Lars von Trier on filmmaking and fear: ‘Sometimes, alcohol is the only thing that will help’

His new film, the typically shocking The House That Jack Built, is supposed to be the director’s big comeback. But his demons seem to have the upper hand

Lars von Trier has a new film coming out and, no surprise, it is a full-blown assault on the senses. The House That Jack Built casts Matt Dillon, that 80s beefcake, as a smirking psychopath who views his killings as performance art and his grisly trophies as stand-alone installations. Jack kills without remorse, and seemingly without consequence, merrily bouncing from one atrocity to the next. There is a mass shooting in a sunlit meadow, sexual violence inside a cramped apartment and a scene in which a small boy cuts the legs off a duck. Von Trier’s story is intentionally brutal; it dares you to stick with it. But the shock of watching the film is nothing compared with the shock of meeting its maker.

It is perhaps the fate of all enfants terribles to eventually slip up and be trampled – either by their own demons or by the weight of public opinion. But Von Trier has fallen harder than most and been steamrollered more thoroughly. For years, like his character Jack, the Danish director rolled the dice and rode his luck. He was the impish scourge of bourgeois sensibilities, a gleeful chronicler of so much human cruelty. Now he is physically spent and emotionally shot. His tussle with alcohol and depression has taken its toll. He believes his ill-starred 13th feature will be his movie swan song. “When I saw it on screen, I felt that very strongly,” he says. “It looked to me like some kind of last testament.”

The House That Jack Built.

We speak in May at a big, rented property in the suburbs of Cannes, Von Trier’s gated retreat from the festival fray. On the face of it, the place offers a serene haven. The director’s production staff are quietly tucking into their breakfast; David Bowie’s Heroes is playing at a discreet volume. But outside, the swimming pool pump has become detached from its moorings. It rears its head, like a snake, to spray water at the windows. The publicist thinks the machine has probably eaten some leaves and is puking them up. She shouts: “Keep away from the pool! The pump’s gone insane!”

The director is sitting at a table behind a door marked “Private”, specs perched on his nose. The word “FUCK” is tattooed across his knuckles. His hands are shaking and his speech is laboured; he keeps losing his thread. Von Trier explains that the tremors are caused by antidepressants, although they may also be caused by alcohol withdrawal. He is largely sober these days, but recently fell off the wagon. “It’s hard to be in Cannes and not drink,” he says.

Cannes, for better or worse, runs clean through the director, like lettering through a stick of rock. It has been the scene of his greatest victories and his worst defeat; his Agincourt and his Waterloo. He won the Palme d’Or for Dancer in the Dark, and sent the festival into uproar with the scandalous Antichrist. Then, in 2011, came an infamous press conference in which he airily joked about sympathising with Hitler. He was expelled by the organisers and subsequently investigated by the Danish police. Many saw this humiliation as the man’s just deserts. “The thing about Lars is that he always plays this game of teasing the grownups, pushing the boundaries,” his friend and fellow director Thomas Vinterberg told me afterwards. “And nobody ever said no to him until that day. He found his wall and it was right in front of him in Cannes, which I thought was beautiful. You couldn’t have written it better.”

Von Trier begs to differ. The furore was horrible; it marks him to this day. “It was really tough,” he says. “Because I was persona non grata for seven years, and I was also threatened with five years in jail in Marseille, which, I think, neither you nor I would benefit very much from.”

He didn’t seriously believe he was going to prison, did he? “Well, I’m easily scared. I’m sure that if two officers from your local police force turned up at your door, telling you how you were going to be handcuffed and taken to a cell, then you’d be scared, too. So it was a really hard punishment.” He gives a mirthless laugh. “I mean I never thought they would have me killed. But, yeah, it was painful.”

The House That Jack Built is meant to be his triumphant Cannes comeback, heralding the return of the prodigal son. Instead, it becomes more akin to a public flogging. I think the film is tremendous: a baroque provocation, ironised and stylised in every aspect apart from its violence, which it shows as gut-wrenching and horrific, resolutely unglamorised. But most others disagree. Von Trier’s picture is described as vile, vomitous and vacuous. It prompts more than 100 walkouts at the morning screening. The director insists that the official premiere was better. He says: “The audience was kind to me, which was touching. When you get older, you get more touched by these things.”

The Idiots … from Von Trier’s golden period.
The Idiots … from Von Trier’s golden period. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/October films

He gropes for his water glass as if lifting heavy furniture. His hands shake, and the water slops. The whole endeavour is almost too agonising to watch. Von Trier is only 62, but he carries himself like a man in his 80s.

His health, he admits, remains a work-in-progress. “I’m working on my alcoholism, which is good. I had an eight-month period where I didn’t drink, and I’ll get back to that again soon. But I have this alcohol ‘tool’ that I use when I have to. And, if I have a really big anxiety attack, it’s the only thing that will help.”

I am now wondering to what extent alcohol has influenced his career. Has he ever been drunk when directing his films? “Hmm,” he says. “Well, it depends on the form of the day. I mean, it’s not a spur to work; it’s only self-medication. But when you feel that level of anxiety you’ll do anything to push it away. So, sometimes it helps. It gives you the room to come out with what you already had in mind.”

Von Trier likes to say that everything in life scares him except the content of his films. Directing, therefore, has been a means of harnessing his demons, of shedding light on dark corners. His greatest pictures (Dogville, Antichrist, The Idiots) amount to flayed human epics with all the nerve endings exposed. The danger is that the demons and darkness have a habit of spilling over into real life. Helena Bonham Carter turned down the lead role in Breaking the Waves because she decided the director was “a bit of a weirdo”. Paul Bettany had such a terrible time making Dogville that he refuses to watch the film. Von Trier, Bettany felt, was a control freak and an autocrat. “He’s a precociously brilliant director,” he says. “But he has no interest in what the actors think.”

