Director: Lars von Trier
Cast: Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, Riley Keough, Jeremy Davies, Ed Speelers, David Bailie
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“I understand Hitler,” stated Lars von Trier in a press conference at Cannes, promoting Melancholia in 2011. “I think I understand the man. He is not what we would call a good guy, but I understand much about him and I think I sympathise with him a little bit.” Desperately trying to climb around a PR pit of despair that he had dug for himself, and repeatedly insisting that he was only joking, the Danish writer/director eventually took the fatal plunge, declaring, “OK, I’m a Nazi,” and expressing his admiration for Albert Speer, the chief architect of the Third Reich. This bizarre outburst would earn him a ban from the international festival. Seven years later, The House That Jack Built represented von Trier’s first return from banishment to the French Riviera – but in case you imagine that he comes back a penitent, note that the principal character of his 14th feature (15th, if you count the bipartite Nymphomania twice, and 17th if you include TV series The Kingdom) also expresses admiration for Hitler, Speer and other fascists, and is himself both a devotee and practitioner of mass murder (which he regards as an art).
What makes films that put serial killers at their centre so confronting and disconcerting is that we are wont, indeed we desire, to identify with a narrative’s protagonist, and so find ourselves positioned – willingly so, assuming we continue watching – to sympathise with the devil and to be entertained by the unconscionable. Von Trier understands this dynamic well, and so pushes us as viewers to some very uncomfortable places. Of course, he appears to humanise affectless, remorseless murderer Jack (Matt Dillon) by granting him an aesthete’s love of music (and literature and architecture and fine wine) – a trick borrowed from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) and the different on-screen incarnations of Hannibal Lecter. Of course, he makes the first victim of Jack that we meet (Uma Thurman) so pushy and annoying and rude – and so flirtatiously insistent, against all evidence up to this point, that Jack is a serial killer – that when he does finally kill her, we are left with the awful sense that she was somehow asking for, and deserving of, what happens to her. Of course, the callous brutality of Jack’s murders is offset by the dark comedy created by his personal strangeness, and by his OCD (so overwhelming at one point that it prevents him from leaving the scene of his crime).
After Jack has crossed yet another line and broken another taboo – “the most sensitive subject of all”, according to his interlocutor/confessor/cicerone Verge (Bruno Ganz) – he ought to be entirely beyond the pale, but it is at this point that von Trier introduces a romantic subplot to draw viewers back from the brink and let them hope that, perhaps, in the final judgment, Jack is redeemable after all. “I really had strong feelings for this one,” Jack says of his girlfriend (Riley Keough), “much stronger than a psychopath should be able to have.” How Jack characterises this relationship, however, turns out to be rather different from the reality: a deeply toxic ‘romance’ of bullying, gaslighting, controlling terror, in which Jack ultimately reduces the object of his attention (if not quite his affection) to the only two things that he likes about her. Having got us to “sympathise with him a little bit” with a hint of a love story, von Trier once more reveals Jack at his most shockingly repellent, while revealing that the environment in which he operates is similarly, perhaps even equally, uncaring and indifferent.
The House That Jack Built shares its basic narrative structure with von Trier’s previous Nymphomania. For here too, the protagonist tells a life story – in formal chapters – to a character whose responses modulate our own (and often openly reflect our distaste and moral unease). The difference is that while we hear this conversation between Jack and Verge throughout, we do not actually see its narrative circumstance until the very end (although anyone with a passing knowledge of the Classical epics or Dante will, from the outset, be way ahead of the game – as we are likely supposed to be). Along the way, the different circles of Jack’s story – comprising five ‘incidents’ over 12 years, chosen randomly as typifying what he does and who he is – also offer a potted dialectic on agriculture, the ethics of hunting, the ritual of trophies, women, decomposition, icons, aircraft design, viticulture, art, murder, and the place of murder in art. All these disparate themes contribute to the structure of Jack’s tale in much the same way that he tries out different materials to erect his lakeside dream house, a building that is both constructed and deconstructed multiple times in search of a special form lacking any of the ordinariness or messiness that Jack so abhors.
Certainly, The House That Jack Built makes a display of its own struggle to find the perfect form for its expression. The flashbacks to the five incidents are regularly punctuated with dripping, splashing sounds from Jack’s unseen present, and with cartoon sequences, file footage, further flashbacks to Jack’s rural childhood, montages of artworks (including excerpts from von Trier’s own filmography), and even scenes where Jack holds up (and discards) placards emblazoned with the film’s key themes, as though he were Bob Dylan in the video for Subterranean Homesick Blues. Then, there is the epilogue, a baroque, hyperreal sequence suggestive of an infernal nightmare as painted by a grand master, merging the high and the low.
In the end, Jack is everything – a misogynist, a fascist – of which von Trier himself has at one time or another been accused, and is other, worse things besides. As von Trier, however, seeks our own understanding and sympathy, the question which he keeps provocatively posing is not only whether Jack’s work can be considered art, but also how different von Trier’s own art, showing us humanity and life in negative, is from Jack’s.