“I will tell you this: when a soul betrays as I did,
it falls from flesh, and a demon takes its place,
ruling the body till its time is spent.”
With the controversy surrounding the release of the new one from Lars von Trier, there seems to be an almost enigmatic indifference on the part of the director to overcome his urge to create films as irritants. As one critic reflects in his review of the film: “Lars von Trier is a stupid, arrogant troll and, when the mood strikes him, a reasonably talented filmmaker.” Being a huge fan of his work, I’ve come to understand that with the good, comes the bad; and, those moments shocking in its sheer sexual and violent exhibitionism must be endured for the brilliance of philosophical insight and grand tapestry narrative that sets the scene and carries it, at times quite literally, to completion. Between the run-time of Dogville and Melancholia, true fans of von Trier will build the stomach for patience. Between Antichrist and Nymphomaniac, true fans will develop the palate for displays of uncompromising gratuity that find a way to stimulate the most dormant senses of our cushioned realities. With Breaking the Waves, true fans will develop the requisite cognitive capacity to absorb the seemingly endless and benign layers of Bergman-esque progression taunted by the episodic intermission from Elton John and Leonard Cohen. Things that seems incomprehensible are opportunity, von Trier knowing fully well that, in allowing the ideas to fester, comes the bloom of renewed introspection. Before his director’s cut, he told the audience that the film requires a few days to digest; and so, in the spirit of deferment, I waited till now to finalize my review.
With The House That Jack Built, we see an anthology of von Trier’s former works, arguably beginning with Breaking the Waves, when he began to inspect the human material under the microscope of judgment and realism. A film that has the foundational qualities for Melancholia, Nymphomaniac, and Dogville, Matt Dillon plays a brilliant psychological devil and clown of John Wayne Gacy’s dreams and nightmares. A serial killer seemingly driven in part by impulses and opportunity — at times, making strains for normality only to set a better stage for carnage. His carelessness begs for a force outside his will to interfere. With our society lost inside our smartphones and relational incapacity, it makes sense why the film feels forever before someone finally looks up.
Borrowing from Nymphomanic, von Trier was able to use the terminology of the hunt (fly fishing in the other film, done much more effectively) as the process by which mankind becomes the subject of release and capture. Borrowing from Melancholia, there is an existential loss quality in the emptiness of the film’s surrounding population and a rooted nihilism at the core of Dillon’s being. A psychopath with psychological damage being examined like Fincher’s Mindhunter while channeling the language virus of Rust in True Detective. The seeming godlessness in Breaking the Waves with glimmer of hope in the end for the human hardness to become, one day, undone.
Grueling at times, in what can readily be described as the slow driving train through a set of snuff porn. Brilliant at other times, when the poetry of Dante meets the philosophical musings of the decay of mankind in its own sheer indifference and to the sound of Glenn Gould in his own maddening creation of pure art. Not only delving into the banality of evil, but also the escape for evil men to continue straying from their inherent purpose rooted in the imago Dei. A film that invoked a myriad of cultural, architectural, and musical central themes that should be thoroughly discussed by more competent men being paid for their labor of research. A film full of absurd comedic releases and moments of unforgivable violence releasing a strange (at least during my screening) gas of sociopathic inhalation that overcame some audience members when the time for laughing came and went and the time for mourning fell over. The scene where I suspect most audience members left at Cannes was a scene that illustrates this perfectly. While the comic edges were there, it was completely overwhelmed by the evil and sad reality of the family condition in being duped into open fields by an animal that gave the appearance of domesticity.
The film will divide audiences and it should for a simple want of editing. The violence isn’t even that bad aside from the female form being subject to most of the battering. In this regard, we’ve seen this inane critique with Brian de Palma’s Dressed to Kill and Body Double, at this point unworthy to be discussed when the film discusses it already. Whatever the audience dislikes about the process they have to remember that the journey is the product of mental derangement. The madness of the female form and its physical vulnerability to the depravity of man has not been thoroughly probed. With the recent popularity of Gillian Flynn, I suspect revisiting the psychological depth and trials of von Trier’s female characters will make him the standard for inventing complicated female roles for Hollywood actresses. In the words of Orson Welles, “they’ll love me when I’m dead.”
The film itself could have been much better with simple editing and music: removing the monotony of prolonged pedestrian extensions and the incessant blaring of Hit the Road Jack!. What Bilge Ebiri (VILAGE VOICE) said is partially right:
The most shocking thing . . . 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.
The scene with Uma Thurman began this cycle of developing an underwhelming sequence of events that could have used expedition. The scene with Riley Keough was similarly undone by its meandering normalcy. The last “kill shot” likewise was undone by von Trier’s Bottle Rocket meandering that could have been contained in the trappings of more competent writing. (Perhaps, it’s no wonder this editing was a problem since Jacob Secher Schulsinger also failed in this same respect with The Square). What these scenes do have in common is the reoccurring theme in von Trier’s prior works of the escalation of violence in its many forms, when the body becomes infected with an addiction, and the need for release demands more. What A.A. Dowd (AV CLUB) said is true: “it’s more like von Trier is arguing with himself, locking us into a debate between his ego and his self-loathing, his confidence and his self-doubt.” If that being so, we should be mindful to listen. If it’s true that von Trier intended for the film to be a television series, not pursuing this path was his biggest mistake.
In the end, The House That Jack Built is not a film that you can watch lightly and it certainly won’t be a film that one will enjoy at every turn, but it is a film that probes into the richness of the von Trier legacy and the genius of his philosophy that should fill lectures to no end. Eric Kohn (Indie Wire), one of the few top critics who embraced the film, summarizes the film well:
“The House That Jack Built” is an often-horrifying, sadistic dive into a psychotic internal monologue, with intellectual detours about the nature of art in the world today, and puts considerable effort into stimulating discomfort at key moments. If you meet the work on those terms, or at least accept the challenge of wrestling with impeccable filmmaking that dances across moral barriers, it’s also possibly brilliant.
For those who have a taste for the man’s mind and artistry will be rewarded by his uncompromising resolve. Either way, leave the mothers out of it.