Lars von Trier muses on art and violence in his sublime serial killer film

Savina Petkova on Lars von Trier’s ‘The House That Jack Built‘ (2018)

The love/hate relationship between Lars von Trier and film critics is one of the best-staged controversies our field can brag about. After a remarkable seven-year ban from Cannes, von Trier premiered his newest film The House That Jack Built out of competition. Nobody was surprised that a reminiscence of his ostracisation places him outside of all award categories, yet he remains excruciatingly difficult to classify. von Trier is a bold auteur, and his voice has become even louder and imperative since Nymphomaniac I & II (2013).

von Trier, the usurper, the oppressor, the misogynist: everyone loves to hate him. In the tradition of ‘Dogme 95’ and ‘New Extremism’ cinema, he makes films about the unwatchable, flirting with taboos of narrative (rape, incest, self-mutilation) and their representation. In his latest film, von Trier promises to align the spectator with the viewpoint of a serial killer. As such, The House that Jack Built invites us to enter at our own risk and abandon all hope, as the inscription on the door of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno goes. We meet Jack (Matt Dillon) as he is embarking on a dangerous path, guided by the older, non-impressed Verge (Bruno Ganz), who rings a bell, reminding us of Hell’s messenger from the Renaissance poem—Virgil.

The stakes are already high – comparing his protagonist (unflatteringly advertised as unsaveable psychopath) to a cultural giant such as Dante, von Trier rolls the dice. The House That Jack Built stretches over five chapters, bracketed between an introduction and an epilogue. Each of the five equal parts (insert a sophisticated digression on the numerar ‘five’ in classical music) recounts a single murder story, all of them testifying to the horrifying multi-faceted image of a serial killer, that is Jack/Mr. Sophistication: a quiet (spiteful), tidy (OCD), kind (anti-social) engineer (architect). The stories, of course, are told in first person as a form of self-validation of his own monstrosity in the companionship of Verge: a rather subversively ironic backdrop to a supposedly blood-freezing narrative.

In the first part, reluctant and shy, Jack picks up an insistent blabbering woman (Uma Thurman) from a lonely road. As she forces him to drive her to the nearest blacksmith to fix her jack (such a coincidence!) and change her car tire, the camera either lurks in the back seat of the truck, or gives us a windshield panorama of Jack’s annoyance, and the woman’s pearls juggling on the bumpy desolate road. In a painfully long sequence, the woman’s monologue transforms from sarcastic remarks as ‘You may be a serial killer, who knows?’ to a self-congratulatory verdict ‘You don’t have what it takes to be a killer’. In her act of hubris, she dismisses Jack Almighty from her alert mind, and, shockingly, takes a jack in the head herself. There you have it: a foolish woman “getting what she deserves.”

In fact, all of Jack’s five stories involve women, all of whom suffer inexplicably violent deaths; some of them are tortured, others – mutilated and humiliated. ‘Why are the women in your stories always so stupid?’, Verge ponders. In this auto-inquisitive manner, director Lars von Trier is ready to address and dismiss accusations of misogyny. Through Verge’s sarcastic attitude, von Trier undermines his own pretence of showcasing the mind-palace of a madman. Jack is repeatedly demystified, as Verge neutralises every attempt of the killer to think highly of himself, exposing his megalomania and narcissism. Calling out psychological conditions by their real names, Verge is a modern-day Freud who never succumbs to the charm of the serial killer, a task failed by Will Graham from the Hannibal Trilogy.

Throughout the film, Jack desperately tries to build himself a house. He devotes himself to designing it and overseeing the constructions, only to tear it apart again. A simple metaphor for the missing home or the nostalgia for the womb, if you prefer. In his female victims, Jack is supposed to have sought love, and sublimated this love for violence. Yet emotionless and stiff, Jack’s borderline personality deteriorates as his house does – home is a powerful metaphor which Von Trier exploits again and again, from Breaking the Waves (1996), to Dogville (2003), to Melancholia (2011).

While The House That Jack Built is an epitome of filmic unpleasure, we have to pay courtesy to a film which sees his eponymous serial killer going back to the scene of the crime in a OCD frenzy, to check upon a non-existent blood stain under the rug. Three times. This is, by far, von Trier’s most humorous film, which can either affirm him as a despot of bodily experiences (the viewer submitting her body to feel pain, disgust, or shame), or maybe hint towards a profound self-reflexivity in his filmmaking. Amidst all the filmic auto-quotations, trademark sophisticated digressions in art, Lars von Trier goes on and on about pain and pleasure, yet the tone of the film is punctured by cheerfulness. A mechanism of involvement and of distance, laugher is also the cathartic realisation that man is, actually, not so big in the grand scheme of things.

The House That Jack Built will be released on 14th December 2018.

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.