Lars Von Trier is no stranger to making films about sacrifice, masochism, self-delusion and the (often unfulfilled) promise of redemption. He’s made a career as both provocateur and a deeply insecure person, a man famous as much for some of his darkly comic and obnoxious commentary as he is for his unparalleled cinematic craft.
It’s hard to say where his latest work, The House That Jack Built, will stand in his pantheon of work. It acts as a kind of summation of what’s come before, a reflection upon these various themes, often contradictory, that litter many of his works. These are the struggles of an artist confronting the very question of art’s efficacy to deal with such notions, a kind of paradoxical impotent and fertile state where simultaneously he is left both paralysed to move forward and forever bending at the chains of conformity and conventionality that he consistently challenges.
The film traces a serial killer Jack, played by Matt Dillon, confronting his own past, recollecting five moments of his life to a man he calls Verge. As they’re led down a memory lane that’s littered with corpses we’re treated to some trademark Von Trier nastiness. There are moments of brutality mixed in with a bleak, pitch black comedy that provides even more bite in a kind of travelogue of terror along with the everyday banality of a serial killers quotidian activities.
We meet a woman on a roadside (Uma Thurman) who practically begs to be butchered, others far less eager to be in danger’s way. Each provides a different facet not only of their own predicaments but of Jack’s own character, building blocks for his own psychotic psyche and emblematic of the choices he too confronts.
It’s easy to get lost in the autobiographical allusions that Von Trier peppers within – does he see himself as the butcher of women or the recipient of the blows? Is he perpetrator or victim, hero or villain in his own story? It’s easy to see the lines of artist and character blur, but not so easily that one completely sides with either interpretation. Rather, Von Trier toys with the fundamental question – can art be separated from the artist? Can the very tools/objects used for construction, as violent and abhorrent as they may be, be cleansed of sin by the very creation of art itself?
It’s poignant stuff, to be sure, but with its macabre fascinations for general audiences raised on the almost romantic sensibilities of a Dexter or a Hannibal it will be a shock to see the unadulterated version of sociopathology and psychosis on display. There are buttons to be pushed and Von Trier does so with a candour that’s going to be appalling to some, more harsh in some ways than even the similarly barbaric Antichrist.
Yet taken on its own terms, The House That Jack Built easily could be seen as a metatext, the artist Von Trier reflecting on his own fetishes and passions built up over the last few decades of aesthetic investigation. He doesn’t shy away for the need to be punished, but does let the character at least attempt to subvert fate by crossing broken bridges with the promise of better outcomes. Naturally, the failure is all the more ultimate, but this speaks to Von Trier’s similar ambitions, to always go for it no matter the cost to reputation, to those around him, to his very soul.
Much of the work is photographed in near documentary style, the handheld photography usually helmed by the director himself along with his longtime collaborator and cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro. There are performers like Bruno Ganz, Siobhan Fallon Hogan and Sofie Gråbøl who have appeared in numerous works, along with additions to his ensemble like Riley Keough. Similarly there are overt and subtle allusions going all the way back to his first feature, Element of Crime, which was of course also about a serial killer, and to many of his works throughout.
Yet this isn’t simply a director resting on past success, but rather has the feeling of a Sisyphean struggle for meaning. What’s unique is that Von Trier is allowing his other works in, explicitly calling attention to this larger quest for some sort of grander understanding about the nature of art and the place of the creator in that framework. It’s heady stuff, for some mere pretension and pompousness, yet it’s done with such grim intelligence that for those open to it, it’s a work to sweep one away.
There are no easy answers in any Von Trier film, and with The House That Jack Built the questions have got even harder and more sordid. It’s a confrontational work that serves far more than mere shock, its perversions more than mere provocations, delving profoundly into existential quandaries within the context of a macabre but relatively conventional storyline.
The House That Jack Built is a fascinating construction, one that may not hold as much beauty as the landscape of which it built upon, nor does it necessarily manage to transform the bricks of brutality and horror used to frame it. Yet the heart of tale rings true, that one can find something quite beautiful out of the awful, that the artwork can stand above the muck from which it rises. We don’t get many films like this, and we don’t get many artists like Von Trier.
For those who feel this to be insufferable it’s an understandable position. For others, this may be one of the more affecting and memorable films they’re to see in some time.