The sight of a duckling having its foot prised off in Lars von Triers new film sent Cannes audiences scurrying. But its nothing compared to these real-life horrors
If I am not looking forward to Lars von Triers The House That Jack Built when it eventually comes to UK screens, it is not because of the violence against women and children that helped earn the film an early round of disgusted reviews. No, what really fills me with dread is the prospect of seeing a duckling having its leg torn off with pliers.
Even after Peta weighed in to confirm that Von Trier didnt really torture a duckling (the effect was achieved using movie magic and silicone parts), the idea leaves me feeling queasy. (Regardless, the film itself sent guests scurrying for the exit during its international premiere at Cannes earlier this month). Half a century of watching horror movies may have accustomed me to misogynistic violence on screen (which is not to say I enjoy it), but it hasnt inured me to the mistreatment of animals.
Had Von Trier really tortured that duckling, he would have been following in a long and dishonourable tradition of auteurs treating animals even more badly than they treat actresses. Andrei Tarkovsky had a horse shot in the neck and pushed down a flight of stairs in Andrei Rublev (1966). Jean-Luc Godard filmed a pig having its throat cut for Weekend (1967). Chickens were decapitated in Sam Peckinpahs Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). Bernardo Bertoluccis 1900 (1976) contains scenes of frogs being tortured and a terrified cat being strung up so that Donald Sutherland can crush it to death with his head. The director cuts away from the act (thank heaven) and I like to think Sutherland didnt really kill the cat, but the Italians do have previous form in this regard. The writer Curzio Malaparte, in a 1943 essay about Mussolini, describes a traditional Tuscan holiday entertainment in which working-class men, hands tied behind their backs, would batter cats to death with their shaven heads.