July 22, 2019

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Gory serial-killer film misses mark

Danish filmmaker resorts to cheap torture porn

Danish provocateur Lars von Trier is back, clearly looking to boost his most-likely-to-cause-walkouts-at-Cannes status.

This 155-minute serial-killer horror show flaunts its occasional resemblance to cheap torture porn while constantly reminding us that it’s made by a serious European auteur.

Unfortunately, what is meant to be a boundary-pushing combination of ultra-violence and dark comedy exhibits few of von Trier’s strengths — his visual flair, his uncomfortable originality, his grim humour — and many of his worst, most self-indulgent excesses. The violence is nasty in The House That Jack Built, but the ideas — lazy, tedious and self-serving — are worse.

Even for the filmmaker’s admirers — and I’ve admired several of his works — there seems to be a point at which von Trier’s cinematic exploration of the suffering of women under patriarchal capitalism merges with his obsessive interest in torturing his female leads. Having been accused of harassment and misogyny and then temporarily banished from Cannes after some weird remarks about Nazis, von Trier is attempting to fire back at his critics. But the satire in Jack — if it even rises to that level — is smirky and self-satisfied, and von Trier’s defence of transgressive art feels more like an airing of personal grievances by an aging, embattled director. (Think Woody Allen, with more mutilation.)

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Danish provocateur Lars von Trier is back, clearly looking to boost his most-likely-to-cause-walkouts-at-Cannes status.

This 155-minute serial-killer horror show flaunts its occasional resemblance to cheap torture porn while constantly reminding us that it’s made by a serious European auteur.

Unfortunately, what is meant to be a boundary-pushing combination of ultra-violence and dark comedy exhibits few of von Trier’s strengths — his visual flair, his uncomfortable originality, his grim humour — and many of his worst, most self-indulgent excesses. The violence is nasty in The House That Jack Built, but the ideas — lazy, tedious and self-serving — are worse.

Even for the filmmaker’s admirers — and I’ve admired several of his works — there seems to be a point at which von Trier’s cinematic exploration of the suffering of women under patriarchal capitalism merges with his obsessive interest in torturing his female leads. Having been accused of harassment and misogyny and then temporarily banished from Cannes after some weird remarks about Nazis, von Trier is attempting to fire back at his critics. But the satire in Jack — if it even rises to that level — is smirky and self-satisfied, and von Trier’s defence of transgressive art feels more like an airing of personal grievances by an aging, embattled director. (Think Woody Allen, with more mutilation.)

The House That Jack Built is set in a hazy vision of 1970s and 1980s America, which is clearly Scandinavia. Jack (Matt Dillon) is a failed architect and — unfortunately — a successful serial killer. The film is structured around Jack speaking to the unseen Verge (Bruno Ganz) about five "incidents" in what he considers his creative career.

Jack keeps telling Verge that art is balanced on a knife-edge of creation and destruction. Art comes out of suffering — mostly other people’s, mind you. Jack’s reminiscences of sadistic murders are cut with deliberately awkward slideshows and film clips referencing Gothic cathedrals, the paintings of Gauguin, the music of Bach. (Von Trier brings in footage of Glenn Gould as an exemplar of the difficult artist and speaking as a Canadian, I wish he would just leave Gould the hell out of it.)

Jack even suggests that genocidal dictators are the true artists because they completely embrace humanity’s savage nature. (Oh, von Trier just cannot resist bringing up the Nazis. Again.)

Cineuropa</p><p>Matt Dillon stars as a failed architect/successful serial killer in The House That Jack Built.</p></p>

Cineuropa

Matt Dillon stars as a failed architect/successful serial killer in The House That Jack Built.

Into this pantheon of greatness, von Trier inserts images from his own work (Breaking the Waves, Dogville, Melancholia, Antichrist). At one point, he compares the tripod of Jack’s gun with the tripod of a camera, just in case we’re not getting the parallels between killers and film directors.

Unfortunately, the serial-killer-as-artiste trope is a little culturally exhausted, and von Trier’s attempts to liven it up don’t really work. Dillon seems like odd casting for an educated, intelligent, fastidious butcher — he gets particularly vicious with one victim when she doesn’t understand his references — so his lectures on art and violence fall a bit flat. But maybe they’re meant to.

This is the central problem with the film. While von Trier seems to be challenging his critics for their small-minded moralism, he is also anticipating their attacks and strategically insulating himself.

Jack’s cut-rate Nietzschean philosophy and poor readings of William Blake are cleverly countered by the words of Verge, who is having none of it. "Don’t believe you’re going to tell me anything I haven’t heard before," he tells Jack.

Jack’s first murder involves Uma Thurman, who plays a vapid, demanding, "blabbering" rich lady in a camel coat and pearls who actually hands Jack the idea that he should kill her, as well as the weapon. Just in case von Trier’s detractors bring this up as an egregious example of victim-blaming, Verge gets in there first — he asks why the women are always so stupid in Jack’s stories.

Of another "incident," which involves the murder of two small boys, Verge chides: "You’re constantly trying to manipulate me. And with children, the most sensitive subject of all."

This bifurcated narrative allows von Trier to plunge into the clichés of the serial-killer genre, while winking at us that he knows they’re clichés. He indulges his meanest cinematic instincts while bringing in Verge — and shamefully misusing Ganz’s wry, steady intelligence — as an alibi. He’s making a clumsy stab at self-critique, but the final effect is cynical self-justification.

Von Trier is also asking audiences to endure scenes of repugnant cruelty for the sake of his conceptual framework, which turns out to be as flimsy as one of Jack’s failed architectural models. Fellow art-house torturer Michael Haneke can get graphically violent as well, but at least his violence rests on actual intellectual scaffolding. Von Trier can’t live up to his own ambitions. He wants to explore toxic narcissism but can’t get out of his own narcissistic loop.

The House That Jack Built takes a sudden turn in the last 30 minutes, when right and wrong, actions and consequences come into vivid view, set in sharp relief against a burst of nifty, imaginative filmmaking. Unfortunately, this fascinating finale can’t counteract two hours of dreary ugliness and calculated outrage.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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