No matter how much you might hate Lars von Trier, don’t forget that he hates himself more. That’s been pretty evident in his last several films, but now he’s gone and made an entire movie about it. The House That Jack Built might be, on its surface, about a serial killer relaying to us, in agonizing detail, some of his most notable crimes. But it’s also, effectively, the closest von Trier has gotten to a memoir; it’s structured as a therapy session, or a confession — but with whom we’re not exactly sure at first.
The film is filled with grisly, graphic violence, torture, and cruelty that has reportedly upset many viewers here at Cannes. As a longtime admirer of the director’s work, I can’t quite believe I’m saying this, but the most shocking thing I found about The House That Jack Built is how tedious it is. A shame, because The House That Jack Built feels like a genuinely sincere attempt on the filmmaker’s part to wrestle with the legacy of his creation.
That might seem odd to say about a picture that is so relentlessly brutal. Structured as a look back at “five randomly chosen incidents over a twelve-year period,” the film portrays the crimes of serial killer Jack (Matt Dillon), whom we first see picking up a woman (Uma Thurman) whose tire has blown out by the side of the road, and then (after much poorly scripted back-and-forth) beating her face in with her own broken tire jack. That’s the “First Incident.” The act is pointedly unwatchable: Von Trier doesn’t go for the coy, stylized cut-away so often used to convey but not directly depict violence. Here, it all pretty much happens on camera. And then he shows it again, and again, and later randomly cuts to flashbacks of it, just to make sure we can’t get away from it.
Each murder has a different dynamic, each victim a different mood. Thurman’s character is confrontational, joking about the possibility that Jack might be a serial killer as she insistently steps into his car; the next victim is relentlessly suspicious, forcing Jack to come up with increasingly bizarre lies about why he’s come to her house. Meanwhile, as he proceeds with his crimes, Jack begins to have more and more elaborate ideas for what to do with the bodies. He owns a giant walk-in freezer full of uneaten pizzas, and as he stores more and more corpses there, he takes to arranging them in bizarre poses.
Jack also tells us that his OCD, which manifests as a constant need to clean (and leads to the film’s one vaguely humorous moment, as Jack keeps imagining that he’s left hidden blood spots at the scene of one of his crimes), starts to dissipate the more that he kills. His inner agonies and demons, it seems, go away as he inflicts pain on the world around him. Meanwhile, Jack’s posing of bodies in his freezer becomes elaborate. It’s hard not to sense that this whole journey represents the way that von Trier himself became more and more sadistic and self-important over the course of his work — discovering that there was art and profit to be made off the psychological (and sometimes physical) torture and mutilation of his onscreen characters.
Throughout the film, Jack carries on a dialogue in voiceover with a raspy-voiced man named Verge (Bruno Ganz, whom we see only at the end) trying to justify his actions. He talks about art, and engineering, and William Blake, and man’s discovery and development of the arch, and the way great cathedrals had secret artworks in impossible places, there only for God to see. He talks about how grapes become suitable for wine — through decomposition, dehydration, and a fungus known as “noble rot.”
Later, the conversation graduates to images of horror throughout history — Hitler, Mussolini, genocide, war — and we’re even treated to a montage of scenes from von Trier’s own films. Jack’s ideas, expressed rapid-fire in increasingly desperate manner, aren’t exactly clear — they’re like the rantings of a brilliant but troubled coke fiend at a grad school party — but Verge, to his credit, confronts each mad justification with patient reasoning and facts. He’s heard it all before, he assures Jack.
I think this is the first Cannes movie ever to come with an actual trigger warning in the program. It’s not unwarranted, but the violence, as graphic as it is, never connects in a visceral or emotional way, because the characters never come to life. As scripted by von Trier, they’re vessels for his plot machinations; they’re effectively dead before Jack even kills them. Maybe that’s the point — the director’s inability to breathe life into his characters as another form of murder, perhaps? I don’t buy that, in part because in the past von Trier has managed to take these symbols, victims, and martyrs and find ways to depict them movingly onscreen. Indeed, what has resonated over the years in von Trier’s work is this very dance between sadism and humanism. Now that he’s turned the camera on himself, however, that humanism appears to be gone, which ironically leaves the sadism itself empty, void of emotion and meaning. Part of me is glad that The House That Jack Built exists; if von Trier needed to make this film to come to terms with what he feels is his legacy, then good for him. But the man who made this has also forgotten the one thing that the von Trier of old definitely knew: You can get away with anything so long as you make us feel.
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