced art reacts to the subordination of individuals and their relations to the capitalist principle of exchange by explicitly embodying its effects. The drive towards abstraction, rationalisation, and systematicity in modernity are critically exhibited in modernist art (in serialism and abstract expressionism, for example). Jack’s notions of the “dark light” and “noble rot” could be foundational categories in a late modernist aesthetics, were it not for his literalism – his conflation of the negative, critical function of art with the immediate “negation” of reality. Rather than grasping the darkness and the rot as ways of coming to grips with what has gone wrong, Jack affirms such wrongness as the end to be realised, undercutting the very possibility of artistic creation, as Virgil rightly protests.
Jack’s counterargument, in which he expresses admiration for Nazi architect Albert Speer and for instruments of war like the Stuka plane, is certain to invite comparisons between Jack and von Trier, owing to the notorious 2011 press conference during which the director declared himself a Hitler-sympathiser. Jack praises Speer’s theory of “ruin value,” which advanced principles of design intended to ensure that “in a thousand years, [Speer’s buildings] would appear as aesthetically perfect ruins.” Likewise, Jack regards the terrifying sound emitted by a diving Stuka as a work of beauty—as “more than a masterpiece. An icon.” Jack here explicitly elaborates the thought behind von Trier’s clumsy attempt at iconoclasm in 2011. Iconography, for Jack, exceeds art because icons “will always have an impact on the world.” Jack raises his pathological understanding of the negative function of art to a political principle: the icon of destruction is idolised as a force of change. By re-inscribing his own scandalous gesture into his cinema, von Trier begins to subject the violence of his cinema to critical reflection and, perhaps in spite of himself, to combat his own theatrical tendencies.
Does Virgil not then function as a counterweight to Jack’s nihilism, giving us some hope in the persistence of value, beauty, and freedom? Virgil’s humanistic defense of beauty is given the lie when, in a supremely ironic twist, he gives Jack the idea to build the true house of the title, the only house Jack can actually complete: a house comprised of the frozen corpses he has collected over his twelve-year odyssey. Virgil’s formalism gets the better of him; he cannot pass up the opportunity to oversee the construction of an object of sublimity. What this reveals is not the hypocrisy of a purportedly moral figure (as in the much weaker concluding twist of von Trier’s 2013 film, Nymphomaniac) so much as what is implicit in a transcendent ideal of beauty and form that fails to consider (and ultimately to critique) its own material foundations: the violence of indifference towards history’s victims.
In a moving response to Jack’s heinous defense of Speer, Virgil relates a historical anecdote about an old oak tree that stood in the middle of the Buchenwald camp. It was the tree under which a young Goethe had written “some of humanity’s most important works.” Jack offers no response to this powerful image (he changes the subject), but perhaps because it is a self-defeating thought. “The personification of humanism, dignity, culture and goodness [standing] in the middle of one of the all-time greatest crimes against humanity,” as Virgil describes the tree, does not attest to the perseverance of culture, but rather reveals its ultimate impotence and even apologetic character. The belief in an unspoiled ideal of beauty betrays the same humanism it admirably strives to defend.
Von Trier’s film can be understood as a late continuation of the modernist tradition of aesthetic meta-reflection through the depiction of extreme forms of violence. The first thing to note in this respect is the unusual structure of the film. Jack’s story – the core of the film – comprises the five “incidents”, followed by an epilogue (“Katabasis”) that reveals the circumstances under which they were narrated, Jack’s journey with “Verge” (as he lovingly refers to the Virgil of the Aeneid and Dante’s Commedia) into the bowels of hell. In imitation of medieval works like the Canterbury Tales, the Decameron, and the Commedia itself, the film unfolds in episodes rather than chapters and has a quasi-cyclical structure. The two cycles – the incidents and the epilogue – are narrated from distinct standpoints: while the first part is narrated by Jack in the course of his discussion with Virgil, the epilogue has no narrator and is rather observed from the anonymous perspective of the camera itself.
The final shot of the film – the negative of a still of the infernal abyss – refers us back to Jack’s monologue about “the dark light.” But first, it is crucial to note that the film concludes with a still, finally fulfilling its own pictorial tendency, a tendency towards stasis that has been present throughout. In contrast to another contemporary film, Kiarostami’s 24 Frames (2017), which dynamises photographs by allowing their before-and-after to unfold, House has striven all along to bring itself to a standstill and to make explicit what is already implicit in the temporal dynamic of the “serial”: a changeless – and thus timeless – state. It is no coincidence that Jack’s vision of the Elysian fields is peopled by mowers (the classical image of death) breathing and scything in a mechanical rhythm; it is a uniform, perfectly ordered world – the world of the dead. While the five incidents themselves, as diabolical vignettes, are already extended “snapshots” of a life (both literally and figuratively), the film becomes progressively static in character, first with the depiction of Jack’s completed “house”, then with the painterly set pieces in hell, and finally with the sublimely comedic (or comically sublime?) reproduction of Delacroix’s La Barque de Dante (1822). But just as Jack destroys life in order to give it form, it is almost as if von Trier believes that cinema can be mastered only if it is stopped.
