Quite apart from the obvious reason, that four hours of anyone’s life is a lot to ask, the heart and soul of it is that Lars von Trier is one of the great proofs of the auteur theory. Auteurists believe directors are the authors of their films, and that the films of certain directors are as much their work as the novels of Dickens or the poetry of Shakespeare. The theory is contested: studios, cinematographers and screenwriters have a claim, and almost no-one makes a film on their own or without restraints.
Von Trier is without doubt an auteur, and the proof is that I have never liked any of his films. I admit a grudging admiration for Breaking the Waves, mostly for its cinematography by Wim Wenders’ great collaborator Robbie Müller. His next, Idioten, put me off for good. The films that followed confirmed those first impressions, and refined them. I had thought he was misogynist. This was an error on my part. He is not a misogynist: he is a misanthropist.
This appears to be a quality highly prized by the cognoscenti of film art. Last year, for the first time, Citizen Kane was unseated from its long reign as the most highly regarded film in the BFI’s ten-yearly poll of the world’s film critics by Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Like von Trier, Hitchcock is a misanthropist. Famously he said he treated his actors like cattle: in Vertigo, and indeed in almost all his American period film, he treats his audiences the same way.
Von Trier doesn’t do suspense. He does shock, and next to shock, disgust. His aim is to get a response, a Pavlovian stimulus-response. In that he works in the same way as most blockbusters, except that instead of encouraging us to whoop for revenge, he wants us to thrill us with degradation. It is a cheap trick, to turn ethics and politics into parodies of themselves, and the result into a commodity all too easily assimilated by jaded connoisseurs of despair.
Ours is an age of obscenity, wrote the sociologist Jean Baudrillard: of the over-exposure of everything. It is an age, adds Slavoj Zizek, of compulsory enjoyment. The end of 50 years of liberal permissiveness is not liberation, both agree, but turning joy into a compulsory purchase. Misanthropy offers nothing but the enjoyment of disgust for things you feel you are above, a Nietzschean disdain.
As Wilde had it, the cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Von Trier’s cynicism doesn’t deserve four hours of my time.