It’s probably best to out myself immediately. I have always enjoyed Lars Von Trier films. Europa and Elements of Crime are remarkable, and The Idiots, and Antichrist transgressive genius. I even enjoyed his foray into comedy The Boss of It All and his TV series Kingdom was equally addictive and strange. As a white male I’m probably his target audience, though I have felt uncomfortable with the torturous journey his female protagonists have undertaken in films like Breaking the Waves/ Dogville/ Dancer in the Dark which have resulted in labels of misogyny that have dogged his career.
The one thing you know with Von Trier is that you’re getting his own idiosyncratic vision of the world. There’s no studio interference and he’s not kowtowing to audience expectations – actually its probably the opposite, he is genuinely attempting to challenge and unsettle his audience. And perhaps this is why I’m drawn to his films. I know he is going to challenge, terrify though also seduce and provoke his audience. His art like the man is complex and filled with contradictions that cannot be explained easily.
I am genuinely surprised though at the glee that critics take in sinking the boot into him at every opportunity, like as a serious film critic they’re above his provocations, and they wont be manipulated by him. That’s great, but all cinema is manipulation and provocation, Von Trier is just more honest about it, or more honest about being dishonest – and that’s how I read his latest film.
The House that Jack Built is controversial, it’s Von Trier’s foray into the serial killer genre – a genre that abounds in emotional manipulation of the audience, and yes gratuitous torture porn. Surely a match made in heaven. If Gus Van Sant directed this film you’d get the 24 hours leading up to a murder or three and learn nothing, other than Van Sant gets off of on the mundanity of life. Von Trier isn’t going to do that. He takes a more existential route and picks up on the serial killer as an artist theme that elevated the Hannibal TV series, though explicitly links himself (or implicates himself) metaphorically in the role. Which kind’ve makes sense, as most people tend to suggest film directors are megalomaniacal psychopaths, who can be brutal to the point of barbarity in their quest for their vision. David Fincher was famously described by one actor as “painting with people.”
So with a creepy spectrumish OCD Matt Dillon as the title character dispatching his victims and putting them in a cool room, and then arranging them in strange poses to be photographed according to his whims and predilections, it’s hard not to draw a parallel. There’s lots of dark humour spread throughout, such as Dillon using a Jack on his first victim, Uma Thurman (she got jacked by jack), or even the rising tension of his second murder where even as sirens approach he returns to the house repeatedly to clean an imagined mess left behind, despite his rigorous repeat cleanings on previous returns to the house. It’s agony. It’s hilarious. It’s devastating. It’s Von Trier.
The tale is told by Jack (Dillon) to an unseen confessor Vergil (Bruno Ganz) via a series of important episodes over the course of 12 years that Jack believes illustrate his life and development as an artist/ killer. Increasingly over the years he becomes more brazen, flirting with capture, more flamboyant – to the point where failure feels inevitable, but it’s better to try and fail than to never try at all… surely. I don’t want to head too much into spoiler territory because there’s an unexpected shift towards the end that makes sense of the philosophical justifications, rambling and explanations that occur throughout – which really separate this film from every serial killer flick you’ve ever seen. So sure it’s brutal, he murders a whole family, cuts a leg off a duck and numerous other atrocities – again predominantly towards women, but am I wrong in thinking he owns it? Or plays with it? Or plays with the image of it? When Dillon/ Jack talks of the horrors in the world Von Trier plays clips from his own filmography. He even includes clips of Nazi’s – referencing his infamous press conference, which saw him banned from Cannes. Then there’s the music, particularly the recurrent use of David Bowie’s Fame, recontextualising it with each use. And the music over the end credits is sheer perfection. This is the beauty and genius of the House That Jack Built. There are numerous layers and they’re so entwined with their maker that you can’t look away for a second.
The House That Jack Built is screening nationally.