Inspired by Géricault’s Le Radeau de la Méduse (1819), the Barque departs from its textual source by depicting Dante and Virgil meeting with multiple damned souls rather than just one. While Géricault had sought to bring painting down to earth by depicting the gruesome aftermath of a recent shipwreck that had scandalised France, Delacroix’s gesture was in some ways even more radical: he directly challenged classical narrative ideals by shifting attention away from the epic hero and his guide to the struggles of the damned themselves. Jack’s story is explicitly “framed”, made to fit within Delacroix’s canvas. It is a moment of comedy because the grandeur of the nineteenth-century style clashes with Jack’s general lowliness (a dirty, overlarge red bathrobe donned during the Fifth Incident, for instance, supplants Dante’s iconic red hood). In a perverse inversion, the victims elevated by Delacroix are once again decentred, subordinated to the two representatives of late modernism: an undead ancient and a contemporary killer. The actual frame provided by the screen is just a way of acknowledging the role the epilogue as a whole has played in framing Jack’s vile tale. The tableau’s status as a joke is a way of acknowledging what lies beyond the frame, the ones who are in on the joke – we ourselves. Is von Trier simply affirming Jack’s nihilism? Is this his way of resolving the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes, by revealing the hypocrisy and self-deceit of both parties?
But the film does not end there. Having finally caught up with itself (we are no longer within Jack’s retelling of events), the film adopts Jack’s own photographic principle in “developing” the last shot. Virgil leads Jack to the lowest point in hell, a broken bridge spanning a bottomless abyss. A path out of hell lies on the other side; the craggy walls of the room are the only connecting surface, but no one has ever successfully made the climb. Jack attempts it and fails. The film concludes with the negative mentioned above.
Is the film simply repeating Jack’s sceptical gesture and affirming his belief that life is hell, that whatever meaning there is lies in the negation of life? Or is the film subjecting Jack’s “negatives” to his own principle of negation? What would the “dark light” reveal, if applied to an image (or a moving image) of the dark light itself? Maybe von Trier just is Jack, the serial auteur whose own films are “incidents.” (The five incidents do, after all, recall von Trier’s Five Obstructions, his film about film-making from 2003.) The film actively encourages such an identification at several points (a montage of clips from von Trier’s past films appears during the “noble rot” sequence). But there is something about the final shot that seems to outstrip the theatricality of the Delacroix reproduction (and von Trier’s usual theatrics more generally) and to repeat Caravaggio’s gesture of “reimmersion” and acknowledgment of vulnerability.
First of all, the gesture is subtle; one could be forgiven for missing it and for failing to recall Jack’s earlier monologue about the dark light. Following the bombast and excess of the Barque citation, which is a kind of first – and false – ending, the final few scenes are, initially, quite underwhelming visually and even anti-climactic. The negative development of the final frame is thus a secretly immersive moment in which the director insinuates himself into the picture, leaving behind a barely legible signature. At the same time, however, the autograph is also a photograph, which as such is clearly intended to be seen. This is the specular dimension of the shot, the mark of its separateness from its maker. By making explicit what is only implicit in an art like Caravaggio’s, namely that artistic deeds must be acknowledged as such, the film counters the theatricality of the Barque joke and demands that we consider what it is that art has become.
On my reading, the final still grasps the very real risk that von Trier’s films are nothing more than “serial killings”, empty acts of violence with little hope of redemption. In that case, the bridge to a possible better future would be broken, the walls around it impossible to climb. This is why von Trier’s critics are not wrong to regard his cinema with scepticism; the risk is always that the cruelty of art will cease to be critical and become simply cruel. Von Trier’s riskiest move is to acknowledge that he may turn out to have been the vapid provocateur he has often encouraged his audience to take him to be.
If von Trier’s film teaches us anything, it may be that the last trace of aesthetic meaning resides in our vanishing ability to recognise the increasing absence of such meaning – of a violence that could matter. The modernist impulse of the film, if indeed there is one, lies in its aim to enable us to acknowledge the violence of art as violence, as a deficient condition to be overcome. Do we have the strength to recognise Jack as the ignoble rot of overripe social contradictions? Nearly half a millennium ago, Caravaggio heroically proclaimed his own anxiety over the responsibility borne by visual expression to the world. Now long past the age of heroes, we have perhaps found in von Trier the anti-hero we deserve.
- To further underscore just how hard it is to actually watch von Trier’s film, I want to note the manufactured character of the outrage surrounding the Cannes premier. What initial reports did not note was the enormous size of the theater, which seats more than 2000 people, and the number of walk-outs itself remains unverified. The desire for scandal may, in this instance, have produced one. ↩
- Michael Fried, The Moment of Caravaggio (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 69. ↩
- Ibid., p. 103. ↩
- For an in-depth analysis of the way Enlightenment-era art had already glimpsed the irrational, self-undermining character of instrumental reason in modernity, see “Excursus II: Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality” in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002). ↩
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 5:203/90. ↩
- Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 133. ↩