Off set, too, there have been other problems. Recently, the Danish authorities were called to investigate claims of sexual harassment at his film company, Zentropa. The organisation’s co-founder, Peter Aalbæk Jensen, reportedly groped the breasts of young interns and ordered them to strip at the office Christmas party. Jensen’s subsequent apology hardly did him any favours. He said he had always liked “slapping asses” and felt rather sad that he now had to stop.

I suggest that what Zentropa bosses may have regarded as a culture of sexual liberation was a clear case of systemic abuse. But Von Trier, alarmingly, remains reluctant to condemn it.

Matt Dillon in The House That Jack Built.
Matt Dillon in The House That Jack Built. Photograph: Cannes film festival

“Well, you know Peter,” he says. “He’s crazy. I’m crazy. Zentropa is crazy, to some degree. But when I look at the corporation – in this house, for instance – the young people are all having a good time.” He pauses. “I don’t even know what Peter is meant to have done.”

“Slapped asses,” I tell him.

“Slapped asses,” he says. “Yeah. But that’s what we all want to do. He’s living his dream. Yeah, it’s not OK. Nobody should be forced to do something they don’t want to do. That’s a very important rule. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that something wrong was done.”

It would be helpful to cast Von Trier as an innocent bystander here. But the evidence suggests this may not be entirely true. Last year, Björk hinted, without naming names, that he had harassed her during the making of Dancer in the Dark. Specifically, the singer said that she received “unwanted whispered sexual offers … with graphic descriptions”. Von Trier denied any wrongdoing. I have also heard a story that he once stripped naked in front of Nicole Kidman.

The director blinks. “I did what?”

Stripped naked in front of Nicole Kidman. This would have been on the set of Dogville.

Von Trier snorts. “Well, again, as with Peter, it sounds likely. But Nicole was ready to come back and do more films with me, so it can’t have shocked her very much.” Another snort. “But, yeah, it’s a crazy business. And it was a little bit our lives, as well. That’s where the films came from – that sense of freedom.” All of which may well be true. But freedom for whom and at the expense of who else? Dogville, incredibly, just turned a shade or two darker.

Today, he accepts that the culture has changed. He can’t make his films in the way he once did, although he feels that this is more down to his own frailty than to a wider corrective in the world at large. He explains that he has obsessive-compulsive disorder; that he is not physically fit to be on set any more. In the future, he thinks he might make some short films. A few days here and there, nothing very taxing. Shooting a feature is too exhausting, too stressful. The House That Jack Built finally convinced him of that.

Paul Bettany and Nicole Kidman in Dogville.
Paul Bettany and Nicole Kidman in Dogville. Photograph: Allstar

I can’t quite believe this has always been the case. Von Trier’s best work is such an exuberant dance, so obviously fuelled by abandon and risk, it is hard to accept it was all born out of torment. There must have been one film that was pure pleasure to make.

Von Trier mulls this over and recalls Melancholia. This was his acclaimed apocalypse drama from 2011, the film that indirectly landed him in all that hot water at Cannes. “Melancholia was the one where we had the most fun,” he says. “We were so drunk. It was a fantastic experience. We were all so drunk.”

This is his problem in a nutshell. He associates the source of all pleasure with the very thing that may kill him. “Well, yeah,” he says, as though I have just remarked that the sea is blue. “But it was a very important part of that particular film.”

He admits that his characters are alter egos of sorts. He was raging Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist, depressive Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, victimised Kidman in Dogville (possibly also wheedling Bettany, who becomes her main captor). So, it is no surprise that he feels an affinity with Matt Dillon’s Jack, who fondly believes he is getting away with his crimes, only to belatedly twig that he is being pitched straight to hell. Because, for all its anarchic spirit, Von Trier’s work inhabits a strict moral universe. It is a place of saints, martyrs and sinners. And if Jack comes to believe in the concept of divine retribution, it must follow that the director does, too.

“No, no,” he says. “It is a picture, remember? The film implies that Jack has a romantic attachment to that notion. I really don’t – I’m not religious at all. But I did just read a book by Stephen Hawking, and he says this thing that has stuck with me. He says that we begin as stardust and we end as stardust. And that’s a liberating feeling – not in a religious sense, but in an emotional sense. I like the idea that there are multiverses. I like the photo from the Hubble telescope that defines the universe, that shows the stardust. That’s liberating for me. I take a comfort from that.”

In the late 90s, he made a TV show called The Kingdom and installed himself as its master of ceremonies. Von Trier would appear in a tuxedo at the end of each episode, commenting on the action with a live-wire wit. He was ablaze with charisma, full of punk mischief, not entirely to be trusted. But that was a different man, another multiverse. Today, the director seems corroded, defeated. He says that it typically takes five years to emerge from a bout of depression. He estimates that he is about 18 months through the trip.

Outside the house, the pump continues spewing water. The production crew have gathered poolside to observe its meltdown. I shake Von Trier’s hand and urge him to look after himself because I have rarely met someone so in need of close policing. “Yes, OK,” he replies. “I will try not to get drunk.” But, for some reason, this prospect strikes him as deeply amusing. He is still chuckling to himself as the door swings shut.

The House That Jack Built is out on 14 December


Xan Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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